You have been told by a lot of SEO gurus that link building is the most effective method to increase search result rankings, and that it is (should be) a crucial part of your SEO strategy. They effectively say that you have no chance to rank without active link building. And you want to rank, badly…
On the other hand, you can easily find webpages on Page 1 of the search results that have minimal or no backlinks. So, what’s the truth? Which one is effective? What should a beginner do: build links, or build content? Or both?
Does link building still work in 2019?
In this post I will outline why the old-style link building is dying, and what you can do instead.
Although building links can make your page look more ‘valuable’ than it is and you may rank better for a while, but Google has become smarter over the years. If user engagement and behaviors don’t match the backlink profile, your site won’t rank well, or it will lose its position over time.
But why is that? What has changed, why isn’t link building the ultimate solution for every beginner?
What does Google say about backlinks?
The whole point of link building is to influence rankings, right? Well, according to Google, you should not fabricate links pointing to your website, as it violates their Webmaster Guidelines.
“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”
It basically means that there is no ‘white hat link building’. Anything, that YOU initiate, may be deemed as an attempt to manipulate ranking.
And it’s a big no-no.
It does not say, however, that you should not allow backlinks to your site. Quite the contrary…But why is that? Are backlinks a ranking factor or not?
Do Backlinks Still Matter?
Google’s primary focus is on user experience.
The best way to provide a great user experience is by creating relevant, high quality, helpful, valuable content. This has been quite obvious for the last decade, but the algorithms that Google used were not sophisticated enough to understand the content. They used indirect methods to measure ‘relevance’ and ‘helpfulness’. (Well, they still do, to some extent.)
The back-link profile was one of those indirect measures. If there were lots of links pointing to your site, then it must have been great, right?
Let’s go back to the source, and see what Google suggests.
“The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.”
Google is crystal clear on this: they want unique, relevant content and natural backlinks.
So, do backlinks still matter?
Probably yes, if they are natural, but there are 200 other factors that Google measures, and there are human content checkers as well who don’t give a dime about your backlink profile.
Do backlinks affect your ranking?
I can’t say no, quality links pointing to your website are still an important ranking factor.
The Chicken or the Egg Problem of Linkbuilding & Ranking
It is also often said, that no page can rank for decent keywords without backlinks. But I am not so sure anymore. Let’s assume that we see the best articles on the topic for that specific keyword on the search results page.
But if you had the most backlinks, you should be ranking number 1, right? It should mean that you have the most helpful page on that topic?
So, what everyone seems to agree on, and that is what’s been told by the experts of this area is ‘The more backlinks a page gets, the better it will rank in search engines’
But WHAT IF its the other way around?
What if, the more useful the content is, the more backlinks the page gets? And the better the content is, the higher it will rank in search engines?
I ran a quick search on a random search phrase, ‘quiet generators for camping’ and I had a look at the number of backlinks (I used Jaaxy Lite. It comes really handy sometimes)
The page that has won the snippet has a whopping number of 41,300 backlinks. Impressive. It is basically a list of products with Amazon links.
The website in the 1st position (number 2 in Jaaxy’s Search Analysis) has no backlinks. Nil. Hmm…
The 2nd position is the same site that has won the snippet.
The 3rd position is Amazon, with 20,000 backlinks.
The number of the backlinks for the rest of the search results page are 656, 3440, 1640, and 0 again.
So what’s going on? I can’t see a clear pattern here…The number of backlinks don’t seem to have much relevance in the search engine rankings.
(Just as a sidenote, the 41,300 backlinks to an Amazon Affiliate site does not strike me as ‘natural’. I wonder which Google algorithm update will send that site to the big black hole of forgotten websites. But anyways…)
Is ACTIVE Link Building Relevant in 2019?
One of the biggest, most famous online gurus (who shall remain anonymous in this example as advised by my lawyer) suggested that you should reach out and seek backlinks to your page by various methods such as guest posting, self-promoting etc.
That yYou should send out 100 emails to people who linked to your competitor’s post on the same topic, and you say to them that yours is better. And hope that some of them will replace the link so that it would point to YOUR site, or mention you in their post with a link. Apologies for the paraphrasing.
It may result in backlinks that look ‘natural’, but to me, it still feels a bit like you are trying to trick the algorithm into thinking that your site is more interesting than it actually is.
And it only works, if you content IS BETTER than the one that currently ranks number 1 on the search result page. So, if you have written the most amazing piece of content in a certain topic, that is better than anyone else in the whole worlds has ever created, you next step should be knocking on doors and begging for attention?
Let’s see another example and search ‘Affiliate Marketing’. I know it’s a bit broad, but I was curious to see whose content on affiliate marketing Google deems the most relevant. I was quite surprised.
Position #1 is Neil Patel’s ‘what is affiliate marketing’ post. It has a modest number of 19 backlinks.
The snippet, and Position #2 is Wikipedia, with 94,300 backlinks. (Since we are talking about Wikipedia, I can easily believe that all of them are genuine backlinks).
Position #3 by Shopify is not strictly on the topic, but as the search term was quite broad, I can imagine that Google tried to offer me different directions, different slices of the niche. They have 263 backlinks.
Position #4 is about Affiliate Networks…again, fair enough, I could have been more specific. 1 backlink by the way.
Then it’s a big boy again, more than 20,000 backlinks; followed by a number of authority sites and smaller niche websites. The number of backlinks in the order of rankings are: 47, 5, 2890 (Forbes) and 9 in the last position of the first page.
Again, I can’t really see any emerging pattern. Neil Patel easily outranked a 8,000-word long Wikipedia article with 94,300 backlinks by a 6,000-word long post and 19 backlinks.
I do wonder if Neil Patel really sent those emails out to anyone who had linked to the ‘Affiliate Marketing’ article on Wikipedia, asking them to link to his website instead…
What Link Building Strategy Can Succeed?
Let’s go back (again) to what Google is after: it is USER EXPERIENCE. It is UNIQUE CONTENT. So, what is that piece of content that has valuable information, yet no-one else has it?
- It can be great content.
- How-to articles
- Data that you have gathered.
- Process flowcharts.
These are the best types posts to earn you natural backlinks.
You must put in the work though, to collect that data, to do the research, to analyse it and then present it in the right format. But if it is truly unique, Google will find your page and you will rank easily, without any backlinks.
Those will come naturally, cause others won’t be putting in the work to research and present the data you already have, why would they do so? It is much easier to just link to your site!
Just as an example, look at this site! They have made a simple comparison chart of ‘everyday’ appliances that you’d use when camping, and told you how much electricity they use. They also put a basic calculator on the page that tells you, how big a generator you need to supply power for your gadgets!
It has earned them 3,440 backlinks!
You must also make sure that you present it in a way that your readers can digest the information. Infographics, flowcharts, tables are the easiest way to display the otherwise boring data in an exciting fashion.
Infographics and process flowcharts are very share-able too, you can easily share them on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.
Active link building is yesterday’s SEO. Pro-actively reaching out to other bloggers for link building does not work, it is not effective. You could gain much more if you created more content – more fish in the water – rather then spending hours and hours begging for backlinks. Especially as a beginner, your primary focus should not be anything but publishing quality content on a regular basis. All the noise, the distraction will do one thing: hold you back.
What do you think? Do you have success with building links? How much time you spend on average on reaching out to other bloggers? What difference has it made in your rankings?