Links are less influential today than they were in the past
5 mins read

Links are less influential today than they were in the past

In a Google SEO Clinic video, a Googler answered a question about backlinks and rankings and offered the interesting fact that backlinks are less of an influence as a ranking signal than they used to be.

Backlink Ranking Signal

Links and anchor text signals made Google a better search engine than the competition when it was first introduced.

SEO used to be all about optimizing titles, headlines, and content with keywords.

After Google grew in importance, they realized that links are the key to better rankings.

Entire industries have sprung up to serve the need for links, such as web directories and link brokers.

Various link building techniques also emerged such as reciprocal linking, comment spam, forum spam and so on.

Google has largely lost the war against link spam. The turning point came in 2012 with the introduction of the Penguin algorithm, as well as other updates to Google’s infrastructure (Hummingbird), which enabled Google to perform ever-increasing amounts of link-related ranking functions.

Today we’re at a point where Google can rank links to discard low-quality links.

Links are still an important ranking factor, but it has been a mystery how much influence links have today.

John Mueller recently speculated that links may play a diminishing role in rankings, saying:

“…it’s something I imagine the weighting of the links will eventually ease off a bit over time as we get a little better at figuring out how the content fits into the context of the whole web.”

Backlinks have less influence today

It’s interesting to hear a Googler say that links have less impact today because it was assumed that decreasing importance was something in the future.

But perhaps the most important point to keep in mind is that the link signal strength is compared to the time when Google was first launched.

The comment on links came from a question as to why Google still uses backlinks and whether link building campaigns are not allowed.

That is the question:

“Why does Google keep using backlinks as a ranking factor when link building campaigns are not allowed?

Why doesn’t Google find other ranking factors that aren’t as easy to manipulate as backlinks?”

Answer from Google:

“There is a lot to unpack here.

First, as a signal, backlinks have a much smaller impact compared to the early days of Google search many years ago.

We have hundreds of robust ranking signals in place to ensure we are able to rank the most relevant and useful results for any search query.”

That’s definitely true, links have a lot less impact today than when Google started, mainly because fewer types of links (like directory links, paid links) can affect search rankings.

It’s unclear if the Googler referred to more than just the types of links that still have an impact.

The Googler continued:

“Second, full link building campaigns, which are essentially link spam according to our spam policy.

We have many algorithms capable of detecting large scale unnatural links and canceling them.

This means that spammers or SEOs who spend money on links really have no way of knowing if the money they spent on link building is really worth it or not as there is a high probability that they are just making money wasting building all those spam links, and they were already canceled by our systems as soon as we saw them.”

Links and site promotion are still important

Links have a function that goes beyond mere ranking. Google discovers websites via links.

Google’s own documentation not only cites links as Google discovers websites, but encourages publishers to promote their sites.

The documentation says:

“Google also finds pages via links from other pages. Learn how to encourage people to discover your site by promoting your site.

… Chances are there are a number of sites that cover similar subject areas to yours. Opening up communications with these sites is usually beneficial. Hot topics in your niche or community might inspire additional content ideas or building a good community resource.”

The number of links pointing to a page still shows how important a page is.

The linking patterns created from natural links also help Google understand what a website is about through the resulting link graph.

follow-up questions

Googlers’ statements appear to require follow-up questions.

  • Did the Googler mean that links that Google uses for ranking have less impact than they used to?
  • What about link building campaigns that focus on telling others about a website and asking for a link, are these considered spam?
  • When the Googler referred to “link building campaigns,” were you talking about campaigns to pay for guest posts or link insertions into existing articles?

The answers provided are good starting points, but this new format for Google Office Hours is not being conducted live.

That means there’s no way to ask follow-up questions, making some of the answers less useful.


Featured image from Shutterstock/Asier Romero

Listen to Google office hours from minute 6:08

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