Do Inbound Links Have Less Impact on Google Rankings?

As everyone in the search engine optimization (SEO) space knows, the rules and best practices of organic search are constantly changing. The days of keyword stuffing SEO copy are long gone, and the times of generating hundreds and thousands of inbound links – those links coming from another external site to your site – for the sake of improving organic search rankings may also be a thing of the past. This is not to say that backlinks are not important for SEO, but if you’ve been keeping up with the latest news in the SEO sector, you may have seen that Google Search Advocate John Mueller and other Google representatives have spoken about backlinks quite a bit lately. 

The Quantity of Backlinks Is Not as Important as the Quality

Back in 2021, during a Google Search Central SEO hangout, John Mueller indicated that the amount of backlinks a site has doesn’t really matter for SEO. Search Engine Journal documents Mueller’s answer, essentially saying that Google’s spam algorithm update can spot poor-quality links that aren’t relevant. These types of inbound links aren’t even worth going after since they can essentially degrade the rankings for your site. However, he says that the quality and topical relevance of backlinks IS important. As SEOs, we know this is not new information, but it is a good reminder nonetheless. 

Link Spam Updates

The most popular link-building practices can be a waste of time, generating few gains in high-quality inbound links and often resulting in some crummy low-quality links. Google sees low-quality links pointing back to your site as spam if they are from sites that aren’t topically relevant to what your site is about. 

Now, it is true that backlinks help Google to determine how relevant a site may be for a particular search query. But links generated artificially for the purpose of making it seem like a site has higher link authority can be flagged as link spam by Google’s algorithms. 

To help SEO professionals understand the difference between high-quality links and link spam, Google has outlined what it considers link spam in the Google Search Essentials resource. 

One of the types of link spam is selling or buying backlinks to achieve a higher ranking in organic search. Another example of link spam is exchanging tangible items like payments, services, or products for inbound links. The list goes on to include artificial product reviews, excessive link exchanges, backlinks from low-quality directories, and forum comments that include links in the posts. For the full list of flagged link acquisition strategies, see the link spam section of the Spam policies for Google web search. 

Duy Nguyen, part of Google’s Search Quality Team, shared his thoughts on inbound links and link spam in an article published in Search Engine Roundtable. In answering a question about why Google treats backlinks with such high esteem in SEO if link-building campaigns are seen as spam, Nguyen says that backlinks have lost some of their impact as a ranking signal. He emphasizes that there are hundreds of other ranking signals Google relies on when deciding what pages to rank in the search results. 

Nguyen says, “We have many algorithms capable of detecting unnatural links at scale and nullifying them.” In short, buying links and focusing on link-building schemes can be an unfruitful effort since Google can spot those spammy links algorithmically.

Google Hints That Backlinks Carry Less Weight as a Ranking Factor

Recently, Mueller shared his predictions for the status of inbound links: He thinks backlinks as an organic search ranking signal will carry less weight as the search engine’s algorithms become better at understanding relevant content based on a searcher’s intent. He says that inbound links will still be important, but primarily as a way that will help users and search engines find new content. 

In an article from Search Engine Journal covering a Search off the Record podcast episode, Mueller says, “Well, it’s something where I imagine, over time, the weight on the links at some point will drop off a little bit as we can figure out a little bit better how the content fits in within the context of the whole web.”

He elaborates, saying, “And to some extent, links will always be something that we care about because we have to find pages somehow. It’s like how do you find a page on the web without some reference to it?”

Links, then, will continue to play a role, but more as a discovery vehicle for Google to find new content than as a primary ranking signal within the algorithm. This is a shift that has been coming for a while and that Mueller and other Googlers are saying will continue.

So, if link building is falling by the wayside, where do we focus efforts for SEO?

Improve Organic Search Rankings with Authentic, Helpful Content

Google is focused on rewarding what it perceives as great content. They’ve been saying this for years with their quality rater guidelines, their focus on E-E-A-T (experience, expertise, authority & trustworthiness), and most recently, their updates to the Helpful Content ranking system.

What Google wants to see to improve rankings is a focus on unique and well-written content that provides the best answers to searchers’ queries. Great content is the most prominent Google search ranking signal today. As a result, you should be spending money on content creation and maintenance, not on link-building campaigns that promise a quick fix to your ranking woes. 

When you put emphasis on an SEO content strategy, you will find that over time, other relevant sites will start to naturally link to your content. Those are the kinds of organic, natural ranking signals that Google still prizes.

Only time will tell how much of an impact links continue to have on the Google ranking algorithm. However, Google’s algorithms, policies, and statements all indicate that the days of link-building campaigns are over.

If your goal is long-term, sustainable organic search performance, your focus needs to be on creating rich, user-friendly, helpful content. With great content and strong promotion of that content, the links will follow naturally in time.

For more on where SEO is heading in 2023, don’t miss “4 SEO Trends in 2022 to Renew Your Focus on in 2023.”

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