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Friday Commentary: Forget Google. The Value of Backlinks Is Bigger Than Ever

Welcome to the Friday Commentary. In this series every Friday experts will shine a light on the digital industry. Where are we heading, what is going on and how should we approach this as decision makers? This Friday it’s the turn of Jon Henshaw, one of the co-founders of Raven Internet Marketing Tools


Matt Cutts, head of the webspam team at Google, recently published a video where he stated that backlinks will have less influence on reputation in Google’s algorithm.

Cue SEO freakout.


But this supposed backlink crisis isn’t new. Google has spent the past several years finding new ways to devalue backlinks. Gone is the ability to easily scale link building.

As backlinks continue to weaken as a trust signal, does it make sense for online marketers to continue with link building as a key tactic?

The purpose of backlinks has changed

URL shortening and building links have a lot in common. They both started out with one purpose, but over time that changed.

TinyURL, one of first well known URL shorteners, existed to make long URLs short. This was particularly useful for posting links to Twitter, which has a fixed amount of characters that you can post. Long URLs take up too many characters. However, Twitter alleviated that problem years ago by automatically shortening all links, making URL shorteners unnecessary.

So why haven’t URL shortening services gone away? Because they found new purpose.

Online marketers now use them to hide tracking data, such as Google Analytics campaign variables. The primary purpose of URL shorteners changed from shortening links to save character space to tracking the performance of social, email and offline campaigns. As the primary purpose shifted, the overall purpose became more broad.

Backlinks are experiencing a similar transition.

There was a time when SEOs would try to get a link from anywhere they could, the higher quality the better. As a result — because links were so critical to Google’s algorithm — those SEOs got better organic search visibility for their own websites.

However, Google continues to make seemingly endless overnight changes — algorithmically and manually — that can severely impact a site’s visibility in SERPs. In a few extreme cases, some sites even disappear from any relevant SERPs altogether for violating Google’s definition of link schemes.

Now link building is riskier, harder to scale and possibly weakening in the algorithm, backlinks are more important than ever… but not necessarily as an SEO tactic.

Backlinks for broad online marketing

You could spend an immense amount of time and money blindly building links in the hopes that you’ll manipulate Google’s algorithm into presenting your content on page one. You may even succeed, but you’ll still have to live with the reality that Google could change their algorithm overnight and decimate your SERPs.

Alternatively, you could spend your time building relationships with publishers that drive targeted and converting traffic.

That’s the type of relationship focused technique that someone like Kelsey Libert of Fractl promotes:

“We begin working with potential publishers when we’re still in the ideas phase. We mine recent articles in our target niche to get some of those content ideas. Then we directly reach out to certain publishers to determine if they’d be interested in the topics we’ve brainstormed.”

The funny thing about organic SERPs is that they have a tendency to send a lot of noise to websites. By noise, I mean lots of non-targeted traffic — traffic that bounces, has low session time and doesn’t convert.

However, if you’ve ever had a mention with a link on a relevant site with a relevant topic, you’ll see something amazing. You’ll see a very high conversion rate with significantly less noise. This is the new primary purpose for backlinks.

You should not be building links for SERPs.

You should be building links for referral traffic that converts.

One of the best things about using other sites as your sales channel, and no longer worrying about SERPs, is that you can piggyback off the trust and authority of those sites. They do all of the work creating, maintaining and growing their readership.

Even better, you get exposure and traffic from their SERPs!

In the same way URL shorteners still shorten links, getting mentions on relevant sites with a targeted audience can still result in better search engine visibility. The only difference is that it’s no longer the primary purpose. Instead, improved SERPs is a secondary purpose that occurs more naturally.

Going forward

Stop worrying about Google and start focusing on relationships with publishers. The marketers who are building links successfully now are the ones who have established strong, trusted networks — similar to what you would expect from a top PR firm.

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Jon Henshaw is the co-founder of Raven Internet Marketing Tools, an online marketing management and reporting platform. He has been involved with website development and Internet strategy since 1995.
  • studiumcirclus

    And let’s not forget all the new (well, not that new) non-linear links (like rel=author) which bind relationships between entities. Entity binding is going to be massive.

    Links are no longer just “A” tags. Totally agree with all of this post!

  • Well said. Well said.

  • Who this is aimed at exactly is puzzling me. ‘You should not be building links for SERP’ and ‘You should be building links for referral traffic that converts’ are professionals being paid not to do this? Are business owners being taken on a merry-go-round ride?

    • I wrote it for industry professionals who still build links with Google and SERPs as their primary purpose. Also, there shouldn’t be a merry-go-round ride for any businesses/clients, as long as the marketers they hired are focused on building and reporting increased targeted traffic and conversions, and not SERP placement.

  • @Dr_RWP

    Some excellent points made here Jon – I’ve been stressing the importance of links for referring traffic literally since before Google even existed !