Remember the days when marketers scrambled to gather as many backlinks as possible because each one was a golden ticket to the top of search results? Those days may now be gone, especially when Google experts like Gary Ilyes say it’s no longer a top three ranking factor.
Organic search engine optimization (SEO) is tricky, where yesterday’s best practices can become today’s outdated tactics. Google’s recent stance on backlinks has left many in the industry scratching their heads.
So, are backlinks no longer the powerhouse they once were? Or is this just another twist between search engines and SEOs?
Here’s what we’ll discuss:
• The Role of Backlinks in SEO
• Google’s Backlink Stance Over the Years
• Four Other SEO Factors To Focus On: Tips From The Experts
◦ Focus On Content Quality
◦ Optimize For Relevant Keywords
◦ Be Mobile-First
◦ Keep Your Website Architecture In Mind
• The Future of Link Building
Let’s look at Google’s latest statements and explore what this means for your SEO strategy.
The Role of Backlinks in SEO
First, let’s discuss what links or backlinks are.
Backlinks, often called inbound or external links, have long been the backbone of organic search engine optimization strategies. They functioned as endorsements, signaling to search engines that a particular website was credible and authoritative.
Think of them as the digital equivalent of word-of-mouth recommendations.
“Backlinks [still] contribute value by establishing authority, aiding discovery, providing votes for competitive keywords and sculpting internal PageRank flow,” said Don Gruspe, Thrive’s Demand Generation SEO Specialist.
(Read more: How Google Evaluates High-Quality Backlinks)
Over the years, the importance of backlinks grew so much that an entire industry sprouted around link-building. Search marketing professionals invested significant time and resources into acquiring these coveted links, hoping to boost their local ranking factors on search engine results pages (SERPs).
The logic was straightforward, fueling these trends in SEO: the more high-quality links pointing to your site, the higher the chances of ranking well for your target keywords.
“Links from reputable sites still suggest trust and authority, help pages get indexed, act as endorsements for competitive terms and distribute authority internally,” Gruspe said.
Google’s Backlink Stance Over the Years
In 2016, Andrey Lipattsev, a Google search quality senior strategist, emphasized the importance of backlinks, stating they were one of the top three Google Search website ranking factors.
Fast forward to 2023, and Google seems to have changed its mind. Here are some of the statements made by Google’s in-house experts that point toward changing SEO trends
Gary Illyes at a September 2023 Pubcon Pro in Austin:
“I think they are important, but I think people overestimate the importance of links. I don’t agree it’s in the top three. It hasn’t been for some time.”
Duy Nguyen in Google’s November 2022 SEO Office Hours episode:
“Backlinks as a signal has a lot less significant impact compared to when Google Search first started out many years ago. We have robust ranking signals, hundreds of them, to make sure that we are able to rank the most relevant and useful results for all queries.”
John Mueller In Google’s November 2022 Search of The Record Podcast:
“It’s something where I imagine, over time, the weight on the links… won’t be such a big factor as sometimes it is today. I think already, that’s something that’s been changing quite a bit.”
Gruspe agrees with these sentiments
“It could be a case that links have become less crucial for ranking highly, though they are still important and remain part of a balanced SEO approach,” Gruspe said.
It’s clear that while links still hold value, Google’s Search team believes that it’s no longer as influential as it used to be as a Google ranking factor.
Should You Trust Google Now?
Or, more accurately, can we take Google’s word at face value?
There have been instances where Google’s public statements didn’t always align with observable page rank algorithm behaviors. A good example would be the debate around the importance of clicks in rankings, with some organic search optimization professionals accusing Google of obscuring the truth.
Eric Lehman, a former Google Software Engineer, said this in a hearing:
“Pretty much everyone knows we’re using clicks in rankings. That’s the debate: ‘Why are you trying to obscure this issue if everyone knows?‘”
However, it’s essential to remember that Google’s primary goal is to provide the best user experience, changing its ranking algorithm to understand human behavior better. This means delivering the most relevant and high-quality search results.
Nanette Taripe, Thrive’s Senior SEO Strategist, advises that we can trust Google’s statement:
“It just means that we should not only rely on building links to improve search rankings,” Taripe said. Instead, she recommends that we adopt a holistic approach that focuses on:
• Quality content
• User experience
• Other new factors that Google provides every time they roll out a new algorithm update
While they might not reveal every ranking algorithm detail, their guidance often aligns with this objective.
Four Other SEO Factors To Focus On: Tips From the Experts
Instead of focusing too much on links, you can also optimize for other local search ranking factors. While Taripe still recommends building links “in a strategic manner,” she also advised to focus on other essential elements, which we’ll discuss below:
1. Focus on Content Quality
Search engines aim to provide users with the best possible answers to their queries, and well-researched, expertly crafted content is more likely to meet this objective.
It’s not just about quantity, though. These three organic search engine optimization elements are more critical for the reader and Google’s ranking algorithms, such as:
• Depth: Google’s ranking algorithms favor research-based, credible, expert-level content that covers detailed topics. Ensure you’re going the extra mile to provide value and information readers can use.
• Relevance: Do you create answer-based content that solves a problem? Your content should always be relevant to the query to appeal as a Google ranking factor.
• Value: You don’t want to sound like you’re just repeating what’s already out there. Your content should be original, informative and valuable to the reader. Google analytics and data-driven SEO content strategies can help you score higher in Google’s ranking algorithm.
You need to “create valuable, shareable content that naturally attracts links, and promote it through outreach to industry influencers and bloggers,” said Ken Romero, Thrive’s SEO Strategist.
He also recommends that you “Diversify your anchor text and avoid spammy tactics to maintain a natural link profile.”
And with advancements like Google’s BERT and MUM, the search engine’s ability to understand and interpret content quality has improved dramatically. These ranking algorithms can better grasp the context and nuances of content, making it even more essential for websites to produce genuinely valuable and contextually relevant material.
2. Optimize for Relevant Keywords
This isn’t keyword stuffing – it’s about understanding your audience’s search intent and ensuring your content addresses those queries effectively. Naturally, incorporating relevant keywords within your content signals the topics and themes your content covers to search engines.
However, it’s essential to strike a balance. Too much organic search optimization can lead to penalties, while under-optimization might mean missing out on potential traffic.
Take a look at this workplace consultancy company. It used high-volume keywords with high-quality content to land at the top of search engines. The company increased its search traffic by just under 630.3% and online leads by 124.3%.
Case study: Workplace Consultancy Company
This is impressive since the company’s SEO campaign is still ongoing, which means that these results will only get better as Google indexes more of the content it will produce in the future
The key is to focus on user intent for local ranking factors, using keywords as a guide to ensure your content quality aligns with what your audience is searching for.
3. Be Mobile-First
Google’s mobile-first indexing approach means the search engine predominantly uses the mobile version of the content for indexing and ranking.
A site that isn’t optimized for mobile not only provides a poor user experience but can also suffer in search rankings.
These organic search optimization factors are all crucial components of mobile optimization:
• Responsive design
• Fast loading times
• Ease of navigation
As SEO trends become more mobile-first, your focus should shift to ensuring your website can be accessed and read easily on any device.
4. Keep Your Website Architecture in Mind
A well-structured website helps search engines crawl and index your content efficiently. Here’s how:
• Logical site architecture
• Clear navigation
• Coherent URL structure
All these technical SEO elements play a role in optimizing your website’s crawlability and indexability. When search engines can easily understand and navigate your site, it’s more likely your content will be indexed correctly in Google’s page rank algorithm.
A good website structure enhances user experience and does not just score high in local search ranking factors.
When visitors can easily find what they’re looking for and navigate your site without confusion, they’re more likely to stay longer, engage more and convert. This positive user behavior can indirectly influence your site’s search rankings, making website structure a dual-benefit factor for both SEO and user experience.
The Future of Link Building
Despite Google’s statements, should businesses still invest time and resources into building their website’s link portfolio?
The answer is yes, and trends in SEO back this up.
Links continue to play a significant role in enhancing your website’s visibility and credibility. According to HubSpot, 51% of marketers observed positive effects of link-building strategies within one to three months of implementation.
uSERP also highlights that content pieces and backlinks are still crucial factors for ranking on Google for target keywords. Websites with more unique root domains generally outrank those with fewer, emphasizing the importance of cultivating a diverse and robust link profile.
Image from uSERPs
Rank High on SERPs With a Data-Driven SEO Agency
While the importance of backlinks and other website ranking factors may shift over time, the goal remains the same: to achieve a prominent position on search engine results pages.
Our Thrivers stay ahead of the curve, ensuring your strategies align with the latest SEO trends and insights. Whether it’s link building, content creation or any other aspect of SEO, our data-driven SEO agency experts are equipped to propel your website to the top.
Don’t leave your online visibility to chance, and get ahead of trends in SEO.
Partner with Thrive and let us help you dominate the SERPs.