Backlinks have been one of the pillars of SEO since the 90s and it still seems that a lot depends on them. However, their role has changed dramatically in the last decade and now it’s far from enough to generate lots of links. Search engines are getting smarter and smarter and the emphasis on content is getting stronger. So what about backlinks? Will they lose their role in relation to search results and page ranking? Here’s what we got out of 3 video answers by Matt Cutts on the topic:
Backlinks and Rank in Search Results
Search engines try to provide the most relevant results when a search is performed. In order to do that they need to identify some pages as fitting the query. In the process they could rely on rendering content – if they were advanced enough. However, it turns out that they aren’t. They can still read and “understand” but they lack the ability to evaluate content based on that.
Thus, in order to classify a page as relevant to a search query, they need other signs that it’s a good pick. Such signs can be backlinks, people’s behavior on the page, social shares or specific search queries requesting that page.
All those signs are important to search engines as they are a good indicator of how internet users evaluate the content and in what connection they find it relevant.
Backlinks are therefore no longer analyzed as back in the 90s. It’s no longer important to simply have many of them even though quantity is still a ranking factor. They have to be high quality, meaning that the websites pointing to your pages need to have certain authority in order to benefit your ranking. Such links are taken by search engines as a sign that your pages are of quality.
Low-quality backlinks from low ranking websites can on the other hand hurt your rankings or get you a punishment from Google if it’s considered that you’re engaging in a form of blackhat SEO.
Besides taking link quality into account, search engines analyze backlinks in terms of anchor text. Is the anchor text similar when different people link to a certain page? Is it similar to the page’s title, keywords, and description? If yes, this is a strong sign that the content is in fact about a certain topic and is perceived by others as relevant to it.
Even though the ultimate goal of search engines is to be able to evaluate content as we humans do and thus place more importance on content when ranking pages, they’re still far from being able to do that. For that reason backlinks will still be an important SEO factor in the years to come.
The recommendation, however, is not to dedicate time on link building but to let it be a natural result of your content efforts. See how Matt Cutts explains the future of backlinks in this video.
Backlinks and Topical Authority
It might be that Matt Cutts dares to mention a future without backlinks in the video but this isn’t the whole story. Lately a new term is sneaking into the SEO world, topical authority, and it’s appearance gives backlinks a whole new meaning.
Topical authority is the perceived importance of an information source based on a range of signals. One of these signals are backlinks. In this connection their importance is understood as a confirmation that the page’s content is of high quality – the higher the quality, the more the backlinks.
Of course, all of the SEO rules for backlinks are applicable here – no links from low ranking sites, no unevenly distributed links or massive linking from/to one page, no irrelevant anchor texts, and not too many outgoing links from the page in question with keywords in the anchor text.
The thing is that topical authority cannot exist in its current form without backlinks. According to Matt Cutts, backlinks serve as a pointer that people not only like the content – called popularity of a page by Google – but also find it appropriate to share. Research has shown that people only share what they find useful, insightful, what made them feel in a certain way, or what they thought was funny. So up to a point it makes sense that many shares indicate quality content or such that is found to be worth it by internet users.
It is therefore a contradiction to say that backlinks will possibly lose some of their importance in the future, given that SEO relies more and more on topical authority. Backlinks will continue to be used as an important ranking factor in the years to come. The only thing that might change so far is the way they are analyzed by search engines.
Conclusion is that generating quality backlinks will still have enormous importance for page rankings even though a shift towards content is underway.
How Can a Small Site Get Big
The problem with backlinks’ use as a ranking factor in search results is that new or small sites that haven’t got any backlinks yet are discriminated by search engines regardless of the quality of their content. In fact, it’s not only a question of backlinks – the age of a site, for example, is an important factor as well. So do you have a chance to rank well when you’re up against all the big ones?
Matt Cutts offers here a very motivating speech where he claims that everybody has a chance of becoming big as long as they don’t give up and make a true effort to deliver quality. Reality is, unfortunately, not that bright.
People don’t tend to trust somebody they haven’t heard of as long as that person hasn’t been recommended by an authoritative figure or institution. They are even less likely to share your content as long as they aren’t sure that you have authority. For that reason getting the necessary backlinks might prove to be quite a challenge.
You can, however, start with this 7 sure steps for generating quality backlinks and do as Matt Cutts says – focus on quality. I’d add – on marketing your blog as well.