Backlinks have long been considered a crucial factor in determining a website’s ranking on search.
Historically seen as a vote of confidence, plenty of backlinks pointing to a website indicated that it is a trusted and authoritative source of information. And so, the more backlinks a site had, the higher it was likely to rank on search results.
However, in recent years, search engines shifted how the value of backlinks was evaluated. Google, in particular, with its sophisticated algorithms, now places less emphasis on the number of backlinks a website has – and more on the quality of those links.
Let’s look at the changes surrounding backlinks over the years and why you should still care about them today – albeit to a lesser extent.
Backlinks: A history of manipulation
As a crucial factor in search engine optimization (SEO) since the early days of the web, backlinks have also been subject to abuse. Some website owners and SEO practitioners use unethical tactics to acquire backlinks in an effort to boost their rankings.
This abuse of backlinks, known as backlink spamming, has a long history on the internet and has even resulted in Google taking actions to prevent these schemes, such as the Penguin algorithm update.
One of the earliest forms of backlink spamming was the practice of link farming, in which groups of websites would link to each other in an effort to boost their backlink counts. These link farms would often consist of low-quality, irrelevant websites. Because of this, the links were not valuable to users or search engines.
Another common tactic was the use of automated link building tools that generated large numbers of low-quality backlinks from irrelevant websites. This practice not only provided little value to users but also made it difficult for search engines to accurately evaluate the quality and relevance of backlinks.
As search engines have developed, they have implemented measures to combat backlink spamming and other unethical SEO tactics. This includes the use of:
- Algorithms that can identify and penalize websites that engage in backlink spamming.
- AI and machine learning to more accurately evaluate the quality and relevance of backlinks.
Despite these efforts, backlink spamming continues to be a problem on the web.
But, as search engines become even more advanced, this abuse will likely become less effective, making it unappealing to those seeking an unfair advantage in SEO.
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The state of backlinks today
The majority of SEOs today believe backlinks are not nearly as effective as they were in the past, a recent poll by Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Roundtable revealed.
Search engines use complex algorithms to evaluate the relevance and trustworthiness of backlinks. They take into account factors such as:
- The relevance of the linking website.
- The relevance of the anchor text used in the link.
- The overall authority of the linking domain.
This means that simply having a large number of backlinks is no longer enough to boost a website’s ranking. Instead, those links must be high-quality and come from reputable sources.
In addition, the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning in search engine algorithms has made it easier to identify and penalize low-quality backlinks, particularly those obtained through link building schemes or other unethical means.
This has further decreased the overall value of backlinks in SEO. Using spammy link tactics will damage a website’s ranking instead of boosting it.
While backlinks still play a role in SEO, their importance has decreased in recent years. Search engines have become more sophisticated in the way they evaluate them.
Rather than focusing solely on acquiring as many backlinks as possible, it is now more important for website owners to focus on creating high-quality, relevant content that will likely earn natural, organic backlinks from reputable sources.
This will not only improve a website’s ranking on SERPs but also provide value to its users and build trust with search engines.
Google’s own Duy Nguyen, from the Search Quality team, indicated that backlink significance has fallen significantly in recent years. As the search landscape continues to evolve, the importance of backlinks in determining a website’s ranking on search results has decreased.
That said, while backlinks are not the be-all, end-all of SEO, they still play a role in improving a website’s visibility on search.
To maximize the benefits of backlinks and avoid being penalized by search engines, it is important for website owners to follow best practices.
Backlinks in SEO: Best practices for today and beyond
First and foremost, it is important to focus on creating high-quality, relevant content that is helpful and valuable to users.
The natural, and ideal, outcome is that other websites will want to link to your content, resulting in organically earned backlinks.
In addition, steer clear of link building schemes. They may provide a short-term boost, but will not last. Search engines will detect and penalize websites engaging in such tactics, which are never worthwhile.
Instead of spammy tactics, focus on building relationships with other websites and industry experts to earn natural, high-quality backlinks. This can be done through:
- Guest blogging. Just remember the purpose of guest blogging isn’t solely for SEO to gain links as Google has spoken out against that for years and has advised nofollowing such links.
- Participating in online discussions and forums. Again, you need to avoid being spammy here. Don’t blast out links everywhere with keyword-optimized anchor text in the hopes that it will help because it most likely won’t – and this could even hurt you.
- Sharing useful information and resources. Publish more helpful content.
Regularly monitor your backlink profile to ensure the quality and reputation of websites linking to you. This activity also helps you spot spammy inbound links that might be a part of a negative SEO campaign attack from malicious competitors.
Using tools such as Google Search Console, Semrush and Ahrefs, you’ll gain insights into the websites linking to your content and the anchor text they are using.
Earning natural, high-quality backlinks still matters
Overall, while the importance of backlinks in SEO has decreased, and according to Google, will continue to decrease, they still play a role in improving a website’s ranking.
By following best practices and focusing on creating helpful content that will likely earn natural, high-quality backlinks, website owners can improve their visibility in search results and provide value to their users.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.
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