Many agencies still recommend link-building as a tactic to raise a website’s standing in SERPs, but many digital marketers are starting to question if this strategy is still effective.
While the quantity and quality of inbound links still play some part in the overall ranking of a page or a site, it is also true that Google’s advanced algorithms use a multitude of unknown factors to identify the best content.
And because Google has gotten smarter about identifying the best content, the value of backlinks has changed: All backlinks are not created equal, nor are they equally impactful for SEO. Consequently, investing time and resources into backlinks isn’t worth the effort for the following reasons:
Twenty-five years ago—before Google’s AI-infused machine learning algorithm was the norm—search engine ranking factors were based on relevancy, keyword density, and meta tags. Search engines worked with what they had, and that was all there was.
Then, in the late 1990s, Google introduced its PageRank algorithm, which relied heavily on incoming links to help identify “good” content. Google assumed that a lot of backlinks from other websites indicated quality. Thus, a page with a lot of inbound links could rise through organic rankings.
When the black hat SEOs discovered this, “link building” began. Because quality didn’t matter, some SEOs started creating and purchasing lots of low-quality links. “Link farms” (websites set up specifically for the purpose of creating these meaningless backlinks) were established all over the web, and they worked—elevating bad content and websites to the top of SERPs.
So Google started cracking down. It began programming the algorithm to recognize and prioritize high-quality backlinks, and also give more weight to hundreds of OTHER ranking factors to determine which content is the best (which has the natural effect of de-emphasizing backlinks).
If an SEO strategy today includes trying to quickly acquire a lot of inbound links, avoid that at all costs. Here are three reasons why link building is not a quick-win strategy.
When it became apparent that black-hat SEO tactics were influencing rankings and surfacing less-than-great websites, Google began rolling out a series of algorithm updates meant to put an end to the practice.
So, while inbound links are still a part of the overall equation, their importance has been on the decline for years. There are just too many other factors that are of equal or greater importance.
There never was—and probably never will be—a single, ideal ranking factor. But when Google started using backlinks to judge content quality, it was one of the best options available—and it worked! Google won huge leads over Yahoo! and Alta Vista by providing better search results in those early days, and using backlinks as a ranking factor had a big hand in that success.
But inbound links were never considered an ideal ranking factor—or even a long-term algorithm solution, because they can be easily manipulated. Thus, they don’t necessarily indicate a true measure of content quality.
Additionally, backlinks don’t measure truly satisfied end users, because the people creating links aren’t the end users. Even a well-intentioned, authentic backlink created by a publisher might not be as relevant or valuable to his audience as he thought it would be.
Google recognized this many years ago and has moved away from emphasizing backlinks for those reasons.
Today, Google has enough of its own data, from its enormous daily traffic volume, to measure user satisfaction directly. It has so much historical data that it doesn’t need to look at links to figure out what users prefer—it looks at its own data to figure out what users find most helpful.
Today, high-quality, authentic, natural links are still a net positive. They can drive qualified traffic, and they may provide a small, perhaps imperceptible, positive for organic rankings. But these are not the kinds of links that can be purchased.
Today, the only way to create high-quality inbound links is to create high-quality content.
So, why do so many people still recommend link-building for SEO? Why invest time and money in an activity for which the outcome is not predictable, scalable, or repeatable? Claims that link building is valuable for organic SERP rankings are based on hype and may be purposely misleading.
Years ago, when inbound links were an indicator of quality content, many people built businesses around link building. And those people have a vested interest in promoting its supposed value. I still get emails (and you probably get them too) that ask if I’d like to buy some links. The fact is, people want you to buy what they have to sell.
But the best inbound links are earned over time and they should be a proxy for the overall health of your website; that is, how valuable your website is to your marketplace. Websites with high traffic and high-quality content should earn links naturally. If you aren’t earning links naturally, it could be a sign that your site is not the best quality. It may even be an indicator of future traffic declines.
There are, essentially, two types of backlink efforts that marketing leaders are often offered: buying cheap links, and “white hat” backlink campaigns that attempt to generate the kind of high-quality backlinks Google responds to.
The quick-fix of spammy backlinks is not only ineffective, but could actually damage a site’s SEO because of Google penalties and manual actions.
More “modern” link building efforts are often offered as an alternative. These services generally network with publishers or content creators to create backlinks to your site, from other higher authority domains. The backlinks may pass Google’s spam tests, but the rates that companies pay for a handful of links that create negligible SEO results are hardly justifiable.
Google’s algorithms change constantly (they literally update themselves now). The goal will always be to surface the very best content and prevent spammers from gaming the system.
This should not bother a smart marketer whose SEO strategy is built on producing the most-helpful content created for specific user needs. Instead of trying to quickly build inbound links, focus on your goals, and make data-driven decisions based on the metrics that matter most to your business.
And, as always, keep producing SEO content that is better than anything already on the web. Not sure what that process looks like? Our Modern Guide to High-Impact SEO Content will get you started.
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