May 12, 2015 | Sarah Danks

Search engine optimization (SEO). It’s the holy grail for online marketers…

…and the bane of their existence. By definition SEO is “the process of getting traffic from the free/organic/natural search results on search engines.” 

While SEO focuses on great content, a big part of any search engine optimization strategy is — and has historically been — the acquisition of credible backlinks (also referred to as incoming, third-party, inbound, external links…whatever you wish to call them).

It might sound easy, but enriching your website’s link profile is anything but. It takes a lot of patience and even more time. Especially in today’s link-building — or, rather, link-earning — world.

In this Search Engine Watch article I found the perfect definition of how I feel about link building:

“Link building, done correctly, is hard work. Nobody likes it, but it pays off.” — Chuck Price

What’s the pay-off? The volume — and, more notably, the quality — of links pointing to a given web page impacts a site’s authority, which is something we SEOs like to measure. But, wait.

How’s having more links make you better? If you acquire one juicy link that should be enough, right? I mean, if you’re a writer you don’t get better just by purchasing more pencils.

But, that’s the way the cookie crumbles — online anyway:

The better your link profile, the higher your domain’s authority. The higher your domain’s authority, the more likely it is to perform well in the search engine results pages (SERPs).

And that makes any SEO smile.

The 2 types of inbound links

As search marketers we know we can influence the importance of web pages via incoming links. But, there are two ways in which to do so:

  1. Create a strong internal link structure within your site architecture, and
  2. Acquire credible third-party links.

Just the other day Neil Patel wrote a post on how to acquire links, and in it I found a nice gem of a quote:

“Links are still the currency of the web. Trusted links make up a significant portion of Google’s 200 ranking factors. One survey found that links (internal and external) primarily dictate where your web page is ranked.” — Neil Patel

Obviously, working on a strong internal structure (i.e., inter-linking pages within the site itself) is important — plus you have 100% control over this aspect of linking.

It’s well-known that topical, relevant links are the most important kinds of links — well, how much easier can it get than to interlink related content on your own website/blog?

A good internal linking strategy ensures that:

  • your visitors can easily find/access related content
  • you build a hierarchy of importance within your site
  • search engines can depict the relationship (and “status”) of your site’s internal pages

Since building a strong internal linking structure is done entirely in-house, it’s easy to check off the link strategy list.

And while internal links are clearly important, third-party incoming links are the bread-and-butter of the link world. However, accumulating credible backlinks is a never-ending endeavor (there’s an entire profession built around it, actually), but the benefits are well worth it.

3rd-party links are important because they:

  • give a “vote” of credibility from an outside source
  • lead web users to related content across domains
  • are an aspect of how your website performs in SERPs

It was a mere year ago that Neil wrote about good link profiles and threw out this comment:

“We don’t know for sure, but based on careful study, testing, and experience, I think it’s safe to say that a link profile accounts for the vast majority of a site’s ranking according to Google’s algorithm.” 

In days of yore it was easy for anyone to acquire external links — you could just buy a ton of directory listings, pay some overseas company to “get you lots of links,” guest post on someone else’s blog (and add your site’s link in for good measure), etc.

Oh, and all while using the same keyword-rich anchor text to cement your authority for a particular query.

Today’s world of link building is far different…

…in fact, many online marketers today think the importance of links is rapidly dwindling.

Links (still) help determine credibility

It used to be that Google used PageRank to determine a site’s probability to rank in the SERPs. We could see the PageRank toolbar right in our browsers and it was all the rage to check for each and every page we landed on: “What’s the PR of THIS page?

And, of course, the way PageRank is determined is by assessing the quality/quantity of links pointing to a web page.

But several years ago PageRank disappeared from browsers and Google’s no longer sharing that data (with the rest of us who don’t work there, anyway). Hence, there’s been a lot of talk about how it’s going away entirely.

And if PageRank is going away, it stands to reason (I guess) that the major determining factor — incoming links — is going with it. Or so some people think.

While this Wordstream blog post is a) from last year and b) is supposed to show the downhill slide of link value, I find it an excellent read and love some of the experts’ take on how link value is actually still vital:

Links are still the core of Google’s engine, and it’s hard to imagine that’s going to change overnight.” — Pete Meyers

“I don’t see Google as having great urgency to make some great overhaul of PageRank or their search results. I don’t think that link-based signals will lose all of their weight until there is a fundamentally different set of signals available that are not web-based.” — Eric Enge

“Considering links are how we move around on the web I cannot imagine a successful search engine that doesn’t take their importance into effect.”

Julie Joyce

“Links are essentially the currency of the web. I don’t think Google can change that at its core in the near future – especially since links are valuable outside of search engine rankings.” — Rae Hoffman

Although Rand just did a White Board Friday regarding links, and mentions in this WordStream post that he believes links have been losing value for many years, he goes on to state:

“(Links) provide a lot of context and value to search engines, and since the engines keep getting better at removing the influence of non-editorial links, the usefulness of link measurement will remain high.”

Rand Fishkin

And speaking of the Wizard of Moz, I can’t not delve into an important side effect of a good link profile: authority.

Good link profile = good authority

Domain authority is a Moz-specific metric that determines how well a given domain is likely to perform in Google’s search results. Moz states one of the main factors helping determine domain/page authority — which has taken over for PageRank (for search marketers) in this day and age, but is more sophisticated — is “link counts.”

At its core, authority asks the basic question: does the page in question have links pointing to it? More specifically, there are several elements within this metric that contribute to each page’s authoritative value:

  • Quantity of links
  • Quality of links
  • Types of links

Link Quantity:

Basically, if you’ve only got one third-party link coming to your website — even if it’s from a VERY credible source — odds are your site’s not going to come across as very important.

On the flip-side, if your website has too many links pointing to it from sites that seem spammy, or you acquired a huge amount of links in a short time…beware.

Link Quality:

The quality of incoming links determines your page’s quality (to an extent and among other things, obviously). If you’ve got a myriad of links across multiple sources, but the websites that’re linking to you aren’t very authoritative, then the “worth” they pass along to your site is minimal.

If, however, you’ve got highly respected websites linking to you, your website’s own value increases.

Types of Links:

This is probably the biggest factor in regards to importance of links. As Rand mentioned in a recent White Board Friday, just because you’ve got a robust link profile doesn’t necessarily mean those links are helping you. They’ve got to be the right kind of links in order to be helpful.

E.g., if a blog links out to your site in its sidebar (over and over again), that carries much less weight than an editorial link placed in the copy of a relevant blog post.

Links that help you the most are topical and relevant, and come from credible sources. I.e., if I finish this blog post and a friend with a gardening blog links to it (not as credible + not at all topical), that link will count for far less than if, say, Moz decided to link to it (a very credible source on the exact topic I’ve written about).

Of course, the odds of the latter happening are few and far between — so we circle back to the beginning: getting backlinks is HARD work. It’s not something that’s easily done, ergo when it happens it’s that much more of a sweet victory.

Your link profile IS important

Should you still be trying to strengthen your website’s link profile? YES!

But the issue today isn’t that you acquire just any old inbound links; it’s HOW you go about acquiring credible, relevant inbound links. I mentioned early on that it should be called link-earning these days (I stole that from Rand!). Gone are the days of massive link farms. Hello to the networking aspect of earning an incoming link.

So while many mumbling marketers are convinced that links aren’t important anymore, the reality is they still are. And I believe they will continue to be a factor for a long, long time.

What’re your thoughts — is a strong link profile still important for SEO?




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