10 Jul, 2024

Are Links Still Important for SEO?

internal linking

Link building has long been regarded as a cornerstone of effective SEO strategies, with search engines valuing the quantity and quality of links to measure a website’s authority and relevance. However, recent shifts in search engine algorithms, notably Google’s statements suggesting a move away from prioritising links, have challenged this traditional approach. This evolving landscape raises doubts about the continued significance of link building in modern SEO tactics, which begs the question: Are links still important for SEO?

A Brief History of Links as a Vital Google Ranking Factor 

In the late 1990s, the significance of links as indicators of a website’s authority became apparent to search engines. In particular, Google realised that anchor text could convey semantic signals about a webpage’s content. 

Jon M. Kleinberg’s seminal paper, “Authoritative Sources in a Hyperlinked Environment,” published in 1998, underscored the challenge of sifting through the vast array of web pages to determine relevance objectively. Kleinberg proposed using links as an objective measure of authority, noting that they help provide an effective search and filtering method. This pivotal work brought about further exploration into leveraging links not only as authority metrics but also as subjective indicators of relevance. 

However, it was Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s groundbreaking research paper, “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine,” that revolutionised the understanding of the role of links in determining relevance. Published shortly after Kleinberg’s work, Page and Brin’s paper explained how anchor text could reflect the subjective opinions of millions of internet users, effectively crowd-sourcing relevance judgments. 

By harnessing the link structure between web pages, Google discovered a method of gauging human sentiment and preferences, fundamentally shaping the trajectory of SEO strategies. This revelation marked a vital shift, where links evolved beyond mere authority signals to become potent indicators of subjective relevance.

Google Starts Singing a Different Tune 

Links had been traditionally essential in increasing search ranking and online visibility because back then, anchor text was largely non-spammy and hyperlinks were used mainly for directing traffic. However, by 2004, Google began using statistical analysis to detect and devalue manipulated links. 

Over the years, various types of links, such as “powered-by” footer links and those associated with advertising, stopped passing ranking value. In 2012, the Penguin algorithm significantly impacted sites using dubious link practices, and by 2019, Google selectively used nofollow links for ranking to combat spammy link signals. 

By 2023, Gary Illyes shared at PubCon Austin that links were no longer in the top three ranking factors. Google reinforced this sentiment in 2024 when it updated its spam policies documentation, which coincided with the release of its March 2024 core update. In the documentation, the search giant downplayed the role of links by removing the word “important” from its description of their relevance. 

Furthermore, John Mueller, Google’s senior webmaster trends analyst and Search Relations team lead, advised against focusing solely on link building. He said overemphasis on links could lead to wasted efforts as there are other important SEO activities that require attention.

Link Building in 2024 

With Google downplaying the role link building plays in achieving better online visibility, are links still important for SEO, especially in 2024? At Springhill Marketing, we believe building links remains an essential SEO strategy. Links help illustrate relevance and, in the case of internal links, make websites easier to navigate. However, they do not carry the same weight as before. 

Throughout the years, we have seen Google’s decreasing reliance on links for ranking webpages. And with the advancements in AI and natural language understanding integrated into their algorithms, it’s clear that a more comprehensive strategy is essential for effective SEO. Rather than focusing solely on link building, you will need a holistic approach that includes high-quality content creation, user experience optimisation, mobile-friendliness, and technical SEO. These elements work together to enhance your site’s overall authority and relevance in the eyes of major search engines. 

Furthermore, Google’s emphasis on understanding user intent and providing the best possible answers to search queries means that content quality and relevance are more critical than ever. Ensuring your website is fast, secure, and easy to navigate not only improves user satisfaction but also signals to the search giant that your site is trustworthy and valuable. Leveraging social media engagement and fostering genuine community interactions can also help drive organic traffic and build brand loyalty, further strengthening your site’s SEO performance.

Take a Holistic Approach to SEO

While links have been traditionally an essential ranking factor, their influence has waned in favour of a more balanced and integrated SEO approach. By focusing on a wide range of SEO factors that contribute to a positive user experience and high-quality content, you can achieve sustainable success in an ever-evolving digital landscape. 

If you need help building a balanced and sustainable SEO strategy, we at Springhill Marketing are happy to lend our expertise. Get in touch with us, and we’ll create an SEO blueprint that can help you reach your business goals.

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