One of the most common tactics for SEO, and it's something that a lot of SEO experts swear by, is building backlinks. In fact, some of the most prominent SEO agencies (I won't mention any names but they have a very popular YouTube channel) tout that backlinks is the single, most important SEO strategy.
There are four schools of thought on the topic:
- You need a high backlink quantity,
- You need high quality backlinks,
- You need both, and
- You need neither.
Some say that the amount of backlinks pointing to your website or articles is far more important than their quality. And vice versa.
Just in case you don't know, “quality” means the links come from authoritative websites with great domain authority, recognition, and rankings. For example, a backlink from a business directory is less important than, say, a backlink from a niche blog that's relevant and authoritative.
Where one school of thought says it's better to have 400 backlinks than 40 good ones, the other says the converse.
Then there's the issue of “dofollow” and “nofollow.” Meaning, backlinks should be “dofollow” so that the link juice is passed on to its destination by telling Google “please follow and consider this link.”
My contention is that it doesn't have to be as painful.
I understand that some SEO experts have dissected this to a science, and have weighed on either side of the spectrum. I also understand that links, in general, are good SEO signals, regardless of where on that spectrum they happen to be.
But there is something to keep in mind: links are signals. They are not indicators. They only suggest to the search engines that the content being linked to is valuable and relevant, and that it should be considered (and hopefully ranked) when similar queries for that content are made.
I'm of the SEO school of thought that backlinks (or at least, the importance of their signals) is dying. While Google has never outright stated this, we are seeing more and more evidence of this.
There are a growing number of websites ranking with high-quality backlinks, with a high quantity of backlinks, and with little to no backlinks at all.
What gives? I do believe that links are an important ranking factor, but they are only one of hundreds of SEO signals. A better and increasingly stronger signal nowadays is UX (user experience), which explains the emergence of UXO (user experience optimization) as an SEO strategy.
The latest changes in algorithms along with new testing tools from Google (called “Core Web Vitals“) is a tell-tale sign that Google is paying more attention to quality content and quality user experience.
There are several reasons why backlinks are falling out of favor.
First, since UX is becoming increasingly important, backlinks are not UX-centric signals. They do not contribute anything to the determination of a site's usability. Better ones are time on site, bounce rates, clickthroughs, etc.
Second, with Google's machine learning and natural language processing (Rankbrain and BERT), the authoritativeness of a site's content can be determined through context and relationships, and less on links.
Third, backlinks can be easily manipulated. People can sometimes “buy backlinks,” which is frowned upon and can even cost you dearly down the road.
Fourth, backlinks can be not only low quality but also toxic. If you follow the quantity philosophy, you very well could end up with hundreds if not thousands of backlinks from spam sites, hackers, and black hat domains.
In my opinion, as search engines become smarter, backlinks are going to become less relevant. We have seen this happen when a Google algorithm update shook up the entire Internet after it obliterated rankings that were gained through means that were easily manipulated.
I remember 10-20 years ago, ranking high with just a few tactics (and they were not considered black hat yet) was incredibly easy. But after a few “Google slaps,” I also witnessed countless businesses go belly up as a result.
SEO and content marketing expert Jim Thornton wrote a recent piece on this very topic. In it, he explains that hyperlinks are dying, and context and relying on other algorithms (including UX mentioned earlier) are better signals.
As Jim pointed out:
Central to their web spam mitigation strategy, engineers have been working for over a decade to get away from dependence on link signals. Now it’s 6+ years after that announced experiment and I think they’ve got it figured out.Jim Thornton
Links are only good (or becoming only good) for finding new pages. Meaning, they can let Google know that a page exists, and that's about it. There's a chance they might index it and rank it; there's a chance they might not.
So all this to say two important things, which I will leave you with.
- Beware of Backlink Bilkers
If you have someone approaching you offering you SEO for cheap, often with a “brand new secret method” that can get you “top rankings overnight,” don't walk, run from these folks.
They are black hat, high risk, scammers, or “pump and dump” practices similar to stock market fraudsters who pump your site with ill-gotten signals that, in the short term get you positive results, eventually get you penalized and banned by Google, which can cost you dearly.
Never buy SEO services from a spammer. Buy from reputable SEO experts or firms. Think of it this way: if someone has to spam you to sell their SEO services, why would they need to spam you if they themselves had practiced good SEO?
Either their SEO is terrible or they're lying.
- Build Brands, not Backlinks
Part of the evolution of SEO signals is the growing importance of something called “implied backlinks.” An implied link is a brand mention, in other words. When other websites talk about you, your product, your service, or your brand, Google picks up on it just as they would an actual hyperlink.
That's why branding is so important.
I have talked on numerous occasions about the power of naming your product, service, or process. Productizing your services, and putting a name on them (if not at least naming your unique process or approach, even if everyone else does the same thing), creates the perception of expertise and uniqueness.
But the side (and possibly even greater) benefit is that, when people talk about your brand, your “thing,” or your business (your name, for example), they are creating implied signals that tell Google your site is recognized, authoritative, and worthy of their consideration.
It goes without saying that, if you create great content that people talk about, engage with, and share, you're going to increase your brand mentions almost naturally. So focus on creating good content worthy of backlinks.
Backlinks are not entirely dead. They are still important. But they are not as important as they used to be. As I've said before, build your credibility, which is far more important than building links.