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Is Google Reducing the Importance of Links for SEO?

Over the last couple of years Google has been more aggressive in cracking down on dodgy SEO practices and in particular link building. This has been a several pronged attack against link networks, directories, link wheels and other low value sources of links (that often worked to some extent) and has culminated in the Penguin update and the loss of lots of traffic for lots of businesses.

Google has also been advising people not to concentrate on links and to focus on building a great site and earning those links and have recently updated the ranking guidelines article in the Webmaster Guidelines to remove the advice to “increase the number of high quality sites that link to their pages” and replace with advice to “create high quality sites that users will want to use and share”.

 

The exact changes are as follows:

In general, webmasters can improve the rank of their sites by increasing the number of high-quality sites that link to their pages.

In general, webmasters can improve the rank of their sites by creating high-quality sites that users will want to use and share.

 

This has led many people to question whether links are still an important part of SEO and whether site owners should continue to try and build links.

 

Are links still important for SEO?

 

I want to try and answer this in the best possible way but the question here is part of the problem. In fact, the term SEO is part of the problem. What the hell is SEO any more? Really, SEO should just be a process of improvement for a website that ensures the site has no technical issues that would upset search engines and is built in a way that users (and search engines) can clearly understand.

The problem is that SEO has in the minds of many replaced marketing altogether. This has created lots of lazy site owners who think they can just buy their way to the top and that is the be all and end all of marketing your business online.

Well, I have news for you folks, that ship has sailed. In fact, it has left the harbour and sailed half way around the world.

 

Framing the question

 

To answer this accurately I have to try and frame the question somewhat:

Google has been devaluing links for years. If we look back as far as 2008 they were revising the guidelines with regards to building directory links to your site. Subsequently, they have been slowly but surely improving the way they assess and rate links and removing the value of those that can be easily placed and should not matter and also improving other aspects of the algorithm to also look at additional factors such as site quality, article quality and co-occurrence of keywords and brand signals to better rank results.

 

Lots of links don’t work any longer

 

So, lots of links don’t work any longer and have no positive SEO benefit (and may even be harmful in certain volumes and combined with other signals). If you are using directories, link networks, link wheels or other low quality forms of placed links then these are simply no longer important or effective.

 

Some links work better than ever

 

The important flipside of this is that by removing a lot of the link clutter. By reducing the noise and removing lots of links that were helping sites to rank but never should have been the right kind of links are now more powerful than ever.

This is an important point and whilst certain links will work well they are likely to be the ones that are the hardest to obtain so a shift from volume to quality must be made in your link building mindset.

 

Stop building links, start building visibility

 

Ultimately, we all need to change our mindset and stop building links and start building exposure. A great example here is the podcast scene. Lots of niches have active podcasts that are listened to by thousands. If you can feature on one of these podcasts it can be great exposure and drive lots of awareness of your business or brand. Then, this increased awareness may lead to links, shares or ultimately more business but it is not an approach followed by those who are thinking links, links, links. The irony here being that most podcasts will pop a link in the show notes anyhow but the real benefit here is from the exposure.

Of course, smart marketers will capitalise on that exposure by having something great for folks to see, share and link to & real smart marketers will be generating leads and trying to get those transient visitors to become part of their regular audience by having something to offer.

 

Don’t be scared of links

 

Another viewpoint I have seen is that people are now scared of building links and in some respects, they should be. But, if you think quality, think exposure, think long term value and also realise just how few links from quality sources you need to make a difference in many cases then there really is nothing to be scared of.

 

Think Long Term Value

 

When building links from low-quality sources they tend to offer little value and less over time. Lots of sites hit by the changes over the last couple of years have seen Panda and then Penguin swoop in (I’m not sure either animals ‘swoop’ but…) and whilst removing problems with both they are often left with little real value so even a removal of penalty factors leaves nothing in the rank bank.

As one possible example – if you focus on building high quality pieces of exposure on third party sites chance is these will grow more popular over time and subsequently links from them will grow more powerful. Contrast this to links on sites that are one tweak away from being ignored or on backwater sites where the page picks up no shares, likes or love over time and slowly fades from barely counting to nothing at all.

 

Do you need to build links?

 

So, do you still need to build links? Well… it depends (what a cop out). But it really does depend. I have long advised that link building should be your last SEO task so do everything else first and then come to this but do it from an exposure & visibility stand point. Consider what kind of business you are. Are you local or national is the first question and if you are local then there is plenty you can do before having to consider link building. If you are national what does the competition look like? Get your site perfect, start building content to support your business goals (please, no SEO-by-numbers), get the social side of things dialled in, start interacting within your niche if possible to raise visibility, get a marketing plan together that looks at more than just SEO and then look at links.

Links are still important – sometimes.

 

Links are still important and for some sites they may be more important than ever but that advice comes with the caveat that it has to be the right kind of links! Many other kinds of links don’t work as they once did and combined with other spammy techniques can often hurt. Link wheels, low quality directories, link exchanges and all sorts of nasty low quality links that you can beg, buy and barter are pretty much (and this is a general bit of advice) hopeless.

Quality matters – generalisations don’t. Directories are bad generally, high quality and well visible directories are good. Think quality and visibility of the links to your site and you will be okay but remember to do everything else you can first and don’t just look at links as the be all and end all of SEO.

 

A Simple Link building game plan

 

Pick your ten dream links and then figure out what you need to do to get them. Keep it that simple. Go for one a month and do all the networking and content creation that you can to get to that point and you will find that even the process generates more business and popularity for your business.

Remember, search is changing. Results are now more personalised and localised than ever before. You must consider the kind of marketing and the type of SEO that is right for your business and start marketing.

Change your mindset, stop building links, get yourself out there and start marketing and promoting your business and you will reach your Internet Marketing goals.

 

 

If you enjoyed this article, how about sharing it with the links below or even link to it from your blog. 🙂

 

 

 

Marcus Miller
marcus@bowlerhat.co.uk

Marcus is our Digital Strategist. He’s been working in the industry for nearly 20 years and wears many (bowler) hats as a highly technical developer and SEO, and even has a fancy computer science degree to prove it.

1Comment
  • Rob Stephens
    Posted at 08:15h, 17 February Reply

    Agreed. After years of weeding out low-quality links it makes sense that Google is adding weight to niche relevant editorial backlinks from authoritative sites. Obtaining these links are bloody hard but they can certainly move the needle for ranking.

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