Even Matt Cutts says backlinks count for something

With all the changes Google has made to the algorithm (Panda and Penguin are just the biggest ones of many) and Webmaster Tools Guidelines in the last two years, many site owners (and more than a few SEOs) are left wondering if link building counts for anything anymore.

In a perfect SEO world, the kind Google wishes we all worked and searched in, no site would actively build links. They would instead focus all their energy on content creation and let links come naturally as people found and shared that content. When Google first hit the web that was how it was supposed to work.

Much like academia, where people cite and reference quality research papers, people were supposed to only cite (i.e. link to) and reference quality websites. Of course spammers realised that more links meant better positioning in the SERPs and thus the war between Google and link spammers was born.

I’ve talked with several other SEO/social media experts and asked if they thought social signals might replace links in the algorithm. For the most part they said no, although many admitted that links without social signals would be more subject to scrutiny. After all, what is the purpose of a link on a site that gets no traffic and social shares other than to boost SEO value, which is exactly the kind of link Google does not want you to build.

With so many traditional link building activities being added to Google’s “no fly” list,  staying white hat with your link building means working in a smaller and smaller link world. So a lot of site owners started asking–should they just do away with links all together? If Google is going to heavily penalize websites when they step out of line is it better to just do away with links all together? Would the web be a better place in general if we just gave up on link building?

Well, as it turns out, no. Even Google says backlinks still count for something when it comes to organizing the SERPs. Here is what Matt Cutts recently said;

It turns out backlinks, even though there is some noise and certainly a lot of spam, for the most part are still a really really big win in terms of quality of search results.

We played around with the idea of turning off backlink relevance and at least for now backlinks relevance still really helps in terms of making sure that we turn the best, most relevant, most topical set of search results.

I think Matt makes a good point–there is a ton of noise online, and getting louder every day it seems, and plenty of junk and spam getting in the way. That is the link building world Google wants to do away with. Just because a site has 10,000 links that doesn’t mean it’s inherently better than a site with 1,000. And if you built those 10,000 links yourself that means your website wasn’t actually “cited” by anyone else, you just voted for yourself and that isn’t how Google intended the SERPs to work.

As painful as the changes have been for all of us, site owners and SEOs alike, I do feel like they are for the better in the long run. Has it made link building more complicated? Most definitely. Does it mean we all have to move a little slower, think a little harder, and get more creative with our SEO campaigns? No doubt. But I think in the end it is going to make for a better web.

As the rules cut down on loopholes undeserving sites will have a harder and harder time holding onto their spots in the SERPs. And while bigger websites might have more people and more resources to devote to their SEO campaign, small websites still have a fighting chance as the noise and junk is slowly eliminated.


  • James Bourne

    James has a passion for how technologies influence business and has several Mobile World Congress events under his belt. James has interviewed a variety of leading figures in his career, from former Mafia boss Michael Franzese, to Steve Wozniak, and Jean Michel Jarre. James can be found tweeting at @James_T_Bourne.

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