Backlinks have historically been the most challenging, yet the most important element of search engine optimization.
Simply put, without links there are no rankings.
And yet, links have also proved easy to manipulate as website owners started paying for them, exchanging them and putting them inside low-quality content that was created just for those links.
And that’s how Google’s battle with low-quality link building methods started.
Google vs links
With links, Google has been facing an interested dilemma:
- They obviously cannot do without links as a ranking signal. Otherwise, they would have already announced that website owners could save themselves trouble and stop building links
- Fighting low-quality link building methods is somehow like fighting the mills: New weird schemes keep emerging out of thin air and quickly pick up pace.
Google engineers did tests where backlinks were removed from the search algorithm. This test returned negative results in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages), proving that:
- Link building is alive and well
- Links still play an important role in SEO,
- Links are useful as a ranking element (for now).
Without doubt, links carry a lot of weight and have done so for a long time. They are partly responsible for rankings, driving traffic, and indexation. The question that comes to mind is, why would Google perform this type of experiment? Are links going to lose importance in the next several years and will they be as important as they are now?
There are two schools of thought being discussed in the SEO community, regarding the power of relevant links, that I am aware of.
Links are valuable assets to go after
If certain links were to be removed from the web (those that are not relevant and are of low-quality), the remaining quality links would grow in relevance and authority. As links become rare, they become more precious and that may not be that bad.
Another way of looking at links is to consider how earning editorial links has become very difficult since all the multiple algorithm updates and manual penalties made by Google.
Websites are not nearly as eager to have links posted on their sites from people they don’t know because they don’t want to take a chance on being penalized.
As a result, social media channels, such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, seem to be a safer form of sharing content.
Therefore, earning backlinks to your site still suggests that there is a greater value being referenced in accordance with the Google guidelines.
Could links be losing value?
Other authoritative SEO professionals have made other suggestions, claiming that links are continually decreasing in value and that’s why Google seems to be creating so many penalties against websites.
Google’s ranking system consists of many elements that are constantly changing depending on items such as relevance, popularity, utility, and value.
As these elements constantly increase, the value of links decreases.
There are many link replacement algorithm signals that Google uses such as relevance, traffic, and data usage, which can be used in Google’s link graph.
Context and information can be sought from the link graph about other useful SEO signals.
Even though links are very important right now, with opportunities like these being made available, they may not be as necessary for building rankings and authority.
But that is in the future, and today links as signals show no signs of leaving.
Multiple studies over the years have found a strong correlation between ranking higher and being linked more.
What is definitely happening right now is that Google seems to get much smarter at telling a good (editorial) link from a bad one that was placed there as part of a link building scheme.
So if you invest into blog networks, paid links or link spam, remember that those links may not be doing anything for your rankings because Google is simply not counting them in their link graph.
Instead, focus on high-quality links
Create linkable content
Bloggers and journalists still link to useful or entertaining content pretty willingly. In fact, creating and marketing content is probably the only valid link building method left to us.
There’s no one single way to create content that attracts links. You need to research your niche thoroughly to understand which problems to solve to get your content findable and linkable.
Start with keyword research and it will give you a good direction as to where to focus your research and which angles to take. SE Ranking offers keyword research tool that is perfect for the job: It allows you to evaluate organic competition, research questions and find related queries:
Text Optimizer is a great way to understand your niche better and the popular topics that are associated with it:
But once that content is created, how to put it in front of bloggers and journalists in hopes they will link to it?
Consider social media…
Use social media for outreach and connections
For as long as social media existed, SEOs have been looking for (and failing to find) a convincing enough reason to integrate social media platforms into their SEO strategies.
The impact of so-called social signals on SEO has been discussed for ages.
Yet, there has never been a conclusive study or an official confirmation that Google does really need social media in its search algorithm.
Studies suggest that social media shares do not drive backlinks.
Using social media as your only link building is likely not a good idea.
The value of social media links has been argued for ages, yet, again there was never a proof that such exists.
Social media is hard to scale (in fact, it can be scaled but it quickly loses effectiveness when it is).
For all of these reasons, SEOs and link builders have been historically shying away from social media platforms.
Yet, there’s a place for social media in a link building strategy.
In fact, it very well may be what your link building strategy is lacking in order to become effective.
Social media is an effective way to empower your blogger outreach strategy, make your site recognizable and trusted by link amplifiers (i.e. bloggers and journalists) and better understand what content will convince them to link.
Use social media to get to know and connect to your target content amplifiers.
Build relationships with them and become familiar with them and they will start recognizing your brand and linking to your content.
Networking on social media is one of the best ways to make your brand unforgettable.
What should SEOs do?
Are links on a downhill path or are they worth the struggle to attain?
No marketer will ever say links are the only way to rank or that links are dead.
Times change and as marketers, we need to adjust with the changes committing to digital marketing as a whole and ensuring different forms of value.
As the saying goes, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.
We need to focus on delivering organic traffic, growing the social networks, building authority, and establishing brand exposure.
Links are not going anywhere soon and Google still places a large value on them, but we need to be prepared to adapt and start practising other methods, besides link building, so that all of the hard work in developing the website credentials are not lost when Google makes another change to its search metrics.