As an SEO professional, I'm not a big fan of building links or, better said, chasing them. I know; this is one of the most utilized methods in SEO. Most SEO experts out there talk about building backlinks as immensely important to SEO.
They're 100% right. Links are important.
But building them can be a risky business.
Google's John Mueller outright said that most attempts at building links are unnatural and despised by the search engine. Asking other websites to link back to yours seems a little sleazy to me. Granted, there are ways to do this ethically, of course. But it's still risky.
Most reputable SEO experts agree. Bruce Clay, the grandfather of SEO, outright said that building links unnaturally runs the risk of being penalized by Google. I've worked with many clients whose rankings dropped as a result of being engaged in questionable link-building practices.
The solution is to earn and attract links back to your site naturally.
That's where content marketing comes in. After all, it makes sense: post a really good piece of content on your own site, and promote that instead of links. If people like it, they will link to it.
Not only that, but it will create a compounding effect. People will talk about it. They will share it. They will post their thoughts about it. They will write their own articles sourcing it. This, in turn, will reach other people who have never heard of you, and they will talk about it and link to it, too. And so on.
In fact, Google also pays attention to “mentions,” sometimes just as much as they do backlinks. Also called “brand mentions, they are often referred to as implied links. (I'll come back to this later as it is important.)
But there's one important side benefit to content marketing.
Content Amplifies Your Credibility
Content marketing is often called “content amplification” in SEO circles. The reason is, by amplifying content (e.g., promoting it, sharing it, advertising it, repurposing it, spoonfeeding it, etc), you not only reach a wider audience, but also it helps to amplify SEO signals, too.
But content amplifies a lot more:
- It establishes you as an authority in your field.
- It creates more awareness of your brand and your business.
- It attracts ideal prospects, patients, and clients to your business.
- It helps to prequalify your prospects before they approach you.
- It advances the sale and lowers buyer resistance.
- It creates less cognitive dissonance once they buy from you.
- It cuts through the clutter and bypasses ad blockers.
- It distinguishes you as a trustworthy thought leader.
- It communicates and solidifies your value proposition.
- It positions you above your competition in the mind of your market.
- It attracts opportunities for creating strategic marketing alliances.
I could go on and on. You get the picture.
All this amplifies something essential in SEO, especially with plastic surgeons. And that's credibility. Because of Google's quality guidelines of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness, or E-A-T, credibility is crucial.
In 2006 at the height of the dotcom boom, when all people cared about was traffic and conversions, I wrote about the third missing element in marketing (i.e., building credibility is just as important as building traffic and sales).
A few years later, Google cracked down on less-than-credible websites with its updates (called “Panda” and “Penguin,” which devalued poor content and poor backlinks, respectively). Literally, millions of websites lost traffic and rankings overnight. It killed many businesses, too.
Back then as today, it made sense to me that trying to game the system in any way, shape, or form is going to come back and bite you.
This is why as an SEO consultant, I believe that…
Building Credibility > Building Links
You can work hard at building traffic and sales. But if you don't build credibility, your practice will not grow as fast as you wish, you will stagnate, or you will be virtually non-existent ⏤ let alone crushed by competitors.
Build content. Build more content. Build good content. Do so and you will build credibility as a byproduct, which is far more powerful. You will attract backlinks naturally. More importantly, you will attract better backlinks, too.
This brings up an important point: another reason why building credibility is more important than building backlinks is the issue of quality versus quantity.
Does the quality of inbound links matter? Quantity helps, for sure. But a site with less but higher quality backlinks will almost always outrank one with a ton of lesser quality backlinks. By focusing on building credible content, you will also increase the likelihood that more authoritative sites will link to you.
The more credible you are, the more credible your backlinks will be.
One of the most common tactics for SEO, which many SEO experts swear by, is to build as many backlinks as possible. In fact, some of the most prominent SEO agencies out there (I won't mention names, but they have a popular YouTube channel) tout that building backlinks is the most important SEO strategy.
However, I disagree.
Backlink Quantity or Quality Backlinks?
There are two SEO schools of thought on the subject of backlinks:
- Having a higher backlink quantity is more important;
- Having higher quality backlinks is more important.
Some SEOs will say both are just as important, while others will say it's neither.
Before we go further, let's define “quality.”
What is a quality backlink? For some, it's a backlink from a site with a lot of high rankings, a lot of traffic, or a lot of backlinks itself — in fact, some SEO research tools offer scores based on these and similar factors.
But these scores are just guides created by these tools and not Google. Regardless, some will specifically chase a backlink from sites with a high “domain authority” score, like one with a DA score of 50/100 or higher.
For example, here's mine from Ahrefs as of today, where UR or “URL rating” is 52/100 (i.e., the home page), and DR or “domain rating” is 55/100. (And yes, I get spammed by these link-seekers all the time.)
But is it better to focus on getting top-rated backlinks? Or on as many backlinks as possible, regardless of score? Are you of the SEO school of thought that says it's better to have 50 authoritative backlinks than 5,000 more-or-less good ones? Or are you of the other that says the converse?
Either way, you have to do what I call “backlink begging.”
What I consider to be “quality” are backlinks from authoritative websites with great recognition and rankings. In other words, they have credibility. Often, backlinks from a credible website will provide (or, better said, pass on) that credibility to the site it's linking to.
Speaking of which, there's the issue of “dofollow” and “nofollow.” Meaning, should backlinks be “dofollow” so that the SEO signal (or “link juice”) is passed on to its destination? It's basically a link telling search engines to please “follow and consider this site to be as credible.”
Google has often said that links that are less than natural — which is a major point of contention among SEOs — are fine as long as they are set as “nofollow.”
Break Free From The Burden of Backlinks
My contention is that focusing on backlinks can chain you down.
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 or gauges. They only suggest to search engines and users alike that the content being linked to is valuable, relevant, and worthy of consideration.
I'm of the SEO school of thought that backlinks are dying (or that their signals and importance are dying). While Google has never outright stated this, we see more and more evidence of this through something called “inferred links.”
For example, there are a growing number of websites ranking with little to backlinks at all, and some just as successfully as sites with high-quality backlinks, a high quantity of backlinks, or both. What gives?
I do believe that links are still an important ranking factor, but they are only one of many hundreds of SEO signals. A strong and increasingly important signal nowadays is UX (user experience), which explains the emergence of UXO (user experience optimization) as an SEO strategy.
The latest changes in algorithms and new ranking factors from Google (called “Core Web Vitals“) is a tell-tale sign that Google is paying more attention to one thing in particular: quality, namely quality content and quality experience.
Why Backlinks For SEO is Losing Ground
There are four main reasons why backlinks are falling out of favor.
First, other signals are becoming increasingly important.
Backlinks may be a signal of authoritativeness. But they are not quality-centric signals. They do not contribute anything to the determination of a site's content quality or usability. Internal links can help because they create relationships, provide context, and help navigation. But not external links.
Second, Google is becoming more sophisticated.
With the help of machine learning and natural language processing, the authoritativeness of a site's content can be determined through context, topical relationships, and brand mentions, and less on hyperlinks.
Third, backlinks can be easily manipulated.
People can sometimes buy backlinks, which is frowned upon and can even cost you dearly down the road. Most of these links tend to be of low quality, too. Keep this in mind: no authoritative site would ever directly sell links.
Fourth, backlinks can also hurt your rankings.
If you follow the quantity philosophy, you could end up with toxic backlinks from spammy sites, hacked sites, and black-hat sites (i.e., sites with scraped, stolen, or useless content created for the express purpose of farming links).
In my opinion, as search engines become smarter, backlinks are going to become less relevant. We see this happen with each algorithm update that decimates ill-gotten rankings through attempts at manipulating backlinks.
Chasing Backlinks is Soul-Sucking
I remember 10-20 years ago, ranking high with just a few tactics (that were not considered blackhat yet) was incredibly easy. Back then, link-building SEO companies — some of which still exist today — thrived on selling these tactics.
Their services ranged from doing outreach (mostly by spamming, begging for links, or guest posting) all the way to creating private blog networks (or PBNs) for the sole purpose of manufacturing backlinks.
But many of these tactics violate Google's guidelines. After a few “Google slaps,” I also witnessed countless businesses go belly up as a result. Some of them were in the millions of dollars in revenue, too.
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. I think they’ve got it figured out.Jim Thornton in “Links are Dying”
Links are only good (or becoming only good) for finding new pages. Meaning, they can let Google know a page exists. There's a chance they might index it and rank it; there's a chance they might not. There's a chance they might not even respect the “dofollow/nofollow” directive and only see it as a suggestion.
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 backlinks 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 risky black-hatters, spammers/scammers, or “pump-and-dumpers.” Similar to stock market fraudsters, they pump your site with ill-gotten signals that, in the short term get you positive results, but eventually will get you penalized and banned by Google, which can cost you dearly.
Never buy a backlink service (or any kind of SEO services, for that matter) from spammers. 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?
It's pretty telling.
Either their own SEO is terrible or they're lying.
It's no different than buying knockoffs or stolen goods from questionable street vendors. It may look legitimate, but it's not. You know it's not. Others who know will know it's not. If they do know, you've just lost all credibility and perhaps gained the attention of authorities, too.
Now, does that mean that you shouldn't buy backlink SEO services? No.
But keep in mind that reputable firms don't buy or beg for links — let alone use deception. Legitimate, reputable firms tend to work on creating a link-building strategy that's focused on producing high-quality content, doing genuine outreach, and earning authoritative links. Naturally.
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.
Rand Fishkin, one the OGs of SEO and founder of Moz, wrote a recent piece on the power of inferred links, saying that someone mentioning your brand, without linking to it, is vastly superior (i.e., more credible) to actual links.
More importantly, Google and other search engines are becoming increasingly sophisticated to the point that backlinks are going to become unnecessary.
In the past, the kinds of sophisticated, nuanced analysis necessary to make an inferred link superior to a direct link were lacking. Today, they exist. In the future, they’ll get better, cheaper, and faster. Even if links rule today, I can’t see that model lasting much longer.Rand Fishkin in “Inferred Links Will Replace the Link Graph”
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 content that people talk about, engage with, and share, you're going to increase your brand mentions almost naturally.
So don't chase backlinks.
Focus on creating link-worthy content instead.
Backlinks are not dead. They are still important. But they are not as important as they used to be, and they're becoming less so over time. As I've said before, build your credibility, which is far more important than building links.
Credibility attracts credibility, including credible links.