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Links Are Still Fundamental to Organic Search Rankings – Here’s Proof

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Links Are Still Fundamental to Organic Search Rankings – Here’s Proof

Some think the usage of web links as a ranking signal is on the decline. This post will show you that links as a signal are alive and well. I’ll explain more with the results of a study later, but first, let’s explore the issue.

The SEO Power of Links Today

One issue often cited by those who believe links aren’t as important to SEO today is that they believe that spammers have made them less useful as a ranking signal.

This was a big problem for Google for many years until things started to change in 2012.

At that time, Google cracked down on link schemes by issuing manual penalties to websites. Google also released the first version of its Penguin algorithm update in April 2012, which was aimed at algorithmically identifying link spam and taking action on them.

Over the years, Google has continued to improve their link algorithms, including Penguin, and they continued to use manual penalties to crack down on link schemes as well.

One big change occurred when Google announced the integration of Penguin into the main algorithm on September 23, 2016. As of that date, Google made it clear that no future updates to Penguin will be announced. However, they recently confirmed that these algorithms do still get updated.

In addition, Google still uses manual penalties for link campaigns that Penguin may not target. This happens when the confidence level that there is a problem isn’t high enough for Penguin to automatically take action.

All of this is to say that there’s been a major shift in how legitimate SEO is performed just in the span of a decade due to the mindset around links today.

We know they’re still critical (after all, in 2016 Googler Andrey Lipattsev confirmed that links are still one of the top two ranking factors), and we also understand that links are earned through quality web content.

To summarize what this all tells us, bear in mind the core reason why Penguin and manual penalties exist. It’s solely because links are a significant ranking factor, and spammy link building has a negative impact on the Google search results.

Google wouldn’t invest in the effort to do those things if links weren’t a significant signal, now would they?

Why Google Still Relies on Links as a Key Signal

With all the signals in the Google algorithm – and there are hundreds of them – why would links still be so valuable as a signal?

Quite simply, there is no other ranking signal on the web that shares the same properties as links.

But surely there are other signals Google can rely on to show which websites are the best ones, like social media and user engagement, right?

Not exactly. There are problems with other signals like these.

For example, Google can’t depend on social media signals from platforms it doesn’t own and that are run by competitors like Facebook (and that can be shut off by them on a whim). For more on that, see: How Does Social Media Affect SEO? by Mark Traphagen.

As for user engagement signals, Google’s Jeff Dean once said the following of the user engagement signals and machine learning:

“An example of a messier reinforcement learning problem is perhaps trying to use it (user engagement with the search results) in what search results should I show. There’s a much broader set of search results I can show in response to different queries, and the reward signal is a little noisy. If a user looks at a search result and likes it or doesn’t like it, that’s not that obvious.”

That doesn’t mean that they don’t use them at all, just that it’s difficult. But, let’s step back to the statement I made at the beginning of this section, and discuss why links are a uniquely valuable signal to Google.

1. Implementing Links Requires an Investment

I’m not talking about the type of investment that involves buying links.

I’m talking about the time it takes to create a link.

As an owner or stakeholder in a website, you must take the time to discover content, evaluate that content, and implement a link to it on a webpage.

It may not seem like much, but it’s more effort than simply embedding a link into a social media update.

2. Links are a Public Endorsement

When you link to a webpage, you’re proclaiming that you trust that content as a resource – so your brand is on the line.

This link typically remains in place over time without being altered on the page, so your endorsement is potentially a permanent one.

Contrast that with a link in a social media post: The fleeting nature of social media platforms means it’s there and gone from users’ feeds in a matter of moments.

3. You’re Suggesting to Someone That They Leave Your Site

This is the biggie.

When you add a link to your website, you are inviting users to leave your site.

That means you must value the content you’re linking to so much that you’re willing to suggest to your visitors that they leave your website, and you believe that you’ll benefit by the goodwill you build with such visitors.

Like I said, there is no other signal like it anywhere on the interwebs.

The Research

OK, so now you know a little more about why links are still important in theory, but what does the data say?

Let’s look at data from research done at Stone Temple that showed the value of links as a ranking signal over three different points in time from May 2016 to May 2017. You can see a video overview of the data here, or read on:

In July of 2016, we published our first study on links as a ranking factor. We have updated that study twice, and you can see the latest version of it here.

The following graph shows that links are still an important ranking factor. If you’re unfamiliar with correlation studies, any score of 0.3 or higher indicates a significant level of correlation.

Quadratic Mean Spearman Correlation Score for Links as a Ranking Factor

The same 6,000 queries were used in all three data sets pulled from the various points in time.

For our last two versions of the study, we pulled also pulled larger data sets of 16,000 queries.

Here are the correlation scores for those two data sets:

Correlation Score for Links as a Ranking Factor

As you can see, both data sets show similar results. Links appear to be holding strong in their correlation with rankings.

Case Studies

My agency performs a lot of high-end online content marketing campaigns. Here is a sampling of the results across many of our clients:

Sample Content Marketing Results

You can see the impact that links have on rankings.

It’s important to understand that links cannot produce these results when the content is of low quality.

You have to fix your content game first.

Plus, in the examples above, the links were all earned from high-authority sites. They were also part of a larger integrated marketing campaign.

Summary

Today, obtaining links is much more than just link building; it’s a part of a content marketing, strategic marketing, public relations and social media effort to get in front of the audiences that matter most. This is how you can earn links naturally and the rankings you deserve.


Image Credits
All images created by Stone Temple Consulting

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Eric Enge

Eric Enge

Eric has been involved in digital marketing since 1990, and regularly keynotes conferences on related topics. He is also CEO ... [Read full bio]

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