Links are a very contentious issue in the world of SEO. Quality backlinks can have a very powerful positive effect on a site. By the same token, links with known spam or black hat sites can be very detrimental. What is the current state of link building, what links are the most useful and will links always be as important as they are now?
The Origin of Link Juice
The idea of links having power in SEO is one of the founding principles of Google search rankings, stretching all the way back to the time when Google was founded. The idea, back then, was to measure the incoming links on any page. Each link was treated like a vote in a popularity contest; more incoming links, more value and authority to the page they link to. This was the basis of the ranking system Google used.
That concept is important. Links today still pass link juice — that is, the power and authority of a site conferred onto another site — with external links. If the Moz blog links to your page, that’s a vote of confidence from an authority site.
How the Algorithm has Changed
Of course, it’s not as simple as a popularity contest these days. Incoming links are powerful and important, but you won’t rank a terrible spam site above authority sites simply on the power of incoming links. That kind of link spam tactic used to be possible, if black hat, and was the power behind spam blog networks, link buying and link directories.
Today, links are one of many factors that influence the ranking of a site. Beyond that, each link is analyzed for its power. Some links are decidedly more valuable than others, based on metrics such as these:
The rank and authority of the origin site of the link. That is, more valuable authority sites have more powerful links that convey more link juice.
The popularity of the origin site of the link. A small niche blog, even if it’s an authority in its niche, will likely have a lower link juice than a large, popular blog in a relevant niche.
The content relevancy and relationship between the two linked pages. If your blog is all about cars, and the site that links to it is focused on scuba diving, that link won’t have a lot of power. The content is unrelated, so the link looks more like spam.
The anchor text of the incoming link. A link labeled “click here” isn’t going to have as much power as a link with a specific keyword label, for example.
The number of links to the same page on the originating page. If the linking site has three or four links to your page, they aren’t going to be as powerful as a single, well-placed link.
There are other metrics as well, such as the number of different domains that link to your source page. If all of your incoming links come from the same page, those links are going to lose some link juice, as Google will assume a relationship between the two sites. Variations in anchor text are also important; if every incoming link has the same anchor text, even across multiple domains, Google might see them as paid links. Ownership is important as well, of course; linking to your own blogs is less influential, because of course you’d link to your own pages.
Distilled Link Juice
What it all boils down to is a complex way of figuring out two things about each incoming link. The popularity of the two related sites and the relevancy of those sites. A popular site linking to another site will pass more link juice than an unpopular site. A relevant site will pass more link juice than an unrelated site. It is still following the basic concept; links are a vote of confidence from one site into the authority of another.
A World Without Links
Links are so crucial to the Internet that it’s tough to imagine a world without them. Google has put forth quite a bit of effort over the years to combat black hat linking techniques, which makes some SEO professionals wonder about the current state of links.
Question: With so many forms of linking discouraged or penalized, how much power to links truly have? The answer is quite a bit. Negative links are penalized specifically because they might otherwise have so much power. Spam blog networks could set up 100 or 1,000 links to a specific page and skyrocket that page to the top of the SERPs. Google very carefully balances the power of links to fight this sort of black hat technique.
Even now, it’s possible to buy valuable links from mid-range blog networks. These webmasters carefully manage their blogs to stay on the good side of the law, so to speak, but still offer to sell their links on the side. They make sure to follow the SEO Best Practices to keep their links valuable, but they are still paid links and can still be penalized if Google finds out.
Where does Matt Cutts Come In?
The title of this post refers to Matt Cutts’ latest video. The video in question essentially answers one question. What would the search results look like if links were removed from consideration entirely, for good and for bad?
There is no externally available version of Google that uses this kind of limited algorithm, so there is no way for anyone outside of the Google staff to see what such search results would look like. We can make a few extrapolations, however. Looking at the Moz analysis of ranking factors, some interesting things come to light.
The number one factor for the rank of a site is the page authority. How is that authority calculated? Primarily based on the link-based popularity contest, combined with the value of the content that page hosts.
The second place ranking factor is the number of Google+ +1s. This factor isn’t directly related to links, but it is related to social sharing, which is a form of linking the content to a wider audience.
From there, you have to move down eighteen more spots for a ranking factor that isn’t directly related to linking, and even then, it’s another social metric, Facebook shares. Only after that comes Domain Authority, which again is primarily calculated with the link-based popularity contest algorithm.
An Internet without factoring the power of linking would look fairly bad, and that’s exactly what Matt Cutts has to say in his video. Internally, Google has the ability to test search results with certain modular parts of the algorithm turned off. Turning off the relevance of backlinks makes a version of the search results that looks much, much worse.
Even though there is some noise from low quality backlinks, and the faint buzz of negative SEO around the fringes of white hat society, links are still one of the most accurate, powerful metrics for SEO on the Internet today. Google is essentially founded on the concept of the link popularity contest, and that foundation shines through in the modern search rankings calculated today.
Timothy Carter is the CRO for AudienceBloom. Since 1997 he's been helping businesses maximize their sales revenue from websites via content marketing, SEO and Internet Marketing strategies. Over the years he's written for publications like Marketing Land, Search Engine Journal, MarketingProfs and other highly respected online publications.