Link building is one of the most misunderstood concepts in SEO. Even seasoned marketers hold misconceptions about the importance of link building and which acquisition strategies are legitimate.
Links have been part of the SEO game since Google was founded, but their role has changed over the decades. In this article, I’ll discuss the truth behind link building, including why it’s still important, how it’s changed over time, and the best ways to harness the power of links for your site.
The Historical Reason Why Link Building Is Important
We need to take a quick look back through SEO history to understand the state of links today.
In 1998, Larry Page and Sergey Brin launched Google’s original search algorithm: PageRank. This algorithm relied almost entirely on backlinks to assign value to pages. It treated links like a “vote” for one site from another. Your PageRank score was the metric used to determine your position on search engine results pages.
Fast forward a few years, and PageRank gained a few algorithm friends. Now, PageRank is just one of many algorithms Google uses to determine rankings. In 2009, Google removed PageRank scores from their Webmaster Tools, citing concerns over how users tended to place too much emphasis on their PageRank score at the expense of other performance metrics.
Despite this removal, the silent hand of PageRank is still weighing links and tilting the SERP scales to this day. The foundational concept of “links as votes” has never totally disappeared, even a quarter of a century later. Today, marketers use link equity to conceptualize the page authority granted by links.
Is Link Building Declining In Value? Here’s What the Numbers Say
In an SEO Q&A session from late 2022, Duy Nguyen, a Google Search Relations Team member, confirmed that links don’t hold the same sway on rankings as they once did.
But remember that links used to be the only ranking metric that mattered in the beginning. While the introduction of new ranking signals over the past 20+ years has naturally diluted the influence of backlinks, it hasn’t resulted in the total elimination of the importance of links.
One study from Ahrefs found that a site’s number of referring domains positively correlates with traffic. Another study indicated that top-ranking web pages generate more links faster than lower-ranking pages, creating a cycle of exposure and traffic that boosts visibility and makes popular pages even more popular.
And in an experiment from late 2021, a team from Ahrefs deliberately disavowed all links pointing to a small collection of pages — and watched as traffic to those pages sharply dropped in response.
Taken as a whole, these studies illustrate that backlinks are still a major ranking factor, even if their impact isn’t necessarily what it was 25 years ago. To that end, let’s explore how links have changed and how they fit into the wider SEO picture.
How the Value of Links Has Changed Over Time
1. The Ranking Landscape Has Grown
As I mentioned earlier, the original PageRank algorithm debuted using links as its primary ranking factor. These days, there are hundreds of ranking factors and signals, some of which have a greater influence on ranks than others. As Duy Ngyuen said in the Q&A video:
[… B]acklinks as a signal has [sic] a lot less significant impact compared to when Google Search first started out many years ago. We have robust ranking signals, hundreds of them, to make sure that we are able to rank the most relevant and useful results for all queries.
In other words, Google’s algorithms have grown and improved over time, the landscape has changed, and backlinks have lost some of their outsized influence on rankings.
That does not mean backlinks are unimportant. It means that Google now considers them one piece of the puzzle. Backlinks are still a critical part of a comprehensive SEO strategy as they work in tandem with other ranking signals.
2. Nullification of Link Schemes & Spam
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned many misconceptions are floating around about backlink building. In my experience, the legitimacy of link schemes seems to be the biggest source of confusion.
Link schemes and link spam refer to black-hat practices used for acquiring links. (Don’t be fooled if you see a company describe a practice as “gray-hat.” It’s still a scheme!)
Link schemes have become so pervasive in the SEO industry that some marketers treat them as the standard model for backlink building. But Google and other search engines are increasingly cracking down on these schemes, such as by penalizing sites that pay for spammy links in bulk. In this case, “penalization” means your site won’t receive any value (link equity) from the spammy links.
We have many algorithms capable of detecting unnatural links at scale and nullify them. This means that spammers or SEOs spending money on links truly have no way of knowing if the money they spent on link building is actually worth it or not, since it’s really likely that they’re just wasting money building all these spammy links and they were already nullified by our systems as soon as we see them.
According to official guidelines, there are many different forms of prohibited link schemes. Some of the most common include:
- Purchasing backlinks from other sites, especially in bulk quantities from link farms or private blog networks
- Trading too many links between two sites or creating partner pages that only exist to point to another site
- Mislabeling ad or sponsored links as rel=”follow” (rather than rel=”nofollow” or rel=”sponsored”)
- Using an automated program to generate links
There are effective, legitimate ways of building quality backlinks that don’t use schemes or automated programs. But marketers that rely on these prohibited tactics will see less and less return on their investment as time goes by, which can create the appearance that backlinks are losing power. In truth, spam detection technology is simply catching up with them.
3. Attribution Labels Are Now ‘Hints’
In the past, all links contributed link equity. That changed with the introduction of the rel=”nofollow” attribute in 2005, allowing pages to point toward another site without “endorsing” it. A backlink had to contain a rel=”follow” attribute in a page’s HTML to lend equity.
Then, in 2019, Google made two more big updates to how HTML attribution works. First, they introduced two new link attributes: rel=”sponsored” for paid content and rel=”ugc” for user-generated content.
Second, Google announced its algorithm would start considering these new labels and the “nofollow” label as hints in ranking considerations rather than ignoring them. These changes, they explained, are meant to help provide more refined information to search engine crawlers.
These two updates are relatively small, and some have noted that introducing new attributes only affects a tiny portion of links. But I would argue these updates reflect the continued importance of backlinks and indicate that they are still an influential player in the ranking game. The “hint” system is an intriguing concept that gives new relevance to “nofollow” links previously considered somewhat valueless for SEO. I’m curious to see if these changes could mark the start of a new link renaissance in the years to come.
4. Growth of Other Search Engines
Google may dominate the SEO conversation among marketers, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on online search. Despite their smaller market shares, engines like Yahoo! Search, Microsoft Bing, and DuckDuckGo receive millions of daily queries. What do they think about link building?
DuckDuckGo directly names backlinks as an important factor in their ranking system. Bing prefers backlinks from “trusted” websites, expressly taking a quality-over-quantity approach. Yahoo! Search is powered by Bing, so it would follow that links play a similar role.
We will never know precisely how each algorithm is weighted. Still, the takeaway remains clear: Backlinks remain a foundational element of how most search engines work, no matter how the weighting of Google’s algorithm shifts.
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Tips for Effective Link-Building Strategies
I’ve primarily focused on how link building affects rankings, but those inbound links are also critical for referral traffic. Here’s how you can continue to garner link equity and traffic to your site.
1. Keep Your Strategy on the Up and Up
I can’t emphasize this enough: Don’t buy into link schemes or try to find “quick and easy” workarounds. Instead, stick to tactics that generate natural links from reputable referring domains. This is an area where quality matters more than quantity.
Here are some ideas for building high-quality links:
- Submit valuable content (like press releases and guest posts) for publication only on reputable, industry-relevant sites
- Work with a reputable link building service
- Submit citations to industry and community directories
- Build partnerships, and collaborate on content with other sites
- Try out the broken link-building technique
- Look for unlinked mentions of your company, and ask web admins for corrections
- Ensure you’re following technical and on-page best practices
Does this take time and effort? Yes. Does this require a more thoughtful approach than simply buying mentions from link farms? Also yes. But you’ll find that sticking to legitimate methods will net you better results in the long term than relying on bots, farms, or spam.
2. Create Link-Worthy Content
Your regular content marketing strategy can do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to earning backlinks. You should be creating valuable content that people want to link back to.
If it’s been a while since you last audited your content strategy, I encourage you to look closely at your keyword research process to ensure you uncover valuable topics.
I also recommend reviewing the kinds of content you’re publishing. Remember, you’re not limited to basic blogs; also create helpful walkthroughs, tutorials, guides, case studies, thought leadership pieces, infographics, and videos. Don’t forget to regularly revamp old content, too.
3. Harness Link Velocity To Direct Your Strategy
Link velocity is a concept marketers use to describe the speed at which a page acquires links over time. A high velocity means a web page acquires many links in a set timeframe (typically one month).
Link velocity is not an official ranking signal, but it’s a useful metric for assessing the health of your backlink strategy. A page with a too-high velocity may run the risk of being dinged for spam. There isn’t necessarily an ideal velocity or speed to aim for. Instead, use velocity to help determine where to focus your energies and which pages to target in your strategy.
Steady, slow growth over time and spread out over multiple pages is often more valuable than rapid, dramatic spikes in backlinks for a single URL.
4. Audit Existing Backlinks & Disavow Toxic URLs
Just as a good content strategy regularly refreshes old blogs, a good link strategy regularly monitors the health of existing backlinks. Here’s what that should include:
- Identify broken or missing links off-site. As sites change and grow, it’s normal for links to break. You should keep a list of important referring domains and regularly check that high-value links to your site are still working. If you don’t have an up-to-date list, our broken link building guide will show you how to use Ahrefs to uncover off-site issues.
- Check attribution labels. Peek at the HTML of a page to ensure backlinks are given the appropriate attribution label. If you notice a page is using the wrong label, send the web admin a message to ask for a correction.
- Disavow toxic links. If you notice spammy URLs pointing toward your site, don’t ignore them. Request web admins remove spammy links or submit a disavowal request if necessary. Read our guide to bad links for a complete overview of this process.
Is Link Building Enough?
Building links is undeniably important. Its role in search algorithms has shifted, but it remains an indispensable part of the digital marketer’s toolkit.
That said, link building is not enough on its own. It works best in conjunction with a comprehensive SEO strategy. Generating authority by publishing quality content and optimizing pages around the right keywords are your first steps to establishing backlinks from authoritative domains.
None of it is an easy feat — but it’s worth doing the right way. Schedule a free SEO consultation with us today if you need help strategizing or developing an effective campaign.