I just finished reading an article published by Neil Patel over at Quick Sprout where he was talking about how link building is not going to be the future of SEO, and I have to say, even though I actively work in the SEO space and I understand the importance of links – I agree.
Some might say this is totally ridiculous – but I think Neil makes a valid point, and I’ll explain why I agree with him below.
Backlinks still matter
It goes without saying – anyone that knows anything about Google, the algorithm, and getting rankings, knows that backlinks are essential. Even small business owners that I’ve worked with that are relatively clueless about SEO, eventually at some point, ask about links.
To put it simply, for your site to perform in the search results – you need backlinks. Backlinks are kind of like votes. The more votes you have (and the better the vote quality) the more likely it will be that your site performs well in the search engines. Infact, even that’s not accurate anymore. It’s more about quality, than it is quantity. So it’s not just a case of having to get 1000 backlinks to outrank your competitor that might have 999.
There are simply far too many other variables at play.
The good ol’ days
In the past, manipulating the search results was relatively easy. You’d be fairly confident that if someone shoved some cash in your hand and you blasted a site with a lot of links that it would rank – and rank pretty quickly. Infact this was pretty much common practice for a lot of SEO agencies – because it worked.
But as time went on, more and more people caught on to this loophole, and in the end it got beyond ridiculous. We had link building services literally everywhere – Linkvana, BuildMyRank, SEOLinkVine and god knows how many other services were floating around. Oh, and let’s not forget Fiverr – 50,000 backlinks for just $5!
The Penguin update was pretty serious and had a lot of people really upset – because it essentially wiped out a lot of businesses literally overnight. A lot of site owners claimed innocence but most, if not all that were negatively affected by the update, were involved in some kind of artificial link building scheme.
I won’t go into detail about the Penguin update and how it works here, but to summarize, instead of it simply being a case of “more links is better”, it was now more about –
- Link quality
- Link diversity, and most importantly of all
- Having a natural link profile
Links, links, links…
For some, an SEO campaign means little more than paying someone to sit around building links. This really couldn’t be further from the truth, although admittedly, links are still a very important part of the process – simply because they get results. However the problem comes about when the emphasis of an SEO campaign becomes more about links than it does, anything else.
I can tell you there’s nothing more frustrating than sitting in a meeting with a business owner, where all they want to talk about is links.
- “How much to build us say, 50 links a month?”
- “What links will you be building?”
- “We have more links than our competitors, but they’re above us – why?”
- “The last SEO agency built all these bad links, can you help us clean them up?”
- “We use XYZ software to monitor all of our links”
I understand that for some business owners, these are important questions to ask – but they distract from what’s really important – getting customers, making sales, and generating revenue.
There’s a massive problem, and Google knows it
Let’s be honest here, the algorithm is broken.
I look at dozens of sites a week, hundreds each month, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that there are many sites that are ranking well in Google that probably shouldn’t be.
Sites that are using –
- PBN’s or “private blog networks” (which I’ll get to in just a moment)
- Spammy press release services
- Site wide junky links
- Unnatural keyword heavy exact match anchor text, and
- Crappy link farms and cheap directories
The biggest problem that Google are faced with right now however, are how to handle Private Blog Networks.
These things are literally EVERYWHERE, and they’re working.
For those that don’t know, a private blog network is essentially a collection of websites built for the sole purpose of backlinking. Typically this involves buying up expired domains that have link equity (an existing healthy link profile) and building them out so that they look natural in order to then link FROM those properties TO client or money sites.
The reason this is being done is because its much easier to get a solid link from a website you own and control as opposed to a link from a site where you need to “ask” the site owner, or webmaster. (Let’s face it, that’s not always easy)
So what ends up happening is that you end up with all of these thin, crappy sites stuffed with meaningless content, full of backlinks – pointing at sites that are ranking. What makes this extremely attractive for many PBN owners, is that the links can easily be removed or changed, should there be any problems (such as penalties or unnatural link notices within Webmaster tools)
This essentially means that there is a MASSIVE loophole in Google’s algorithm – simply because this entire method is BASED UPON HOW THE ALGORITHM ACTUALLY WORKS.
Google is faced with an enormous challenge
Unlike before hand, when site owners were creating unnatural backlinks, they were pretty easy for Google to spot. There were usually footprints or “patterns” of some description that gave it away.
Often these were site owners –
- Using a paid service, (stupidly open to the public) like “BuildMyRank”, where Google could easily identify and target PBN properties – then flush them
- Using the same anchor text over and over and over in an effort to rank for a particular term
- Using “SEO” style hosting full of crappy sites, again that Google could easily target
Google were able to detect many of these patterns and shut them down, which is exactly what they did – both manually and algorithmically with Penguin.
But now, there is a much bigger problem.
Since the Penguin update, the bad guys have gotten smarter. They’re no longer –
- Using paid services that are open to the public (hence why they’re actually called “private” in the first place)
- They’re building out what would appear to be completely natural sites
- They’re changing up the anchor text, diversifying it etc
- They’re using a shit load of hosting accounts spread out all over the place to avoid being detected
- They’re not interlinking any of the properties
This now means for Google that it is basically IMPOSSIBLE for them to know
- what is a completely natural website (genuine) and
- what isn’t.
As you can imagine, this is a huge problem for them.
But this is where using a signal like backlinks, doesn’t make sense, because it’s a signal that is far too easy to manipulate.
Backlinks are probably the best and worst ranking signal
The problem with backlinks is that, in a perfect world, they should work. But let’s face it, it ain’t all cupcakes and candy canes on the web – it’s an absolute mess. There’s probably more link spam now than there’s ever been – and just like back in April of 2012, when they released Penguin, Google knows they need to do something about it (again).
The question is, what?
Google have always wanted the same thing. They want highly relevant sites, with useful content up top of the search results. At the end of the day, it’s all about user experience. If the user searches for something and they’re happy with the results they get – then they’re most likely going to use Google again. It’s all about keeping people on Google. Clicking on ads, generating revenue and ensuring investors are happy.
The problem is, what they want, and what is in place right now are two very different things. I’ve seen total rubbish ranking first page for big terms, yet site owners that are actually putting in the effort of publishing content regularly, and building great sites, are struggling back on page 18.
Could we shift to dark metrics?
I recorded a podcast with David Jenyns some time ago where we spoke about UXO, or “user experience optimisation”. This seemed like a bit of a buzzword that was floating around for a couple of weeks, but I think there’s some truth to it. These are all hypotheses of course, but in simple terms, user experience metrics *may* become factors that Google might start looking at more closely in terms of improving it’s algorithm.
This might include factors such as
- Time on site
- Bounce rates
- Engagement, page views
- Click through rates, or
- …an accumulation of all metrics combined
Of course, I’m just speculating. I could be close, I could be miles off.
They might even go much much deeper and introduce signals that are completely invisible or unknown to us (aka ‘dark metrics’) This would make sense, because we simply wouldn’t know what they are, or how or why they worked.
The whole reason Google would do something like this is simple – Google knows that in order to improve their search engine, and to put a stop to all of this nonsense once and for all, they need to start using ranking signals or metrics that are impossible, or near impossible to fake or manipulate.
Infact, they may already be testing this to some degree right now.
Google has performed tests of the algorithm without backlinks
Google have demonstrated interest towards re-engineering their algorithm to function WITHOUT referencing backlinks as a ranking factor. Don’t believe me? Watch this video below.
It’s quite interesting to note exactly what Matt says in the video at around 0:18 seconds, he says
“We don’t have a version like that, that is exposed to the public – but we have run experiments like that internally, and the quality looks much much worse”.
He also goes on to say ..
“It turns out that backlinks, even though there’s some noise and a lot of spam, for the most part are a really really big win in terms of quality for search results”
But what I find really interesting, is what he says after that. He says …
“…at least for now, backlink relevance still really helps…”
At least for now
What exactly does that mean? Could it mean that Google intends on making a huge shift away from backlinks altogether in the future, and if so, when? It interesting to note that that video was shot almost 18 months ago too (published on Feb 19, 2014)
Some final thoughts…
Here’s an overview of what we know, some of the problems that currently exist with “backlinks” and what may or may not happen in the near future.
- Using a signal like backlinks is a flawed approach. It’s far too easy to manipulate the search results by creating fake links
- Google can’t tell the difference between a natural backlink and a fake one – so it rewards/penalizes both. This is true when sites are hit with negative SEO, or shitty PBN properties help money sites to rank
- Google has a huge mountain to climb if it wants to squash PBN’s. Do they reset link profiles back to null upon domain expiry? Do they disregard links at the root domain level? Do they look at sites with higher rates of outbound links as opposed to inbound? None of these really make much sense at all.
- Private blog networks are everywhere, and they’re working.
- If Google does drop backlinks, and starts measuring signals such as bounce rates etc – would we see new “weird” variations of negative SEO? Such as spam bot blasting, where engagement levels are 0:02 seconds? etc
- If Google does drop backlinks, and measures something like SERP click through rates, would we see an increase in “Fiverr click thru gigs”?
- Backlinks were part of Google’s original algorithm which originated back in 1998. The way in which people share information, and use the web has changed a LOT since then. Here’s an interesting question to consider – “What would be ratio of links shared on websites per day VS the amount of links shared through social media?”
- I don’t feel it’s in the best interest of Google to continue this “big stick” (penalty) approach, because I think long term, (if not already) people are fed up with it.
I’m sure there are plenty more questions and unknowns to consider. Got one? I’d love to hear your thoughts below, be sure to share them with us.