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What the Head of Google’s Webspam Team says About Backlinks

Jason Roy

Ever since Panda, SEO’s have questioned the value of backlinks. As of now, backlinks still have a significant effect on ranking.

But, unlike pre-Panda, they’re not the only metric Google uses to gauge authority. With social media, there’s a new way to determine what people are finding valuable. Because of this, we’ve speculated backlinks may continue to lose value compare to social media.

This has prompted questions from the community: will backlinks lose all their value, or will they exist alongside social media?

We’ve speculated backlinks will always have some amount of value, but that social may overtake them in authority.

As SEO’s and online business owners, it’s easy to get stuck in a “bubble.” We spend so much time researching and learning about SEO that we figure everyone does what we do. We read blogs that have “nofollow” comments, see social badges and icons everywhere – it’s easy to think backlinks are extinct.

Website owners who were getting penalized for bad backlinks are the reason for the assumption. Those who had quality backlinks on their site never noticed a penalty or a drop in rankings, so with that said, the backlinks were not the problem so to speak, it was the website owners who used them in a black hat or grey hat SEO campaign that was.

The reality is, the web is a whole lot bigger than the SEO and online business world. So even though it seems like backlinks no longer do what Google wanted them to do, that may only be true in the world of SEO.

Matt Cutts and the State of Backlinks

Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team, was recently asked about the state of backlinks. He brought up this point, saying that even though “no-follow” links seem to be everywhere, they still only make up a single-digit percentage of the total number of links on the web. The amount of impact SEOs and online business owners are having on Google is relatively small.

Backlinks are still, by and large, working as intended for Google. Google started using backlinks to gauge the authority and value of a website. If people like a website, they’ll usually link to it. So by counting links, Google could roughly determine which websites people liked. Then, by scanning the page’s content, they could determine what keywords to rank that website for. The main thing that has changed is that Google has begun looking more closely at the backlinks, counting only the backlinks that are qualified for a positive mark and now counting the bad ones as a negative mark towards the website's rankings.

Ever since SEO’s figured this out, it’s been a battle between Google and SEOs. Of course, Google always has the last word, but SEO’s have had an effect on Google’s business – hence the Panda update.

Even so, backlinks won’t be going away any time soon. But Matt Cutts also emphasized that social is getting big. And in ten years, although backlinks probably won’t be dead completely, we’ll likely see a big emphasis on social media. We are actually already seeing the impact from the social media platforms. Business owners without social media accounts are likely missing out on a huge amount of marketing…and profits.

And, as we talked about in a past article, the way social media affects search results is different from how backlinks affect it. In general, social media is used for temporary rankings. That way, just because something is “hot” doesn’t mean it dominates search results for years. Instead, it temporarily boosts rankings and, should the topic stay “hot” permanently, people will link to it and give it additional authority.

So it’s not about “backlinks vs. social signals.” They’re designed to work together. And even though Panda made a dent in the backlink building process, backlinks still have value – especially when gauging long-term authority. And social signals have value as well. 

SEO’s should not be looking for one or the other. Instead, they should design an SEO campaign that makes use of both ranking metrics. Use the synergy to your advantage. If you’re launching something that’s trending, realize you’ll likely get a boost of social votes. So make sure you’re also creating “evergreen” content in other places, so as the trend subsides, you retain your rankings.

By understanding how Google works—and understanding why Google does what it does—SEO’s give themselves the best chance possible of ranking on page #1.

Because it’s not a battle. As SEO’s, we’re giving up the control. We’re on Google’s territory. SEO brings incredible traffic. But unless we play by Google’s rules, success will be temporary.

Fortunately, Google’s built a system that thrives off of value. If you’re creating something valuable, Google wants you on page #1. Their entire system is designed to get only the best-quality websites on page #1.

The issue behind backlinks has been due to the people who have abused them. Since Google relied highly on backlinks to determine each website's value and worth, many business owners started joining links farms or were buying links to gain a better ranking in the searches. Because of this, things have changed, but that doesn’t mean that backlinks are gone, they are just being monitored much more closely.

So, this means you have to be very careful about who is linked to you. If the website linked to you is shady, Google is going to penalize you with lower rankings. So, quality is more important than quantity. This opened up the doors for smaller businesses to come into the game. Now, even the smaller businesses with lower marketing budgets can compete for that number one ranking in Google searches. If they supply valuable content and share it on social media platforms, chances are more people will link back to the content, giving them a quality backlink that Google will reward them for.

So, does this mean backlinks are no longer important? No, of course not, but having more backlinks mean nothing to Google unless they are all quality.

So, how do you get quality backlinks? Write quality content. The content you create should be informative, useful, interesting, and provide a perspective that is unique. You want your readers to feel compelled to link back to your content. If you write as if you are an authority on the topic, then your article will be the best, and instead of writing a second-best-mimicked copy, others in your field will post your content or share it on social media sites. All of this leads to more traffic for you, and with more traffic, the chances for more revenue increases dramatically.

Play by the rules, create value and understand how Google works. This is the path to page #1.

Conclusion

Read the guide that Google has so generously shared with you. Don’t give up on backlinks totally, they are still valuable; just learn how to do them the right way. Google’s algorithm updates have not been designed to destroy your business or to make your marketing efforts harder. The main reason is simply to create a better user experience. So, take it from the big dog, user experience is what it is all about, and backlinks follow.

So, start with great content, a web design that is not only functional but user friendly, and a solid social media presence. Do not use backlinks as a tool to gain rankings any longer, instead, use the other SEO strategies to get quality backlinks. Even without the backlinks, a site that has extremely good content and a strong following will thrive, the backlinks are just a bonus. 

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