Is the End Nigh for Backlinks?

As most webmasters will be aware, growing your backlink profile is a sure fire way of gaining a top spot in Google, or is it?

With a recent experiment announced by Matt Cutts back in February in a video answer to a consumer query, he described an internal experiment that Google had done to see what their search results look like when they disable the effect of backlinks ranking and ordering sites in Google search results.

In this video he openly admitted that “for now” the results that they could see, with backlink attribution disabled, were not very good at all i.e. more spam dominated the search results than useful links to sites.

Being somewhat of a cross between a conspiracy nut and someone who always chases the “Sudden Clarity Clarence” moment, this was pure gold, here are some of my initial thoughts on what this meant and what insights this could possibly provide.

Algorithms responsible for checking on-site optimisation are just not that good, yet!

So it would seem, in a “between the lines” kind of way, that by Matt Cutts’s own admission the results returned when factoring out backlinks from Googles search algorithms were full of spam. So what exactly does this mean? I would hazard a guess that the algorithms responsible for reading and understanding on-site optimisation are not as good as Google would have us believe.

Google do not often offer any advice in terms of what makes a site rank higher or what makes a site more competitive in the SERPS, but one thing that they do champion quite often is the mantra of “make your site the best possible experience for your users” and “help us understand what your site is about”. Here are a few of the things that, if I were to take an educated guess at, would be the kind of things that Google are talking about in these statements.

  • Content: They want webmasters to focus on creating great content that will educate, entertain or in someway keep your user engaged in your site.
  • Schema Markup: Where at all possible use the available schema.org markup in order to help search engines better understand and categorise your content.
  • Keywords: Use relevant keywords within your site and its content to help users quickly identify that the content they have found relates to the search term they have found you through. But do not over-do it for the search engines sake.
  • Code Optimisation: Streamline and optimise your pages code to create a faster loading experience for your users and keep it free of errors for best compatibility.
  • Navigation: Make your site easy, for both users and search engines, to navigate with clearly labelled and obvious navigation points.

So with this lets make an assumption that the most of the “better” (non spam) sites out there will have great content written by top-notch copywriters with high-level professional developers behind the code of the site and a great SEO team making sure that the site is firmly with Googles Webmaster Guidelines and obviously not using any shady black-hat tactics like keyword stuffing, content written for search engines etc etc, you get the idea.

So why is it, with the backlinks factored out, that the results that showed up in Googles experiment were full of spam sites? Surely without backlinks factored in the algorithms would be weighting on-site factors much much higher. Does this go to mean that in reality Googles algorithms are not that great at reading on-site factors, even though they want us to put more focus on our sites content and structure?

Does it go to say that the little furry animals Google have released to combat web spam are far more focused on classifying backlinks than actually weeding out on-site spam?

I would say that this is a sign that the 2014-2015 season for Google will become far more focused on on-site factors as this is obviously an area that is very weak for Google right now, in fact since this experiment the algorithm changes have really fired up ( check out http://algoroo.com and see for yourself ).

I for one, feel that if Google were to really ramp up its detection of on-site spam and rewarding those that actually follow Googles advice, that alone would return results that would create a far better experience for all users.

Is this the beginning of the end for backlinks?

Although this experiment does not mean that Google will drop backlink factors any time soon it does show that they are looking for other ways to rank sites, as in my humble opinion, the whole backlink scene is disgustingly polluted and with Google freaking everyone out regarding backlinks, gaining an actual genuine recommendation in the form of a backlink is next to impossible these days.

To try and understand where they might be taking this we have to look at why backlinks were so important in days gone by.

Before Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus to name but a very few in a new multiverse of social networks, there were forums, blogs and personal review sites that Google would scour with vigour each and every day for mentions of new sites (after all this is where people had a chance to recommend sites to one another) and thus attributing sites with the most backlinks from these sites with a higher ranking status. But times are changing and links from forums and blogs are treated as “guilty until proven innocent” so carry very little weight and personal review sites are usually seen as spam satellites or have so little value that you would need a billion of them to move the needle on your site (however having too many links from these kind of sites would probably get you penalised).

So where does that leave you? Well there are still sites that receiving a genuine editorial backlink would be fantastic, sites that are regarded as trusted news sources have to be the some of the best out there today, a backlink in an article on the Guardians website would provide you with some excellent love from Google or similarly a backlink from a blog with outstanding reputation such as Moz Blog or Gizmodo would equally get you some of that same love. But these are usually very hard to get for the average webmaster and happen so infrequently that Google needs to see some “general” chatter about your site in order to ascertain how popular your site is (besides traffic monitoring and search bounce back rates), so in steps the new world of social networks, these are the new forums and blogs that Google are souring with every increasing vigour to see how popular a site is, although they are struggling to keep up with the realtime world of the likes of twitter etc.

Now this is not new information and has recently been the focus of attack by Black-Hat SEO’s creating networks of fake profiles in order to create fake buzz around a website, however we are in a bit of luck as it is very easy to spot a thousand fake profiles on any given social network compared to a genuine user with a genuine recommendation. Unfortunately as with the last discovery, Google is not all that good at reading on-site factors and with Social Networks evolving almost daily at the moment it is almost impossible to monitor social networks in the same way it used to be able to monitor old style forums etc.

This is where we come full circle and go back to those amazing editorial “earned” links from top blogs and news sites and this is where your great content comes into play, giving them something to talk about.

Wrap it up!

Ok so to wrap this up, No back linking is not dead, however as soon as Google have sorted out their algorithms to better read and understand a sites pages, we can potentially expect to see the effect of backlinks have a much smaller impact on rankings both positively and negatively.

High ranking backlinks will NEVER die, a link from a BBC news article will always be worth its weight in gold similarly an editorial link from a highly trusted blog will always be a sign to Google that your site is worth a visit but expect deeper sentiment tracking ( understanding if you are being spoken about positively or negatively in an editorial way ) but the criteria for a “trusted” site will be narrowed so gaining these kind of links will become harder to get but worth tens times their current weight.

Social media is where it will be at, social media users talking about your brand or site will potentially have the biggest impact on your rankings in the near future but as a reflection on modern life we can expect these ranking to disappear as quick as they came as is the case with fads on social networks, lets hope that you get mentioned enough on social networks to earn a few links from trusted sites before they move on to the next fad, this will secure you your spot ;-)

Hey if you enjoyed my ramblings leave a comment would love to get some other opinions and as always if this post interested you, you will probably know others that this will also interest so don’t be shy, share it :-)

psst for another great article on backlinks check out Rand Fishkins WBF on backlinks below.
http://moz.com/blog/are-links-losing-value-in-googles-algorithm-whiteboard-friday

 

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  • http://www.wearewonderlabs.com/blog/author/joe Joe Sturgess

    Great little find on the video front el Capitan, and a superb little breakdown of the current backlinking climate.

    As you well know, we have discussed this on so many occasions and essentially back-linking is dead, but only in it’s archaic form. Natural back-linking, whether through social signals or genuinely helpful links are what it has evolved into (and about time too) but I doubt any agency is brave enough to take the step of not building ANY backlinks of some form. Great post, and look forward to the next.

  • http://twitter.com/geugeniocontent Gene Eugenio

    This was the statement I was referring to in my earlier response to Joe. Backlinks, as a signal, aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. However, HOW THEY ARE MADE is what’s at issue right now (see MBG guest post issue). You’re right, Joe. Natural links aren’t dead. Natural means ‘earned’ or ‘drawn’ links due to high quality, CREDIBLE, content. Problem is, Google’s getting tighter and tighter regarding the definition of such content.

    • Kirk Fletcher

      Hi Gene, You are absolutely correct! “How they are made” is certainly an issue at the moment, with, from what I can see, two factions arising, those who are avoiding getting any links and those who are building links like crazy everywhere and anywhere in the hope they get “a good one”. Having great content will ‘earn’ you links as long as you make your work public, via social media for example, or until your site become popular enough to have people reading you content regularly. Again you are right in the fact that the definition of CREDIBLE content is somewhat of a moving goalpost at the moment, with Google making some strange decisions in regard to what you can write and link to see: https://twitter.com/mattcutts/status/447992375160225792

      • http://twitter.com/geugeniocontent Gene Eugenio

        This goes back to an interesting definition of ‘blackhat.’ What is ‘blackhat’? Something that was whitehat a few years ago. The reality is that Google moves goal posts. Since it controls much of the search volume out there, we have to play by its rules. It likes to pretend it is moving the goal posts in the right direction but… I am sure there is no shortage of people who beg to differ.

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