Although we are often bombarded with statements such as “content is king” – the truth of the matter is that having a good number of high quality inbound links still remains an absolutely essential requirement if you are serious about wanting to be found on page one of Google for your products and services.
This is because links are still used as the main signal that help Google to rank a page for authority – regardless of the numerous algorithm updates and search engine overhauls which have seen the light of day – with each one introducing the implementation of several new ranking signals which SEO experts are now expected to take into account when aiming for the top spot.
So, why exactly does Google rate links so highly when trying to determine the authority of a page – and will things always be this way in the foreseeable future?
A Brief Insight into the History of PageRank
If we go back in time to when Google was just starting out as a search engine – one of the most reliable methods of determining a website’s authority was by using links from other websites as a ranking factor.
Let’s suppose that we have a main website which ten other websites are linking to – and that none of these websites have any inbound links of their own, except a second site which has just a couple of inbound links from these other sites. If a user was searching for a particular term – the page being linked to by the vast majority of these other sites would rank the highest for this relevant query and the second site, with a less significant number of links would appear second in the results – with the others appearing at the bottom of the list.
Now, if we introduce a third site, which is linked to by the two sites at the top of the list- and not linked to by any other site – then this third site will also rank highly as Google will class the inbound links to this site as being of a high quality, based on the authority of the pages linking to it.
This is more or less how the first version of PageRank was designed to work – although the potential of abuse by means of manipulation meant that Google had to rethink things and, over the course of time, find new ways of deciding which sites were genuinely being linked to because they provided relevant content – and which sites were trying to take advantage of the PageRank algorithm using artificially generated inbound links.
Dealing With Link Cheats
Although it used to be relatively easy to fool PageRank, Google began clamping down heavily on link manipulation and began to impose ranking penalties on sites which were not playing by the rules – with some websites being blacklisted altogether. One of the most successful weapons in the fight against those using unnatural linking strategies was the introduction of the Penguin algorithm – which forced everybody to rethink the way they went about link building. Following the Penguin update – which could now help Google spot any suspicious link building campaigns, PageRank was once again able to provide a reliable indication of site authority based on natural links and rank a website accordingly.
Other Ranking Factors
Of course, we are not saying that links are the be all and end all of a successful SEO marketing campaign – just that they are one of the most important things to consider. With the introduction of the new Panda update, Google now takes other signals into account such as high quality on-page content – with websites that provide freshly created, well-written and informative pages being listed much higher than rival pages offering duplicate content or spam.
The speed at which a webpage loads, whether a site is HTTPS secured or not and the way a website looks on different devices also affect search engine performance, with mobile friendliness – in particular – being taken into account. In fact, it is true to say that these days virtually anything that provides a better user experience will help you to rank higher for your chosen keywords – as Google now uses over 200 ranking signals in order to decide how useful a website is to a given user based on their search habits and queries.
So, Are Backlinks Here To Stay?
Google’s Matt Cutts recently suggested that PageRank is here to stay for the foreseeable future by claiming that the removal of backlinks as a ranking factor makes the whole system somewhat confusing and unpredictable from a user’s perspective.
As Matt explained in a 2014 Google Webmaster Video:
“We have run experiments like that internally, and the quality looks much, much worse. It turns out backlinks, even though there’s some noise and certainly a lot of spam, for the most part, are still a really, really big win in terms of quality of our search results. So we’ve played around with the idea of turning off backlink relevance, and at least for now, backlink relevance still really helps in terms of making sure that we return the best, most relevant, most topical set of search results.”
So, it would seem safe to say that yes, backlinks are here to stay.
In fact, manual link building – using natural techniques such as link attraction by means of providing fresh and informative guest blogging posts that people actually want to link to – is something that all SEO enthusiasts should be working on, both now in 2016 and in the next few years.