One of the most debated issues in SEO discussions is whether backlinks still play a role in search engine ranking.
In fact the bigger question could be – have backlinks themselves become the weak link in the SEO chain?
This debate re-surfaced for me after reading a training blog that was aimed at new marketing businesses.
This blog advocated not using or concentrating on backlinks at all. As you might expect this generated quite a variety of responses with most people saying that they were consistently being told that backlinks were necessary.
So which is it – are they good, bad or can we be indifferent to their affect?
Google’s Top Three Ranking Factors
An article in March this year in Search engine land, revealed what they understood to be the top three search ranking factors for Google. They stated that Rankbrain was third in the list which Google had previously stated when they launched Rankbrain (AI system) to the public.
But according to senior strategist at Google, Andrey Lipattsev the top two were content and backlinks.
"I can tell you what they are. It is content. And it’s links pointing to your site". Andrey Lipattsev, a Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google
So this seems to be unequivocal, at least that backlinks are important.
What is a Backlink?
A back link occurs when;
one website places a hyperlink on their site, that links back to your website
The search engines use these links as an indication of how relevant and useful your content is. If many people are linking back to your content then it must be considered an authoritative and useful piece of work.
Back links are usually built up over time as your site develops more authority and is better known and trust within your niche area.
Does Google Just Count the Number of Links for Ranking Purposes?
The short answer is that it used to, originally more links indicated a better and more popular page and ranking increased. However that doesn’t happen now.
Google is constantly updating its search algorithms and in 2014 it introduced the Penguin Update, which was a major change in how it tackled links, link spam and over optimisation of sites through keyword stuffing.
The main reason for this update being developed was that people were trying to cheat the system by buying links and creating backlinks from various low quality and spam sites.
Google’s main concern is usually to ensure readers are provided with quality content. The biggest challenges to this have been websites developing spam or weak content and buying low quality links as a way to try and improve ranking quickly.
Can Links Be Harmful?
In short yes, unless they are coming from credible and authoritative sites. This also includes links from sites that are updated regularly (Freshness factor) and are continuing to produce new content.
The way to achieve this is to focus on quality content and promote this content to attract readers to your site. This will lead to the natural linking of your content as other people promote your work through their own sites and businesses.
As Matt Cutts from Google says;
The objective is not to make your links appear natural, the objective is that your links are natural" - Matt Cutts, Google
Brian Dean – Backlinko
One strong advocate of backlinks in SEO is Brian Dean who is the owner and founder of backlinko.com, he got really excited about Google’s announcement and decided to email all his followers about it.
"So the next time you see an alarmist "link building is dead!" article, you can chuckle to yourself... ...and then get back to the important task of link building." (Brian Dean email)
Brian however is an expert in effective link building and when he advocates building links it is not about buying spammy links and using black hat SEO techniques.
Brian Dean Case Study – Increasing Your Ranking Using Backlinks
This email from Brian arrived in my inbox the same week as Wealthy Affiliate co-founder Kyle announced that you can build a successful site with no backlinks at all – so who do you follow and is it possible for a fairly new site to rank even if it doesn’t develop any back links?
The Secret to Developing Quality Backlinks
The secret lies in the targeted approach to promoting the content and ensuring that relevant authority sites within your niche are aware of you and what you have produced.
These are the main steps that Brian outlines in his video (although he was specifically focusing on the promotion of info graphics it could also work for other forms of unique content)
- Write good quality content – length size might vary but over 1,000 words.
- Promote the content strategically targeting authority sites within your niche.
- Connect to these sites and offer them something original.
- Do most of the work for them so providing links isn’t a great effort on their part.
Can New Sites Develop Quality Backlinks?
The one thing that struck me with working on a new site is that actually both Brian and Kyle are right. And you can see this clearer when you consider the best approach to developing quality backlinks.
The main priority for all new sites is to create quality content. Until you have expertise and can create something original then looking for backlinks is not that relevant.
Promoting your content on social media will eventually create a following and natural links which is the method advocated by Kyle. However Brian suggests a more proactive strategy that includes reaching out and building relationships with niche authority figures and industry leaders.
Both are legitimate techniques that will not get you penalised by Google. At the end of the day it depends on where you are in your own website development and whether you are interested in a back linking strategy for your website.
If you do decide to develop backlinks it is important that they are of good quality. Otherwise your site will be penalised and whatever advantages you thought of achieving through links will be lost through penalties for spam.
Further Reading on Backlinks and Ranking
These other posts on my site also look at the topics of ranking and backlinks and are also useful reading.
I hope you enjoyed this article, is please feel free to share it on social media and/or leave a comment below I’d love to hear your own opinions on developing and using back links.