With all the "link building is dead!" and "link building isn't dying or dead!" posts out there, coupled with the fear that many people seem to have where link building is concerned, it's natural to wonder about who's right. We all have our skewed perspectives too, and it would be ridiculous to try and pretend that, as a person who specializes in link building, I'd ever say that links are an endangered species.
Links aren't going away any time soon though, and I firmly believe that. I could say the same thing about the importance of many other things, too.
I think social is here to stay and its importance will only grow. I think that it's impossible to imagine the day when technical SEO professionals won't be needed to help make sure that site architecture is optimal and to instruct us on how to handle all the new code issues that arise as everyone gets online. I think that great writers will find that their skills are even more in demand than ever.
In fact, in trying to think about what might no longer remain critical to SEO success, I can't think of anything (other than forum spammers).
I think that the way we build links will change in the future just as it has in the past, and this game will get harder, that's for sure.
Since you don't need access to a site in order to build links to it, links can unfortunately be used in a harmful manner by people who don't know what they're doing – and they have become such a commodity that grabbing up tons of them for very little money is a piece of cake.
I think that the industry is overrun with misinformation about links and that many sites who can't afford to engage in risky techniques still do so simply because they don't have to get involved or lift a finger.
However, link building isn't dead or dying. It's changing, yes, and it's getting much harder, but it's still alive and kicking and here's why.
Why Links (Still) Matter
The web was built on links. Links drive traffic and they boost rankings. They are how we tell a story. They are how we point people to things we want them to see and how we navigate through the endlessness of the Internet.
No matter what anyone says, without high-quality links, you can't perform at an optimal level organically (at least not for long) and you can't weather algorithmic updates that crush sites with weaker profiles.
So what is a high-quality link? When we say that links matter, we don't always distinguish between subpar, average, and high quality links and that's an important distinction.
I can give you more examples of bad links than I can of amazing links, sadly, because bad links are easy to get. High-quality links aren't.
High-quality links usually come from authority sites but they can also come from sites whose metrics don't yet show their true value. New sites, for example, don't usually have a Toolbar PageRank, may not rank well, and aren't being socialized nonstop. Yet.
However, getting a link on a relevant page on a new site could turn into a great opportunity next year when that site has a PR 5, is being referenced in tweets by sci-fi author Neil Gaiman (who has close to 2 million followers on Twitter), and has so much value to its audience that you can't imagine a time when it didn't exist.
Secondly, look at these three facts:
- Google's PageRank is based on links. If the importance of links is going to lessen, they're going to have to rewrite the algorithm. If they wanted to do that they'd have done it already.
- Spiders use links to crawl the web just like humans use them to navigate.
- Links are a natural way we tell someone about something. When you're writing and want to mention an example, isn't it more natural to give the example site a link than to allude to the URL and say "hey you, go see if you can figure out what this URL that I reference actually is and look it up yourself!"?
Now as you'll notice, I didn't say anything about link quality there either. Spiders can obviously crawl a bad link just like they can a good link. People with awful or totally irrelevant sites can naturally link to you.
The importance of quality comes into play with Google's PageRank and you know what? It always has. Many people have just erroneously assumed that it was strictly a quantity game where the site with the most links rose to the top, but that is greatly oversimplifying the way it all works.
A high-quality link is so high in quality partially because of the quality of the sites linking to it. When that high-quality link is pointed at your site, you receive more value than you do if you were linked to from a page that had lower authority from lower-quality links pointing to it.
(I know that there are cases where a site did rank well strictly due to a vast number of links being built to it. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's impossible to do that today, but it isn't nearly as common as it used to be.)
Straight From Google's Mouth
In the updated webmaster answers on rankings, Google now says this:
In general, webmasters can improve the rank of their sites by creating high-quality sites that users will want to use and share.
That "share" part can happen in many ways but the language isn't exclusive to links anymore. Notice the bit about "high-quality" too, as it used to pertain to links. Sharing is still done via links even though it's also done on social sites and offline methods, but the idea isn't really different; the language is what's changed.
Let's look at another Google quote:
Google has invented many innovations in search to improve the answers you find. The first and most well-known is PageRank, named for Larry Page (Google's co-founder and CEO). PageRank works by counting the number and quality of links to a page to determine a rough estimate of how important the website is. The underlying assumption is that more important websites are likely to receive more links from other websites.
There's that mention of "quality" again alongside the "important" language. This is on a page about how Google search works, on the Google.com domain, so it's unlikely that it is untrue. If links from high-quality sites stop mattering, PageRank will stop mattering, and is that likely?
Also on this same page is the quote "PageRank looks at links to try and determine the authoritativeness of a site." Maybe PageRank itself will become less important and we'll see new metrics added or increasing in importance, but saying quality links won't be a factor is as silly as saying that having important keywords in the content of a page won't be a factor.
Other things may be more important (like the negative signals sent out from having a poor link profile) and the combination of many factors can matter more than one single one, but will we see a day when links aren't a factor for SEO? Nope.
Too Much Fuss?
Think about paid links. Even after the nofollow attribute was added and Google cracked down on both the buyers and sellers of links via Webmaster Tools warnings and penalties, people still want to buy and sell links.
Would Google keep trying to crack down on how we manipulate links if there was an easier way and if links weren't really that important? Would they invest that kind of energy and time if anything else could be done? Would they have created the disavow tool if they could properly determine that a link shouldn't be counted?
Here's something I bet they didn't expect to happen after Penguin 2.0 though:
Some sites that had previously linked out for free now asked for payment to keep the links up or followed because they theorized that if people were getting penalized or warned for bad free links, they may as well make some money off what they were doing because who knows what Google would think about those links down the road?
If Google decides that a site is guilty of linking out in an unnatural manner, why not go ahead and make a few bucks before it gets hit? I'm not saying these were great sites to begin with of course, because in the cases I've looked at, they were not, but if authority sites start to fear linking out, what's to stop them from wanting to make money off the few links that they do give out?
If you had a great (and previously free) link on an authority site and they contacted you to say that you could keep that link up if you gave them $500, what would you do? If you had loads of great authority links you might say no, but what if you didn't?
If you think that webmasters on any site put up a link and that's the end of it, you're living in a dream world. Links get changed, removed, nofollowed, and become broken.
People who did something for free decide they want money. People who accepted money now want more money.
Unscrupulous people contact a webmaster and ask for links to be taken down for competitors' sites and these webmasters don't have the time or desire to verify that these are legitimate requests, so you know that great link you have? You might have just lost it or it might now point to your competitor.
That's the problem. There are loads of awful and dangerous free links out there, and there are loads of authority links that have been purchased. There are loads of people who can manipulate this system to their advantage and cause you harm in the process. It is a mess, but it's one that is impossible to clean up.
The link buying economy is one that expands and contracts according to Google's latest proclamations and algorithm changes, people's concern with risk vs. their need to try to rank quickly, concrete examples of people violating every guideline they have and still doing well, and the idea of making money from a few minutes of work.
I've been truly amazed by some of the sites that have sold links. I've been amazed by people with brand new sites who cannot afford the risk of buying links but still go and pay for networked links.
I've seen more problematic free links in penalized profiles over the past year than I did in the previous five years. I've run reports on sites and seen paid links showing the highest and most beneficial numbers while the most toxic ones are free ones on decent sites. How can any search engine deal with this?
We do place a high value of importance on recommendations whether it's your father telling you the best place to buy a used car or Columbia University linking to a local medical center that they recommend pre-med students check out for an internship. That's the way the world works, not just the Internet.
As we become inundated with more voices telling us what we should do and where we should do it, the authority voices will stand out even more. Having a recommendation from those authorities will only get more important.
So links aren't dying. We just need to focus on building better ones.
SES Denver (Oct 16) offers an intense day of learning all the critical aspects of search engine optimization (SEO) and paid search advertising (PPC). The mission of SES remains the same as it did from the start - to help you master being found on search engines. Early Bird rates available through Sept 12. Register today!