Are Backlinks for SEO still important? They are, but Their Influence is Waning

Key takeaways

  • Backlinks are losing dominance: While still important, backlinks are no longer the main factor influencing search ranking. 
  • Websites that rank highly have backlinks: Most websites at the top of Google search results have a lot of backlinks. 
  • Quality over quantity: Focus on getting backlinks from relevant, high-authority websites in your niche. Don’t waste time on low-quality, spammy links.
  • AI will reduce influence further: With the rise of AI in search engines, the importance of backlinks for SEO will continue to fall. AI will get better at understanding what content is quality.

Obtaining high quality backlinks for SEO is so tiring it makes training for the London marathon look like an episode of Peppa Pig. In one study, SEOs said it takes up to 2 hours to get just one backlink. However, we are not sure what backlinks they are getting because we can promise you it can take much longer to get quality links. It’s not uncommon to spend days if not weeks chasing the best backlinks.

But, herein lies the issue. Getting backlinks has become such a fundamental element to ranking highly in search results, that it has led some people to obtain pointless backlinks that do more damage to their website rankings than good. Thankfully, things are set to change.

In 2022, John Mueller, a Search Advocate at Google, said backlinks for SEO will remain important because they help search engines discover content. However, he also hinted at their diminishing influence in the future. 

Yet, that future has already been stated. By 2024, Google updated its spam policies, suggesting a fundamental change to off-page SEO. Backlinks are now only a determining factor for search engine rankings rather than an “important” element. 

What has caused this shift? Google search algorithms are becoming better and more advanced. This is because they now use various ranking measures alongside AI to better predict which content to show searchers.

This has left SEOs asking the same question. How important are backlinks for SEO and what should they do?

Search engines in the early days faced a big challenge. Which web pages truly matched what users were looking for?  Imagine searching for heart disease symptoms and ending up on a poorly written, inaccurate website owned by someone without the credentials to help. The outcome could be catastrophic. 

Thankfully, Google co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, had an answer. In 1998, they published a paper called “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine” which laid the groundwork for Google’s revolutionary approach. The paper explained how links between websites, along with the text associated with those links (anchor text), could be used to judge a webpage’s relevance and quality.  In short, the more people who linked to a webpage, the more valuable it was likely to be.

This is how backlinks for SEO were born. Over the next few years, SEOs became laser-focused on building backlinks – the more the merrier, right? This approach helped many websites climb the search engine rankings, even if their content wasn’t that great.  Clearly, this wasn’t ideal.

Recognising this problem, Google released the Penguin update in 2012.  This algorithmic change aimed to crack down on manipulative “black hat” SEO tactics that exploited backlinks to artificially inflate search rankings. The update signalled a shift – the sheer number of backlinks became less important. Instead, the focus turned to acquiring high-quality backlinks. 

Backlinks for SEO are certainly not pointless. Moreover, as John Mueller mentioned, they are always likely to play some role. However, AI is transforming how search engines work. This will see Google’s algorithms become more sophisticated at understanding what constitutes “quality content” reducing the need for backlinks in SEO. Moreover, other signals such as social media presence may be used as signals of a webpage’s authority.

So, as we move towards a world where AI Overviews (SGE) start taking traffic away from traditional search results, SEOs will need to adapt their tactics. However, research continues to show that for now, backlinks for SEO are still important. 

In a study by Ahrefs they found a strong correlation between the number of backlinks, a webpage’s ranking in Google search results and overall traffic. Additionally, out of 20m webpages with no backlinks, only 0.06% had more than 1k search visits per month. 

These correlations can be seen in other studies too. Niel Patel said in a study of 25k search terms his team found that only on three occasions was the average of backlinks on page 2 higher than page 1. Moreover, Backlinko found the top Google result has on average 3.8x more backlinks than results 2 to 10.

However, correlation does not equate to causation. It’s also possible the top search results attract more backlinks because they feature higher in search results. However, the answer is likely to be more complex. The top-ranking webpages commonly belong to large, established websites. These websites have built authority and trust in Google search results over a long period. Whilst backlinks have played a role in that, it’s not the only factor.

The problem with SEO is that it often attracts monocausal thinking, which is the desire to find a single cause for something that is multifaceted. Whilst backlinks for SEO continue to play a role in how high you feature in search results, there are many other factors that also need to be considered.

For instance, a search for the best at-home health tests will be different if you search for it in the UK or in Australia. This illustrates other factors such as relevancy are also vital. Therefore, it’s important to take a multi-pronged approach. You need to go beyond backlinks for SEO and also consider how to build an effective SEO content strategy or how to master technical SEO. Critically, as AI continues to change search engines, you also need to understand what the future of search engines will look like.

That said, backlinks for SEO are still important to consider, despite warnings from Google’s Search Advocate, John Mueller. In a Reddit discussion, he suggested “over-focusing on links will often result in you wasting your time.”

What does this mean? It means you shouldn’t be building backlinks for SEO for the sake of getting lots of links. Moreover, it means do not spam website comments with your URL or pay for backlinks. These tactics can harm your search engine results. 

Instead, the key is not to get too focused on generating lots of backlinks for SEO but rather start thinking about quality and building relationships.

When trying to understand the importance of backlinks for SEO, it’s a good idea to try and understand Google’s algorithms. However, the issue is that Google doesn’t reveal what algorithms and ranking factors they use. Therefore, Google’s patent can give us clues.

While Google’s patents are not always implemented into their algorithms, they give us a better insight into what they might be. This is better than only considering mere correlations which may not equal causation.

For example, Google released a patent related to “web link graphs.” This patent perhaps sheds some light on how the Penguin update works. The patent describes a system which ranks web pages based on their distances from a set of high-quality pages known as “seed” pages. The shorter the distance between a page and a seed page, the higher the ranking score of that page.

For example, imagine you have a website for a new health clinic. This web link graph system will pick a high-quality health site like Bupa’s as “seed pages.” The system will then analyse links between websites. If your health clinic website gets linked from other health websites (especially ones that are themselves linked to Bupa or other high-authority health sites), the distance between your site and Bupa (seed page) gets shorter.

Based on the link distance, your website receives a ranking score. The closer you are (fewer links away) to trusted health sources (like Bupa), the higher your ranking score could be. This, in turn, could potentially lead to your website appearing higher in search results for health-related queries.

Therefore, from a backlinks and SEO perspective, it would suggest the number of backlinks is not as important as being an active voice in your chosen niche. 

In 2017 Google were granted a patent, which remains one of the few patents that explicitly discuss ranking algorithms in relation to backlinks for SEO. 

The patent outlines a method to rank links into three quality groups: Vital, Good, and Bad. The system then considers how many links you have from each category and assigns a weight to each grade (e.g., a vital link might be weighted more than a good link). Finally, it calculates an overall score based on these weights. If your score falls below a certain point, you might be classified as a low-quality website. This can damage your search rankings. 

Therefore, your focus should be on building an effective backlink strategy that encompasses the key factors Google will consider when placing a backlink in a quality group, as outlined by the patent.

This means, avoiding quick, cheap backlinks results. As an agency for health brands, we have seen many companies use SEO services with the purpose of improving their backlink profile. However, rather than enhance their Google rankings it has the opposite effect. 

Often these services will buy backlinks or claim to use AI to generate backlinks for SEO. Whilst you can use AI to help you with simplifying your backlink strategy, it is much more than just clicking a few buttons. Moreover, If you don’t do it right, these strategies often fail to drive the right outcomes.

backlinks for SEO will not be as important as it used to be

Backlinks for SEO aren’t dead, but they’re no longer the dominant ranking factor they once were. Google’s search engines are becoming adept at understanding content quality without relying solely on the number of links pointing to a page. This shift in focus prioritises the creation of informative, engaging content that establishes you as an authority in your field. As we move forward, Google’s AI platforms will become more advanced, further diminishing the need for backlinks.

However, it was naïve to think backlinks are not important. The research shows that top-ranking pages continue to have more backlinks than most. Yet, the key is to focus on quality backlinks for SEO rather than quantity.  Moreover, it’s important to start thinking about how you will increase your visibility in your niche. This means spending time networking and building relationships and ensuring people know who you are outside of Google search. 

By adapting your strategy to this new reality, you can ensure your website continues to thrive in the years to come.

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