For SEO, links are even more important than you think

Ignore them at your peril, a new study suggests

It's a rare business today that doesn't take at least some steps to optimize its website for search-engine rankings, but how best to do that remains an open question. A new study published Wednesday suggests that inbound links -- those leading from other websites into your own -- are even more critical than you may think.

Search engine optimization, or SEO, essentially refers to all the things you can do to give your website the best possible placement in unpaid search results. If you sell widgets, you want your page to place as close as possible to the top of Google's results when someone searches on the term "widgets."

The trick is making that happen. Google uses a ranking algorithm that combines more than 200 factors, and it doesn't fully disclose what they are. In a recent online discussion, it said that its new RankBrain machine-learning system is currently the third most important factor, topped by content and links.

Aiming to test assertions that links have declined in importance amid so many other factors in the ever-evolving mix, Stone Temple Consulting performed a different kind of analysis than previous studies have done and found that links are far more important than most others have shown.

"We don’t find that links can rescue poor-quality content, or cause low-relevance content to rank," wrote Eric Enge, the firm's founder and CEO, in an explanation of the results. Nevertheless, the data "strongly suggests that links continue to play a major role in rankings."

Multiple studies have suggested that the importance of links remains undiminished, said Greg Sterling, vice president for strategy and insights with the Local Search Association.

"The core thesis behind Google's original PageRank algorithm -- that links are the web's democratic way of identifying the best and most authoritative content -- appears to remain at the core of Google's ranking methodology, even in a time of vastly more signals," Sterling said.

"Link building has to be part of your plan if you have any level of competition," agreed David Hood, whose professional title is the Dallas SEO Geek.

Still, Hood did caution against putting too much stock in metrics focusing on the number of incoming links rather than their quality. Though Stone Temple did acknowledge a similar point, its data focused primarily on link quantity rather than quality. "That's like a quantity of rocks," Hood said. "You can have pebbles, you can have boulders -- there's a wide variety in the effectiveness of links."

For the average business, it's important not to lose sight of the big picture, said Jason McDonald, director of JM Internet Group.

"This very important study is really 'inside baseball,' meaning it is really experts talking to the experts," McDonald explained. "If the average small business owner or marketer merely became 'link aware' and solicited legitimate inbound links from ecosystem partners, got listings in legitimate directories such as professional associations, trade shows, etc., nine times out of 10, they will outrank their competitors."

For local businesses, an even better approach is getting real customer reviews on Google.

"Reviews are as important, if not more important, than links for local businesses," he said. "You do not have to run faster than the bear; just faster than your buddy."

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