Links Still Matter in 2017– But What if They Didn’t?

If you’re at all interested in link building, you probably believe that links still matter in 2017. 

I hold that belief very strongly– and I’d better, since I run a link building agency!

Links are Google’s most powerful ranking signal, and we’ll discuss why that is (along with some strong proof) in just a moment.

But first, I want you to imagine a world where a web page’s ranking was determined mainly by the time a user spent on that page. Or how many retweets and Facebook likes the page got. Or, what about if pages were simply ranked by site speed? 

Sounds pretty ridiculous.

Think about it a little as you read through this introduction.

But, rest assured, links matter in 2017.

Still, experts tell us every year that links are going to matter less and less as time goes on. Whether it’s Google’s Rankbrain algorithm that takes them down, or Google starts to focus more on its own favored content, we’ve been hearing doom and gloom about the state of links since at least 2011.

Many newcomers to the world of link building have heard nothing but doom and gloom when it comes to links and their importance in the world of SEO. The SERPs change all the time, and Google is always cooking up something behind the scenes to both bolster user experience and increase their AdSense revenue.

It’s easy for us to succumb to these “links are dying” prophecies simply because we see so many changes in Google’s algorithms, and the overall SERP landscape, every single year.

And it’s true that it’s tougher now to build good, relevant links than it was back in 2007. That’s okay by me, though, as it means the link building industry is now much more focused on high quality work than churning out a huge number of links each month. Google has absolutely cut down on link spam and made their SERPs a better place to find information.

Even 10 years past the point where link building was “easy,” links still matter. I know they do.

If you want proof, take a look at this in depth study from Stone Temple, which they’ve revisited several times now.

Their data shows that links still matter, and they studied over 6,000 search queries to prove it. If you have the time to click over there, it’s a fascinating and illuminating study.

What may strike you most, though, beyond the numbers, is the reason why links still matter. I’ll summarize their points.

Links Still Matter Because:

  • In order to build a link, you have to be invested enough in your business (or other venture) at least enough to own a website and create something worth linking to
  • A link is a permanent (in theory), non-changing endorsement of another website– it’s right there in public for everyone to see, and doesn’t fade away like a social media post
  • When you give someone else a link, your audience can click that link to leave your site and go somewhere else

So, links are a powerful ranking factor. Probably the most powerful ranking factor. But, what if they weren’t? Here’s what the SEO and search ranking landscape might look like if any of Google’s other ranking factors were weighed above links.

Average Time on Page

Instead of heavily weighing links into its search algorithms, what if Google mainly ranked pages by how long users spent on them?

Don’t get me wrong, average time on page is a strong internal metric. It lets you know if you need to tweak your content, tweak your site’s design, or just reformat the whole thing so it’s more interesting to your target audience. If you’re skeptical about why it’s an important metric, I urge you to check out this article from Pace.

So, imagine that Google used average time on page as its main ranking factor. I thought about it for a little while, and I realized how ridiculous the world wide web would be.

YouTube, Netflix, and other streaming services would outrank almost everything else. Flash games would dominate entire mountains of SERPs.

eCommerce category and product pages would rank more highly than educational pages for every item you can imagine. Think about how much time people spend shopping and hunting for deals versus the time they spend learning about the products they consume. I think we can safely assume that Amazon and eBay would outrank Wikipedia for every possible search query.

If this were the case, Google would rank and organize the web by consumption instead of usefulness. To some degree, it already does this. But, if you want to learn about a given topic, you can. Imagine having to click to page three or four on Google to learn about corn snakes instead of finding multiple websites that either sell them or point you to retailers.

Imagine having to click to page three or four on Google to learn about parakeets instead of finding multiple websites that either sell them or point you to retailers.

Or, in an even worse scenario, some page that multiple people left their browser on while they took the dog on a walk could outrank something much more valuable in the same niche.

I think we know why links outrank average time on page.

Site Speed

Site speed is also a very important metric. No one is going to link to your site, much less visit it, if it loads as fast as a tiger slug creeping across a tomato plant.

But, thankfully, Google doesn’t rank pages based on site speed alone.

If it did, the SERPs would be full of text-only pages, Usenet results, thin-content spam sites, and the Space Jam website.

Site speed has to factor into Google’s ranking decisions, but it doesn’t outweigh links. If it did, a page with an unformatted 2000-word blob of text and nothing else might outrank Expedia.com for hotel bookings.

And how would that help anyone?

Hopefully, we can all agree that links should be weighed more heavily than site speed.

Click Through Rate

Google considers (at least publically) click through rate, or CTR, an indirect ranking signal at best. Still, that doesn’t stop SEOs and link builders from philosophizing about it.

In the article I linked above, you’ll note that Google’s own Gary Illyes calls clicks a “very noisy signal.”

And for good reason!

I imagine it’s pretty easy for a savvy black hat programmer to rig up a bot to click on anything– any amount of times. If CTR was Google’s defining search ranking metric, imagine what a mess the web would be!

Foreign spam sites (and, especially bootleg sunglasses retailers) would be at the top of the SERPs. You couldn’t get away from them.

CTR is, again, an important internal metric. It lets you understand how users are engaging with your site, and it’s a key indicator for both sales and marketing. And, though Google may not publically admit it, CTR is likely an important search ranking metric.

But it can’t be the most important factor in ranking webpages. And definitely shouldn’t hold a candle to links.

Sure, Google can filter out some amount of click-happy spambots. And, even if they could filter out all robotic clickthrougs, what would be left if CTR was king?

It would be those slideshow list articles where you have to click 15 times to find out one piece of information or see one interesting photo. You know, the ones with titles like “The Real Reason Ryan Gosling is Afraid of Marmots and Refuses to Wear a Seatbelt (Slideshow).”

Please, pay attention to click through rate. But don’t think for even a moment that it’s going to replace links as a ranking factor any time soon.

Technical SEO

Technical SEO, the finely tuned behind the scenes stuff that helps Google sort your website out the rest, is important stuff. It sometimes scares off newcomers to SEO and link building, but the basics aren’t hard to grasp, and it’s absolutely vital to your website’s search engine survival.

All of the elements under the umbrella of on-page SEO come together to form an important ranking factor. I’ll never deny that. If you haven’t buttoned up your on-page SEO by now, I urge you to do so ASAP.

But, technical SEO can never fully replace links. They work together in harmony, but you’ll still see many times where a page with many good links and mediocre on-page SEO outranks a page with phenomenal on-page SEO and very few links.

That’s probably because any new domain can pay someone $1000 to nail down its technical SEO, but it’s much harder to build good content, built a useful website, and build enough trust to earn a few links.

If someone wanted to register RealUltimateBirdFeeders.com, they couldn’t outrank legacy bird feeder retailers just by having better on-page SEO.

If they could, we’d live in an even more baffling world than we do already.

Domain Registration Length

Google does consider a site’s lifespan, or how long the domain has been registered, as a ranking factor. And that makes sense.

But it can’t be the only ranking factor, and you probably already know why.

But, just in case you don’t, I’ll leave it at this. If Google did consider domain registration length its most valuable ranking metric, your grandpa’s Betty Boop fan page he registered in 1996 would outrank bettyboop.com, Wikipedia’s Betty Boop entry, and all public domain Betty Boop cartoons on YouTube.

That doesn’t sound like a great searchscape to me.

Content

Now, we come to the trickiest non-link ranking factor– content.

We all know how important content is. Even it it wasn’t a ranking factor, you’d be hard pressed to build many good, relevant links to a page without at least above average content. So know that I’m not talking trash about content, the importance of content, or content being a worthy use of your time.

Consider this passage from Search Engine Journal:

“Content is one of the most important Google ranking factors, according to Andrey Lipattsev, a Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google. This shouldn’t be news — content has been an important ranking factor for a while — but in recent years, we’ve seen a shift away from keyword-focused content towards more relevant content written in natural language.

In fact, the SearchMetrics study cited above found that just 53% of the top 20 queries have keywords in their title tag, and less than 40% of landing pages have keywords in their H1. This number is dropping year-over-year, which “clearly demonstrates that Google evaluates content according to its relevance—and not by the inclusion of individual keywords.”

So what exactly does “relevant” content look like? The short answer is: comprehensive.”

Content is vitally important to ranking most any webpage, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

If it did, some kid’s 100 page Hotel Transylvania fan fiction might just outrank authoritative historical websites about the mythology and folklore behind vampires, or even outrank http://romaniatourism.com/transylvania.html.

And without using human curated links as a barometer of quality, who’s to say what content is ‘better’ than others?

Is it feasible for bots to discern which piece of content is more useful and helpful?

Will bots be able to write book and movie reviews?

I think not.

Ultimately, human judgment and discernment is irreplaceable by bots.

Links Still Matter, and Closing Thoughts

Links still matter, and they will continue to do so for a good long time.

All of these ranking factors work in harmony together and none of them can exist without the others.

But, there’s a reason why none of them are more important than links as a ranking factor. 

Links:

  • Show an editorial vote of confidence in favor of your website
  • Connect users to relevant information and ideas
  • Help users find new content they may not otherwise find directly on search engines
  • Are the very fabric that hold the world wide web together– without Google (or, yes, Bing), we’d only have links to help us navigate the web

Even if a page has a small amount of content, loads slowly, and doesn’t encourage users to spend a ton of time there, it may be useful to someone. Links signify trust and usefulness, and links are the way the webmasters and bloggers of the world democratically decide which web pages are important to which niches and industries.

The more votes, or links, a web page gets from other relevant pages, the more likely it is to rank in Google’s SERPs.

Of course, if that page has no content, loads slowly, exists solely for spam purposes, or is just plain unattractive, Google can override those votes. That’s the reason Google doesn’t use links as its sole ranking factor.

But a link between two websites usually signifies that some real human thought has been put into the connection between those two sites. A real person has to create any link worth its salt. Robots, algorithms, and various artificial intelligences are becoming more and more common on the web, but we still needs humans to sort through the mess.

Simply put, Google relies on links as a ranking factor because they demonstrate that, in some capacity, a human has already sorted through the mess and made a decision.

And, until robots become more reliable than humans in almost every way, I think links will remain the most important ranking factor.

So, yes– links still matter!