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Do links really matter in search rank? Google sets the story straight

By Iris Hearn

Do links really matter in search rank? Google sets the story straight

Links have always been a core pillar of SEO.

Both inbound and outbound links can generate traffic to your web pages and provide valuable context to Google on how authoritative your site is, and what it's all about.

But how vital are they to your ranking performance, exactly?

 Join the IMPACT coaches for a deep dive on a new topic every month in our free virtual event series.

This question was explored in a recent Google Webmaster Central Hangout session, where a participant asked Google’s John Mueller a hypothetical question on what would happen if a well-ranking site changed all of it’s outbound links to “nofollow.”

Mueller’s answer prompted a discussion on how influential links are when weighted against other factors Google evaluates for ranking purposes.

His insights provided valuable information for marketers and SEO professionals on understanding how Google crawls and makes sense of the information on your website.

The verdict

Mueller explained that while links remain an important ranking factor, there are many more signals beyond just links that Google looks at when evaluating a website.

“With regards to does Google rely more or less on links, I think that’s really hard to say and it really depends from case to case.”

“It’s not the case that we have like a fixed weight and say this factor plays 10% of the role and this factor plays 10% of the role and those 10% are going to be the same across all queries and intents and across all websites.”

Here, Mueller is essentially saying that (surprise!) there is no set “recipe” that Google evaluates to determine ranking.

We often talk about how SEO is becoming more human. Well, that means while Google uses an algorithm to rank websites, it’s advanced enough to take in the whole picture of the website and its users search intent, rather than just weighing all elements the same across the board.

The process is similar to how you’d evaluate candidates in the interview process.

Sometimes, one candidate might have the right experience and skills on paper, but another candidate with slightly fewer credentials may still win out based on soft skills.

Just like interviewing, Google tackles SEO with the same mindset - the individual factors matter, but it’s not a templated process.

Ranking & user intent

Mueller goes on to elaborate on this process, explaining that links can’t save a website that otherwise don’t provide value to searchers.

“It’s not that rare that I run across a question in the help forums or somewhere else where people say… my site is not ranking anymore…"

"I look at it with the team and links are not a problem with that. …but rather everything else around the website or on the website being more of a problem. Sometimes it’s as simple as… you don’t explicitly mention what you want to rank for on your pages.”

Mueller is referring to is user intent - or how well does your web page actually answer the users question they’re searching for?

"User intent" refers to the driving reason behind a searcher's query. A search for "puppy" doesn't have a strong intent — are they looking for pictures? Facts about breeds? Care information? On the other hand, a search for "puppy training in Seattle, WA" has a very strong intent: this user wants to train their puppy, they're probably looking for help in Seattle, and they may wish to sign up for a class. Try to craft content that satisfies your searchers' intent.” (Source)

At the end of the day, Google’s goal is to provide the most high-quality, valuable listings to searchers. If they didn’t do this, users would find another search engine that did it better. For this reason, Google’s looking for sites that provide clear, concise answers to queries.

If your website doesn’t have content that can clearly answer your customer's questions, Google will find another site that does. This is why keywords and content remain an important factor in SEO - it’s not about “cracking” the algorithm as it is about proving to Google (and your users!) that you have the most valuable answer to your audience's queries.

Mueller went on to talk about how Google looks at user intent in the ranking process and discussed how that can overrule the weight links are assigned in the process:

“These things vary quite a bit. So… obvious use case is when something happens in the news… if you search for it in the last couple of days you probably will find a lot of articles that don’t have a lot of links yet because they’re so fresh and they’re so new. But they’re extremely relevant for this particular query."

"So even there you can see that… the weights of the individual factors that we have, they can vary quite a bit."

"…that’s kind of also why I sometimes when people ask me all of these detailed questions about links something I’ll say well maybe you’re focusing too much on links. …we do use links in our systems but links are definitely not the only thing and they’re definitely not the only thing that you really need to be focusing on, even if you’re in a fairly competitive area.”

Essentially, Mueller is saying that focusing too much on individual ranking factors, like links, can be less productive than focusing on producing great content that answers your users questions.

So, despite what many say, blogging for business is not dead. When done right, high-quality content can be prioritized as a ranking factor over the technical elements.  

Takeaway for marketers

When it comes to SEO, too many think of it as a strict rubric of what your website needs to have to be successful.

In reality, that’s not the case.

While I’m not saying that marketers shouldn’t familiarize themselves with Google’s ranking factors, it’s less about adhering to various guidelines than it is about creating a great web experience for your users.

Google evaluates pages based on various factors, and they change frequently.

Still, what they consider high-quality pages remains the same: E-A-T.

E-A-T is an acronym that is frequently referenced in Google’s Search Quality Rater Guidelines, and stands for expert, authoritative, and trustworthy. *TRIVIA ANSWER*

Sites that don’t display these three characteristics are seen as lower quality, while sites that regularly display this with their content, user activity, and domains linking back to them are continually rewarded.

Regardless of how algorithms change overtime, if you model your website & content strategy after these pillars, rather than worrying about small components of individual ranking factors, you’ll find more success in the long-term.

Join the IMPACT coaches for a deep dive on a new topic every month in our free virtual event series.


Search Engine Optimization
Published on December 4, 2019

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