From outside, it certainly looks like Google's algorithm updates killed backlinks. With hundreds of websites penalized because of 'unnatural' links and unnatural link activity, many online marketers are left wondering if backlinks are still significant in SEO, or f they now do nothing but harm rankings.
Before the recent Google updates, website rankings were determined by three main things: (1) the quality of content, (2) a keyword-optimized domain name, and (3) the number of backlinks a website has. The latter was the most important factor—which meant that the more links pointing back to your site, the higher your placement in the SERP. But as Google discovered how easily backlinks can be manipulated (and exploited), the leading search engine just had to do something to keep their search results reliable and not riddled with high-ranking websites offering nothing but spammy content.
The question remains, do free backlinks still matter in SEO?
There are many arguments about the usefulness of backlinks in today's SEO climate. The simple answer is this:
Backlinks are like double-edged swords.
They can either help or harm your site, depending on (2) the way you acquire them and (2) their quality. Getting free, natural backlinks from trustworthy linking partners is still the best way to establish linking relationships. Subscribing to unnatural practices, on the other hand, will push your website rankings down.
Google's Matt Cutts sheds more light on the importance of backlinks. Here are some of the highlights from his recent interview:
Contrary to the rumors spreading around the SEO-sphere that "linking is dead," links actually remain to be the best way to determine a website's ranking, according to Cutts. He said that links are still the best means of discovering how relevant someone is online. He continues on to add "Maybe, over time, social, authorship or other types of markup will give us a lot more information about that."
Cutts also clarified that link building is not bad, as long as the website is actually link worthy. Google always believed that if you write or make something that is compelling (and relevant), then it is much easier for people to talk about it and/or link to it. While 'build it and they will come' seems farfetched for websites these days, there is still truth in the phrase, especially if you create something that is inviting enough for people to want to experience it. The secret is creating a fantastic website that people can grow to love and share with their friends. Ergo, quality, free backlinks.
In the same interview, Cutts advised listeners not to use press releases for link building as most links from these kinds of publications don't count in the ranking algorithm. However, if an editor publishes an article that is based on the same press release, then that particular link will count.
Cutts also warned about guest posts, which he said, can be problematic. He said that if webmasters will simply substitute guest blogging for article directories, banks or article marketing without raising the threshold for quality of the content, then these posts can cause more harm than good (in terms of credibility and content quality) for websites.
- Finally, Cutts recommended that webmasters plan their content syndication and make certain that their own website is the original source of the content before syndicating it to other platforms. Otherwise, it will be a wasted link opportunity, or worse, it will be credited to another site.
Clearly, backlinking is still the best way to help Google find your site and content. If you are still not convinced, here are more insights about the value of free:
Quantity is nothing if all links come from the same referring domain. Instead of looking solely at the number of links a website has, turn your attention to the number of referring domains, which is a far more accurate number to determine the popularity of a site. This is a more efficient way of looking and understanding a link profile. 1,000 raw links from a single referring domain counts as one, popularity-wise.
Google PR can be misleading as they intentionally randomize ratings so that webmasters will have a harder time reverse engineering page quality, thus keeping the game fair.
- Remember that your link profile consists of two things—live and lost links. Don't be misled by outdated link data and find a way to crawl links on demand so you always have fresh data on hand.
Backlinking is still very much alive and it remains one of the most important components of search engine optimization, at least in Google's eyes. If you need help establishing strong, relevant and free backlinks, check out FreeRelevantLinks.com.