The last 12 months radically changed many aspects of our lives, including the way we do business.
Thanks to global lockdowns and the need for social distancing, the only way for many businesses to continue operating was to digitise their operations. As a result, in most industries, there were suddenly hundreds of new players fighting for the attention of potential customers.
As a result, marketers, and business owners with little experience of online marketing, have found themselves looking for ways to stand apart from the noise and attract the attention of their ideal customers.
While those with handsome advertising budgets have the privilege of enjoying somewhat instant results, others, who don't have such budgets, will have to depend on organic digital marketing strategies such as search engine optimisation.
If you have paid for SEO services in the past, or have dabbled with it yourself, you may already know that the rules of search engine optimisation are subject to change.
In simple terms, search engine optimisation, is the practice of optimising your website to appear at the top of the search results for terms that are relevant to your business. So naturally, when the search engine's (like Google's) algorithms are updated, the SEO strategies that work also change.
While keeping up with these changes is certainly critical to ensuring SEO success, many lose sight of the basics that have been important for a long while.
Why did search engines place importance on backlinks?
Back in 1999, Google described themselves as a "pure" search engine that featured "no weather, no news feed, no links to sponsors, no ads, no distractions, no portal litter".
While the latter part of the above statement may have changed over the preceding decades, Google and its representatives still claim that their algorithm updates all have the same purpose - to offer their users a simple and helpful experience.
To that end, Google introduced the PageRank system back in 1998. With this, Google hoped to better classify websites and ensure only authentic and genuinely helpful websites would attain high rankings in their search results.
The PageRank system introduced backlinks as a sort of a vote. If, for instance, website A is linking to website B, Google would register it as a "vote" in favour of website B from website A. The websites that had a higher number of votes would rank higher.
Soon after this update, many website owners found a loop in the PageRank system. The web started becoming populated with websites that did nothing but provide links to other websites. Anyone who was willing to spend enough money on these practices could afford to place their business website at the top of the search results. This practice came to be known as link spam.
Thanks to link spam, websites that were completely irrelevant for certain search terms would end up at the top of the SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages) for those search terms.
While many algorithms were rolled out to combat link spam practices, the one that truly made a difference came in January 2014. The update was called Penguin 4 and it devalued link spam practices.
With all this in mind, the question remains, do backlinks still hold any importance?
Are backlinks still relevant to SEO?
The simple answer is, "yes". However, that does not do justice to the importance of backlinks in result-driven SEO. To understand that we need to learn a bit more about how SEO works.
Broadly, search engine optimisation is divided into two parts:
On-page SEO: On-page SEO is optimising the elements of your website to improve the likeliness of it appearing on the top of the search results for relevant search terms. These elements include the content on the website, the images, the keywords used in the website content, and other technical aspects like the schema mark up.
As you may have guessed, these are all elements that fall directly under the control of the webmaster or website owner. As a result, more often than not, website owners are able to get them right.
This means, there are thousands of websites (if not more) that have all perfected their on-page SEO. So how does a search engine decide which website is better than the other?
This is where the off-page SEO factors become relevant.
Off-page SEO: As the name suggests, these are SEO tasks that take place away from your website. That's why, many aspects of off-page SEO are not under a website owners' direct control.
As you may have guessed, backlinking is an off-page SEO ranking factor. However, before we get into those, let's look at what the other things are that have an influence over off-page SEO.
Besides backlinks, there are four well-known factors that have an influence over the rankings of websites in the SERPs. These are:
- NAP citations: NAP is short for name, address, and phone number. NAP citations are mentions of your business that also include its name, address, and phone number. NAP citations, when the NAP information is consistent across different websites and listing platforms, can have an incredibly positive effect on your website's SEO performance, especially for local businesses.
- Google My Business Listing: Simply having a Google My Business listing is not nearly enough. Google wants businesses to update and optimise their My Business listings with complete and honest information. As a reward, businesses with optimised listings appear higher in the Google My Business section (also known as Google's "snack pack" results) and the likelihood of a website climbing the SERP ladder increases.
- Brand mentions: Brand mentions, as the name suggests, are instances where your brand has been mentioned on a different website. More positive brand mentions improve the legitimacy of your business in the eyes of the search engine. Both linked and unlinked brand mentions hold significance in the eyes of search engine algorithms. However, most brands prefer building linked mentions since they have more potential to send referral traffic to their websites.
- Reviews: According to Moz, review signals are one of the top five most significant ranking factors that help Google determine their SERP rankings. Websites and brands with positive reviews on Google My Business and other trustworthy websites such as Yelp are placed higher in Google's snack pack results, as well as in the organic results.
Now you understand the difference between on-page SEO and off-page SEO, let's look at how links fit in.
You may have noticed that just like the elements of on-page SEO, the off-page SEO elements can also be influenced by website owners to an extent. In fact, with the right budget, effort, and strategy, website owners can effectively control every off-page SEO ranking signal except customer reviews and backlinks.
Naturally built backlinks are still the most unbiased ranking factor
Backlinks have existed for a long time now, and their significance as a ranking factor has never exactly been a secret. As a result, there was a time when "link schemes" were being employed by website owners to gather as many backlinks as they could to boost their ranking on the first page of the SERPs.
These practices, however, did not last long and the Penguin algorithm meant these black-hat link building practices lost their effectiveness. In fact, many websites were penalised for employing these practices.
Google has clearly defined link schemes, with examples, on this page.
The only thing that has changed about linking building over time is that it has become more challenging but fairer.
These days, brands must collect relevant, natural backlinks from high authority websites. Backlinks are only good when they are relevant and natural. Natural links are those that you had no control over.
The most effective (and the most difficult) way to build natural links is by creating original and high quality content. Ideally, you want to create content that offers so much value that others are compelled to link to it to make their own content more credible or more entertaining.
Another way to build quality links is to send out press releases and convince reputed publishing houses to publish your press release with a link. However, smaller brands have to compete for a journalist's attention with emails from well-known business giants. Remember, most journalists working for reputed publishing houses get hundreds of such requests every day.
Link building is still an import aspect of SEO. Whilst the latest SEO optimisation techniques include a number of other ranking factors, link building is still one of the top three ranking factors in terms of influence over rankings.
Copyright 2021. Article was made possible by site supporter Suzanne Elly, blogger, content marketer and editor with in-depth experience in a diverse range of industries writing on business and marketing topics in Asia, North America and Europe.