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This article was published on April 19, 2016

The advice that backlinks don’t matter for SEO is BS

The advice that backlinks don’t matter for SEO is BS
Matthew Capala
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Matthew Capala

Matthew Capala is the Founder and Managing Director at Alphametic, an SEO agency, entrepreneur, publisher of Search Decoder, speaker, author Matthew Capala is the Founder and Managing Director at Alphametic, an SEO agency, entrepreneur, publisher of Search Decoder, speaker, author of bestselling "SEO Like I'm 5" and formerly NYU Professor.

The term “link juice” delivers over seven million results on Google, many of them linking to sites with outdated and often negative information about it. The term’s bad reputation comes from its association with the worlds of Black Hat SEO, spam, and unethical link-building. Some have even claimed that in the age of Facebook and Twitter, the value of links – and link juice itself – have been deprecated.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Backlinks – the core of Google’s Page Rank system – are very much alive, according to a new study of one million search results from Brian Dean at Backlinko.

“We found the number of domains linking to a page correlated with rankings more than any other factor,” wrote Brian Dean. The data also showed that “a site’s overall link authority (as measured by Ahrefs Domain Rating) strongly correlates with higher rankings.”

Of course, backlinks aren’t the only factors correlating with front-page ranks on Google. Site speed, content authority, security, mobile-friendliness and other on-page factors also count.

But backlinks correlate more strongly with rankings than anything else.


Source: Backlinko

This may come as a surprise to many marketers and tech bloggers who have proclaimed the death of link building over the last couple of years.

And that’s to be expected – backlinks still the heart of Google’s Page Rank system – and their core importance hasn’t been diminished by the hundreds of algorithmic tweaks that Google has made over the years.

Backlink diversity is also key. “Google wants to see several different sites endorsing your page,” wrote Dean. “The more domains that link to you, the more endorsements you have in the eyes of Google.”

Backlinko’s analysis of Google’s million search results is consistent with Moz’s Search Engine Factors survey study of 150 leading search marketing experts who all agreed that domain-level ranking factors (backlinks, authority, Page Rank, citations, etc.) are the number one most influential SEO signal.

Backlinks matter. A lot. The question is: how to get backlinks – and link juice – in 2016 (without getting slammed by Google’s recent algorithm changes).

Getting link juice in 2016

Getting the kind of high-authority editorial links that Google wants to see is more difficult today than ever. Content marketing has exploded since 2014, increasing competition for high-quality links. Google has also cracked down heavily on paid link schemes, making it impossible for SEOs to buy, trade, or barter their way into organic results pages. While some continue to use “Grey Hat” SEO tactics, which are getting risker and risker to pull off.


Photo credit: Orange on yellow via photopin (license)

Building a diverse portfolio of high-authority backlinks in 2016 takes a methodical approach that’s akin to the process used in a PR agency. The PR person must coordinate a multi-stage process with many moving parts (topics must be researched, articles must be pitched, drafted, reporters contacted, with the process repeated for each item). That’s why many PR agencies are adding SEO to their service offerings.

SEOs must be equally methodical in 2016. Blog articles must be written, scheduled, published, and promoted in a consistent fashion. Site owner link targets must be contacted with individually personalized communications.

None of this is easy to do. But the foundational principles behind earning ethical, white-hat link juice to a website haven’t changed much over the years. Brian Dean explains, “You will earn links based on the merit of your content, how it’s presented to the user, and your ability to get it in front of the right people. Today’s entrepreneurs must master the art of persuasion, user experience and content promotion to get more traffic, leads and customers.”

Getting link juice in 2016 means leveraging social media. Building a community receptive to your message will increase your chances of getting an endorsement that Google wants to see. Your link building targets can be contacted via social media and relationships can be nurtured. Social media links don’t directly convey link juice, but social media activity improves your odds of getting links. These secondary effects – over time – are very important.

Creating expert content is also a task SEOs must take on in 2016. The study found a strong ranking correlation with sites that produced long-form content thoroughly addressing a topic issue.

Sorry, but listicles and 300-word articles won’t cut it in 2016.

Google rewards subject mastery – not surface observations. If you want to rank at the top, you must produce well-researched, authoritative content on a regular basis.

Rich anchor links in 2016

The study found a strong correlation between the use of rich anchor links and search rank. This is interesting – and a bit confusing – because Google, in its Search Console Quality Guidelines, appears to ban them outright, prohibiting “links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites.”

But Google still analyzes anchor text and its crawlers still crawl anchor links. Anchor links have been baked into Google’s DNA from the beginning. The beauty of anchor text for Google is that it can sometimes reveal more information about the page linked to than the page itself. As long as Google finds them useful, they’ll continue to correlate with rank.

The question for SEOs in 2016 is “how much anchor linking is too much?” And there’s no clear answer to this question. There may be a threshold below which the use of rich anchor links doesn’t trip a Google spam flag. But this threshold is known only to Google.

Anchor links remain powerful. But they’re also dangerous. That’s why using rich anchor links as a continuing SEO tactic in 2016 may backfire given Google’s new expected Penguin updates, which target spam and bad quality links.

Err on a safe side by linking longer chunks of text that describe the content of the page you are linking to.

Other important ranking correlations

The study contains a number of other interesting correlations between on-site SEO tactics and strong rankings:

  • Focused content, above 1,700 words, that discusses a single issue in depth correlates very strongly with top rankings.
  • Short URLs correlate strongly with top rankings.
  • Low bounce rates correlate very strongly with top rankings.
  • Site speed correlates very strongly with top rankings (no surprise here given how much Google has been stressing site performance.
  • HTTPs correlates moderately with top rankings (but this could change as Google stresses security – especially for sites that capture user data).
  • Schema doesn’t correlate with top rankings (although the study author notes that Google’s John Meuller has indicated that Google may at some point in the future use Schema as a stronger ranking signal).

There’s a lot to digest in this fascinating study. You can read it in its entirety.