When it comes to SEO, there are a lot of things you need to focus on. The fact that the algorithms change all the time certainly doesn’t help matters. Many people have ditched the idea of link building, and that can be a huge mistake. The reality is that you need to still have links.
In short, search engines view links pointing to your site as votes of confidence in the quality of your content. The more links you have from high-quality, relevant sources, the more likely you are to rank for your target keywords.
Google spreads a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt around link building to scare off business owners who might want to try it. However, it’s still part of the algorithm that they use links pointing to your site is crucial for ranking in competitive search results. The main thing Google wants to discourage is the use of low-quality, spammy link building tactics that are an attempt to manipulate the search results.
Moz recently conducted a survey featuring the top Google search results for approximately 17,000 keywords comparing factors link the number of links pointing to page and how they page ranked in search results. This made it easier to see which factors correlate with the higher rankings as well as how frequently those characteristics are present on the websites.
It is important to remember that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. It doesn’t prove or disprove that the feature is part of the algorithm used by Google, but it can be a very strong indicator.
Individual pages can be ranked without links as long as your website as whole has a strong inbound link profile. Essentially, this means that the SEO strength from inbound links pointing to your homepage can spread to the other pages throughout your website. However, having relevant links point directly to the page your want to rank will be much more effective.
If you are going to focus on more obscure phrases, you may not need the links, or at least not many of them. However, the keywords and phrases that you use would have to be noncompetitive in its entirety. If there are more than a company or two using the same keywords, it is more beneficial to focus on having some inbound links to your website in order to improve your overall SEO and ensure that you are not invisible within Google and all of the other major search engines.
The future of search and potential alternatives to links
While links are firmly entrenched in search algorithm today, are there other factors that could take over in the future? There a couple different factors that search engines could start to consider when it comes to search results, but each of these have their own drawbacks.
First, many people have speculated that Google looks at social data when determining rankings. And in fact, Moz's study does show a positive correlation between things like Facebook shares and higher rankings. However, the mostly likely explanation there isn't that social share are causing high rankings but rather that pages that tend to rank well also tend to be very shareable on social media.
A big reason why search engines can't heavily depend on social data is that it would be too easy to manipulate. We already discussed Google discouraging people from using low quality link building tactics to manipulate rankings. Well, it'd be even easier for spammers to manipulate social signals to get higher rankings, and it'd be nearly impossible to search engines to control since they'd be depending on data from other businesses like Facebook and Twitter.
Second, it's possible for search engines to use machine learning more heavily in their algorithms. Google almost certainly uses machine learning in their algorithm today, but they still retain human control over the major components of the algorithm.
If Google were to hand over complete control of their algorithm to machine learning, they wouldn't be able to use human input as a factor in determine results. The algorithm could end up considering ranking factors that have nothing to do with website or content quality. Ultimately, the lack of control would prevent Google from going too deep into machine learning.
Lastly, the biggest potential change to search down the road is virtual personal assistants like Siri from Apple and Cortana from Microsoft. These platforms could revolutionize the way he process data in our personal lives. However, they're still several years away from handling anything beyond basic tasks and questions and it's still too early to know exactly how virtual personal assistants will change the way businesses operate online.
In the end, building links is important and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Even though Google may try to discourage link building, when built correctly, inbound links are a safe and effective strategy for improving your search presence.
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