For every SEO, manipulating links is one of the strategic goals. Search engine operators, on the other hand, are trying to curb the abuse of backlinks more and more. Could it soon be the case that links no longer have any influence on search engine ranking? As part of our “Theme Week Marketing: Content, SEO, CRM ”, author Darius Erdt tries to answer this question.
Links between websites have always been one of the most central ranking factors in search engines. For this reason, manipulating links and influencing link structures are crucial strategic goals in search engine optimization. For many years a website could be promoted to the top positions in Google search results with a high degree of probability through targeted link building.
Now that Google has been regulating the topic more and more through algorithmic and manual penalties, building effective links has become much more difficult. At the same time, Google is increasingly taking into account the actual content, semantics and user signals when developing the ranking algorithm.
At the latest since SEOkomm 2014, when Marcus Tandler, Managing Director of Onpage.org GmbH, prophesied the death of the links in the next two years, this topic has been increasingly discussed in the SEO scene. So what role will backlinks , once one of the most important building blocks for ranking, play for search engines in the future?
Back to the beginning: Google and the backlinks
First a look back: Larry Page and Sergey Brin managed to make Google the most successful search engine in the world. Based on the reference information in scientific documents and the basic principles of bibliometrics, they developed a search engine in which links between websites became an important ranking factor. Since then, these have been used by almost all common search engines as an important support for determining the relevance of documents. From their original point of view, they are always to be understood as a means of navigation and reference to a further source and thus as a kind of recommendation.
Limits and problems
As the following examples show, it is not possible to assign this original meaning to every link on the Internet. Much more were and are basic content limits with regard to backlinks. And yet, Google has made links a central component of the ranking algorithm.
1. Negative reporting
For example, when companies are involved in a scandal and react to it with good PR, mentions and links are often created. However, these are not to be understood as a reference or recommendation.
2. Partnerships and sponsorship
For example, if companies are part of a group or an alliance, or if the corporate strategy relies heavily on sponsoring, there are often strong links between them. Strictly speaking, these are not recommendations in the strict sense of the word.
3. Possibilities for manipulation
Since backlinks have been a ranking factor on Google, SEOs have taken advantage of this and tried to find ways to build links. Link building has always been a kind of cat and mouse game between SEOs and Google. In the past few years, Google has done a lot to combat manipulated link building, which has created great uncertainty among advertising companies. Nevertheless, from Google’s point of view, this problem has not been completely resolved and not all manipulation attempts can be clearly identified.
4. Linkbaits and content marketing promotions
With linkbaits, it is important to critically question whether the links generated by it really meet the ranking criteria that Google originally had in mind. For example, what does an advisory e-book that was designed to collect links say about a domain’s worth of recommendation? And what does a linkbait say about the relevance of the website doing it?
Example: This linkbait from Kaufda generated over 200 backlinks, many of them from fire department sites. To what extent these links fit into the core service and are in the spirit of Google remains questionable.
In view of such excesses, Google has done a lot in recent years not to distort the ranking results too much. On the one hand, the group has switched to changing the weighting of the backlinks compared to other ranking factors. On the other hand, Google has manually punished link networks, link buyers and sellers in the past and rolled out the Penguin update. However, the manipulative influences of links cannot be completely controlled. Will Google ultimately forego this factor entirely?
Yandex as a pioneer
Ever since the Russian search engine Yandex announced at the end of 2013 that it would no longer consider links in commercial search queries in the Moscow region, this topic has moved more and more into the focus of the SEO scene. Based on this, some SEO experts postulated the imminent death of links as a direct ranking factor. In March 2015, Yandex surprised the SEO community with the news that in the future they will be relying on backlinks to assess relevance.
After all, Yandex’s change of course in 2014 caused many companies, according to the search engine operator, to devote more attention to paid search engine advertisements, content and the usability of their pages in order to increase their traffic and conversions. Instead of buying links, a process has been initiated that has led website owners to focus more on their users. Ultimately, however, a number of SEOs that were too large for Yandex still seemed to be investing in the purchase of links, so that the operators ultimately decided on the same path as Google: evaluating links as a positive and negative ranking factor .
This U-turn and, above all, the official justification was quite surprising: If you are so firmly convinced that a search engine without backlinks leads to the best possible results, Yandex shouldn’t really have cared whether search engine optimizers in Russia continue to build links or not. After all, these links would have no effect on the rankings. So is it not possible without backlinks?
Google tests algorithm without links
Google has already practically worked through the idea of excluding backlinks as a ranking factor. In February 2014, Matt Cutts , then head of Google’s web spam team, stated that the quality of the ranking results would be “much, much worse” if this factor were to be avoided altogether. At the same time he heated up speculations about the future of the search algorithm with a vague formulation that backlinks “at least until now” are still an important factor for determining the relevance of websites. So is Google also working on a future of ranking without links? In any case, three observations make it clear that in addition to backlinks, other factors are playing an increasingly important role in positioning in Google rankings.
Other positioning factors
Time and again, examples of “landing pages” attract attention, which were able to achieve very good rankings simply through their holistic content preparation and without backlinks. These pages rank so well because they take up all conceivable questions on a topic and are therefore a holistic document on the Internet. One of the most prominent “linkless ranking” examples is the over 5,000 words containing the landing page of the online marketers Karl Kratz, Risikolebensversicherungen.com .
At SEO round tables and conferences, individual phenomena are also reported in which website operators were able to achieve some top 10 rankings for projects for a short time without any special impact. So far, this has been explained by the fact that Google initiates testing here independently of external factors such as backlinks. First, it checks how users react if the website in question ranks for less contested keywords. If this test is successful, i.e. hardly any users jump back to the Google results page, the website secures the chance to achieve better rankings even for more competitive keywords .
In addition, a method was presented in February 2015 in the research report “ Knowledge-Based Trust ” by Google, which evaluates a website independently of links. Here, one concentrates on the correctness of the content of the published facts and measures the trustworthiness of the site based on the number of errors. This principle is currently only a study and not yet included in Google’s search algorithm.
However, the often mentioned “linkless ranking” examples are often very specific with regard to their topic, competitive environment and user intention. It is doubtful whether these individual phenomena allow conclusions to be drawn about all keywords and the future of the search algorithm. At the same time, it is questionable whether an expansion of the content is always a sensible way from a conversion point of view for every topic and every page type. Are holistic websites necessarily the better sites? And if a large number of website operators do their on-page homework, isn’t an additional external instance still necessary to put websites in a meaningful ranking order? Aren’t backlinks still the best way to do this?
The importance of links in transition
The importance of links in the search engine algorithm is changing and is no longer the strongest SEO factor. However, it is currently not foreseeable that Google will do without it in the future. Link building will continue to be a relevant part of search engine optimization. Nevertheless, it is advisable to see offpage optimization more and more as a tool for building reputation rather than just as a supplier of ranking-relevant backlinks. It is also advisable to check which link building options are really useful for each topic and project. A fashion or travel brand, for example, has more opportunities for cooperation than a financial or B2B company due to the existing linkerati, and a brand that does a lot of PR and marketing,