We all know that Google loves backlinks (when another website includes hyperlinks to yours). Ask a dozen search engine optimization experts what the best way to skyrocket your Google rankings is, and many will probably say “backlinks.”
That means backlinks are the best thing ever, yeah? You’d be crazy not to make them your main focus of an SEO strategy, right? Wrong.
If backlinks were the holy grail, many websites with few or even no backlinks wouldn’t be shining at the top of search engine results like they are.
Can backlinks improve your search rankings? Yes.
Are they all that’s needed? No.
The History Of Backlinks
In 1996, Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google developed the idea of PageRank, a hierarchical algorithm created to determine a website’s authority based on how many other websites link to it. Links acted as a vote in the search engine popularity contest in favor of the website that was being linked to. Websites with a higher number of links were regarded as more reputable and therefore experienced a boost in search engine rankings.
PageRank was one of the key factors that helped Google deliver better results, leading to its dominance over other search engines despite being the new kid on the block at the time. The PageRank algorithm rated websites from 0-10, referred to as PR score. But bad SEO companies started abusing this opportunity by automating spammy links to improve rankings, causing the search giant to change its algorithm. This led the wild west days of SEO to come crashing down in 2012 when Google confronted aggressive link builders by releasing its Penguin algorithm update.
The Impact Of Google’s Penguin Algorithm
With Penguin, Google shifted the focus from backlink quantity to quality. And just like that, the SEO game changed for everyone. Sites with low-quality links lost massive amounts of traffic, whereas those with more authoritative links, even if that meant lower quantities, experienced a drastic improvement in their search engine visibility.
However, Backlinks Aren’t Everything
Backlinks can have a positive impact, but they’re not the only answer. After all, what good are backlinks unless they point to legitimate content? With Google regularly updating its search engine algorithms, the company has made it necessary for website owners and online businesses to publish content that focuses on search intent — and content that actually solves searchers’ problems and isn’t just SEO fluff.
Backlinks won’t do much if you don’t have a strong foundation to begin with. Quality content that satisfies a searcher’s need can have an equal or greater impact on your search engine rankings than backlinks upon backlinks upon backlinks.
Content aside, Google also looks at the relevancy of backlinks. This means getting a pet food website to link to your financial website will not do you any favors. How do you know if you “need” a lot of backlinks then? Look at the average number of links your competitors have.
Suppose you’re in a hypercompetitive industry like tech or real estate, and most of your competitors’ websites have thousands of backlinks. That’s a big gap to close. You’re going to need a respectable number of high-quality links to show up anywhere worthwhile in Google search results. But if you’re in a niche industry with a localized target market, you probably won’t need many backlinks, if any at all.
Either way, you don’t need to crush your competition and outpace them with your link count. You can offset some of their links by having a quicker loading, more intuitive website that’s full of good, unique content.
Backlinks are like doing taxes. Everyone wants a bigger tax refund. By being aggressive on your taxes, you just may be able to get some extra cash in your pocket. The same goes for links. Getting aggressive might bring you some short-term wins. But if you’re too aggressive, you can raise red flags and get penalized — both with taxes and backlinks.
Originally published by Damon Burton Forbes, September 24, 2021.