Why earning links is still key to SEO success

08 July 2015

Link building has got a bad reputation which as a search engine marketing agency we care about greatly. Years of questionable link-building tactics, in a bid to cheat the system, have made many website owners wary of doing anything that could be considered to be deliberately procuring links, while the Google Penguin algorithm updates have penalised those whose backlink profiles are ‘unnatural’.

But the truth is that backlinks are still vital for SEO. It’s the kind of backlinks and the way they are attained that makes the difference.

Backlinks to avoid

If you are still engaging in sourcing the following kinds of backlinks, it’s time to stop. Now:

  • Mass, automated blog comment spam
  • Mass, automated forum profile creation
  • Mass, automated article directory marketing
  • Paid backlinks that aren’t ‘no-follow’
  • Secret blog networks that exist purely to link to other blogs
  • Poor-quality guest blogging, purely for backlinks
  • Links from websites that are unrelated to your niche.

Backlinks do matter, though

Moz carried out detailed research into ranking factors, looking specifically at backlink profiles. They looked at the top 50 Google search results for 15,000 keywords.

What they found was fascinating and persuasive: external links certainly still matter.

99.2% of the websites they looked at in the top 50 search results had at least one external link pointing to the site, while 77.8% had external links pointing to the specific page that ranked.

As Cyrus Shepard says, “In other words, if you're looking for a site that ranks well with no external links, be prepared to look for a very long time.”

What does it all mean?

Moz came up with four conclusions about the research they carried out into Google ranking factors:

1. “External links are almost always present for competitive searches”

Moz found that very, very few ranking websites had no backlinks at all. This means that earning good-quality backlinks remains essential if you want your website to show up in the search results.

2. “It’s possible to rank individual pages without links”

Some of the ranking webpages that Moz studied had backlinks to the website in general, but not to the specific page that ranked. This was especially the case with huge websites like the New York Times, where new news stories would rank in Google immediately, before they had the chance to earn backlinks.

Essentially, the Moz study showed that having backlinks to a website can help individual pages on that site to rank, even if those pages don’t have external backlinks pointing to them (although they tend to perform better when external backlinks are present).

3. “More links correlate with higher rankings”

In Moz’s study, the sites with the highest number of external backlinks performed better than those with the lowest number.

4.“When can you rank without links?”

There were very few websites in the Moz study that ranked without backlinks but, in the cases where this did take place, it was when the keywords they ranked for had very low competition.