The Value of Links

As an emerging industry, SEO is a field ripe for new college graduates, individuals looking to enhance their career skills, and those with a background in computer science, marketing, advertising, journalism, and other parallel careers. Everyday more and more people pour into the search industry.

In 2014 LinkedIn put SEO at number five for the hottest skills to get hired. Many jump at the opportunity to learn SEO, especially in conjunction with other skills. SEO is also a very practical skill to learn – search accounts for such a large percentage of Internet traffic that anyone with a website needs to learn SEO best practices if they take their site and traffic seriously.

The first thing a new SEO must learn is how Google operates. This means learning the value of links in search.

Google began by using links as the core of its search algorithm, which powers its results. This use of links made Google better than any other search engine available at the time. Google’s recognition of the value of links is what propelled its initial success.

But there’s a problem with the way many SEOs learn about Google and links. Learning that links are valuable because of search colors their perspective, and makes them see links as important only to SEO.

This valuation of links for search, and search alone, is putting the cart before the horse. Despite Google’s influence online, they do not yet control the shape of the Web. Links aren’t valuable because of Google; Google is valuable because of its use of links.

Perhaps this is overstating it – there’s no doubt that links serve a critical function in search engine optimization. All search engines use links as a signal of relevance, authority, and trust. Even Yandex has reversed its position, adding links back into the algorithm for the narrow segment it were previously removed (commercial terms for the Moscow locality).

But to think, as many new SEOs do, that the sole reason links are valuable is because of search, is flat wrong.

Links served a critical function long before Google existed, and will continue to have value online whether or not Google chooses to use links in its algorithm.

Links are critical to the function of the Web, marketing, SEO, websites, and humans.

Links Are a Fundamental Element of the World Wide Web

An oft-overlooked fact is that the Web as we know it couldn’t exist without links.

Links piece together the Web – it’s why we call it a “web” in the first place. Links are the strands that connect all the millions of pieces (websites) together.

There are essentially three ways to navigate the Web:

  1. Type the exact page URL into your browser’s address bar.
  2. Bookmark a page so you can return again.
  3. Follow a link from one page to another.

Method one — typing the full URL path — is next to impossible for anything beyond the homepage of a domain you’re extremely familiar with. and are the classic examples. Once there, you would use links to navigate to specific pages.

Method two — bookmarks — only work if you’ve previously visited a page. Even then, bookmarks become extremely unwieldy if you bookmark every page you wish to visit again.

Method three — links — is by far the most common method of navigating the Web.

Links are also critical to navigating the various pages of a website. Facebook would be an impossible mess without strong site architecture and UX, both of which are dependent upon links.

Links Are Critical to Discovering New Sites

Exploration of the Web is also wholly reliant upon links.

Here’s how I explore the Web:

  1. Search

    I use search to find specific sites containing specific information. Search returns a list of links (along with to pages they believe relevant to my query. Trust is implicit in search, and relevance is determined by the searcher based upon the title, meta description, brand/site familiarity.

  2. Social

    Social media allows me to see what sites, pages, and content my friends recommend via links shared. I trust the links based upon how much I trust my friends, and click based upon the context surrounding the link.

  3. Sites I Trust is a perfect example of a site I trust which I use to further explore the Web. Reddit users submit links to various subreddits — essentially subcategory pages — they think other Redditors will like. Redditors then upvote or downvote that link, establishing trust.

    Reddit is essentially an aggregation of other Web pages (their tagline is “the front page of the Internet”) that Redditors think interesting, entertaining, or otherwise worth visiting. Link trust is based upon the trust of the community.

Every single one of these methods of exploring the w=Web is wholly reliant upon links.

Without links, the Internet would be entirely unnavigable. The Web runs on links.

Links Are Extremely Valuable in Marketing

All links are a type of exposure. Whenever you encounter a link on a website, another human is effectively saying, “I believe this page is worth your time, or is something you need to see.”

That’s a strong vote of confidence.

This confidence is inherently understood as trust. If a website links to another website, it’s understood as a willing association. Of course context matters, and helps guide trust – but more often than not that link is an expression of value.

People who trust a website will transfer this trust to the linked website. There’s an implication of authority and respect with a link.

And since awareness is the main goal of all marketing, links play a critical role in much of online marketing. Yes, links matter to SEO. But links also matter beyond SEO.

Links build exposure, branding, relationships, authority, engagement, and even traffic outside of search.

Links literally direct visitors from another website. Anytime you have a backlink on another website, there’s an opportunity for exposure and traffic.

A link is a citation, mention, and direct navigation all rolled into one.

There is no parallel in offline marketing. There’s nothing in traditional marketing that makes arriving at a business as easy as the click of a mouse.

Links Remain Critical to Search Visibility

Since Google first used links as the core of its algorithm, and subsequently cornered the search market, links have been vital to SEO success.

This remains true today, despite the introduction of hundreds of other signals. Links remain critical to improve your organic search traffic.

Every SEO has witnessed the power of links in improving search visibility. Serious studies from both Moz and Searchmetrics confirm this. It’s well understood that links are a primary ranking factor.

Furthermore, Google continues to stand behind links as a signal in search.

There can be no doubt about the efficacy of links in search.

Shouldn’t the Value of Links Be Obvious?

With links playing such a critical role on the Web, it seems the value of links should be obvious.

Yet if you stop a random person on the street and ask them why links are valuable, they’ll likely stumble through an explanation. Clients often wonder about the value of links, needing further education. Even other marketers don’t always respect the value of links online.

Marketers are a jaded bunch. SEOs perhaps the worst of the lot. We’ve experienced and seen the manipulation that can and does happen time over time, until we forget that not everything is manipulation.

Furthermore, there’s a strong tendency in the SEO industry to forget the power of links beyond search. We can have extreme tunnel vision regarding search. We become convinced Google controls the fate of the Web, and are quick to think the sky is falling.

As SEOs we like to continually look to the future and question what we know. We’re constantly challenging one another. But this can be taken too far.

Will links continue to remain critical to search? Not according to some.

Which is why it’s so important to understand the value of a link – not just for search, but for the Web as a whole.

When you look at the Web from a search-only perspective, which is entirely too tempting as an SEO, you actually blind yourself to the Web as it is, and the value of links.

Links aren’t valuable because Google’s made them so; links are valuable in and of themselves. In fact, the reverse argument is more correct – Google’s valuable because is realized the value of links.

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