If you have kept up with Google’s updates over the last few years, you may have the impression that links are no longer as important as they once were. You can now find opinions on various blogs and online forums stating that links no longer matter or even that SEO marketing is dead.
Such beliefs, however, are mistaken. It’s important to understand the truth about links, as your website’s ranking can suffer if you fall victim to one of the myths floating around the web. Then you'll be able to formulate an effective backlink strategy.
Google and the Recent History of SEO
In the early days of SEO, websites could rank by accumulating as many links as possible. This situation led to an entire industry of what came to be known as "black hat SEO." If you wanted to rank your site quickly, you could simply purchase thousands of links, without ever questioning where they came from. If these links were cheap, they most likely came from a link farm, a site built explicitly for the purpose of supplying links.
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Google decided to crack down on this and other shady linking practices with a series of updates. The updates known as Panda and Penguin were especially hard on sites that practiced unethical linking. It wasn’t just links from link farms that were affected, though. Many other types of links, such as from article directories, also lost much of their power. This caused a major upheaval in the SEO world. It also caused many people to overreact and conclude that linking itself was no longer an essential practice.
Helpful vs. Unhelpful Linking Practices
As things stand today, some links are downright harmful and others are relatively neutral. Quality links, however, are as important as they ever were. If you want evidence that links still matter, you only have to listen to recent statements by Google’s own Matt Cutts. Cutts admits that Google has experimented with ranking criteria that don’t involve links but that this only worsened the quality of search results. In other words, Google has still not found a more reliable SEO factor than links!
Ranking Factors Besides Links
Now that being said, it’s no secret that Google is factoring in more things besides links to decide who ranks for what. Links will always matter but they will continue to fluctuate on how much they matter and not every link is created equal.
Click-through rates on the SERP’s, user engagement, bounce rate, traffic and social media presence all can affect rankings.
This year Brilliant a luxury transportation company jumped to the first page simply by adding an interactive tour of their Mercedes Sprinter limousine. No extra links were built, but because bounce rate decreased and engagement increased Google takes that into account that the page is relevant to related KW’s. However, this alone hasn’t and will not get them in the top 5. The only way to do that is with links.
So links are still very valuable, this hasn’t and probably won’t change for a very long time, if at all. What has changed is that Google is becoming increasingly fussy about the links it considers valuable. Because of this, links from trusted sources actually have more value today than ever before. That’s because they can help you rise above the competition that may be using less trustworthy links.
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Valuable Links and How to Get Them
There are several crucial factors to consider when assessing the value of links.
Relevance - Seek links from websites that are relevant to your own niche. With hummingbird Google likes to group relevant KW’s together, so if you are trying to rank for say “shoes” and another site that ranks well for “shoes” links to you, that is much more valuable than a thousand links purchased for 5 bucks from Joe Schmoe on fiver.
Authority Sites - High traffic websites and those with high PR still provide valuable links. Even if a site isn’t categorized as being in your “niche” sites that are news related, or general blogs that are popular, get lots of traffic and people actual read them still provide value with a link.
Article Directories -These type of links probably won’t harm you, but they are unlikely to provide you with valuable links. The only exception is if an authority site republishes your article.
Guest Blogging -This is another controversial topic. Links from guest blogs are not necessarily good or bad; it depends on the specific blog. Guest blogging on high traffic blogs can still be helpful, while being associated with a spammy blog is something to avoid.
Inbound and Content Marketing - I think this is the best and most valuable method of getting links in 2015. Essentially this is the most white hat type of link building as you really don't directly build any links. You create targeted specific compelling content that people will naturally link too. Ex: Glasses virtual try-on app.
Yes this helps them create sales by letting people virtually try on glasses, but it’s also the 2nd most linked to page on their website besides the home page and they didn’t build a single one of those. It got picked up by the NY times, Huffington Post, TechCrunch and more, simply because it was a cool piece of content. All they have to do is add a few internal links with as juicy anchor text and they can pass all that link love to a specific landing page.
Inbound and content marketing is poised to be the next “big” thing and there are a ton of inbound agencies popping up all over the web. Why? Because it is extremely effective and will never get penalized by Google. You are doing exactly what googles wants, delivering good content.
Links to Avoid - Links from sites with little or poor quality content will probably do you more harm than good. Site-wide footer or sidebar links and links from sites that are clearly link farms are going to hurt you. Guest posting on sites that let anyone guest post and link to anything are going to start to hurt your site.
In conclusion, links are still an extremely important part of the ranking process. This will most likely continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. What is different today is that Google watches your linking practices very carefully. You can have small gains with improving other elements besides links like the above example of Brilliant but in order to really compete you have to do that and build links. Furthermore the way you build your links and the types of links have to be more strategic than ever.
Here’s to a happy ranking 2015.