Google owes their initial success to links – or at least the decision to make links the core of their search algorithm.
Now obviously the internet is an ever-changing, ever-evolving beast, and arguably so too is Google. Much of their success can be attributed to their continual strive to improve and grow.
But Google would never have come to fruition without the fundamental concept of links being an editorial vote. These days, however, SEOs are quick to cast derision on links, with post after post expounding on the manipulation of links and theorizing other possible signals Google could implement beyond links.
The question then, with the evolution of the internet, Google, and SEO, is this: are links still an editorial vote?
My personal answer is a RESOUNDING yes. Links are absolutely still an editorial vote, perhaps moreso now than ever.
I have 5 core reasons for this belief:
- Google has worked hard to improve their algorithmic ability to detect manipulative, low quality, and generally bad links.
- Webmasters (and the rest of the online population) have grown savvier with time and better understand the power of a link, and therefore don’t link nilly-willy.
- Those in control of authority sites are even more aware of the power of links, and are even more reticent to link out.
- Links still have one of the highest barriers of entry in terms of online authority signals.
- SEOs and marketers are a jaded crowd, and forget the inherent trust that comes with a link.
Let’s run through them one-by-one.
Google’s ability to detect and discount bad or manipulative links
Let’s be honest – Google is far from perfect. But no dedicated link builder (or SEO) from before the time of Penguin would argue Google hasn’t made drastic improvements.
The fact of the matter is that Google’s ability to detect manipulative links and discount low quality links has improved considerably in the last few years. Their guidelines, which were previously more or less unenforceable (beyond manual penalties), are getting ever stricter.
What constitutes a good link is a smaller and smaller target. And while this slow degradation of bad links can erode some marketers’ confidence in all links, it is in fact making the good links even better.
Building real links was never easy. It’s always been a human to human task, requiring persuasion, perseverance, value. And in the end, it’s always come down to an editorial vote.
Web users have grown savvier and better understand the power of a link
Google was founded 15 years ago, and has been the leading search engine for many of those.
Even before Google, links had inherent power on the web. They were often used to recommend, cite, or otherwise show trust in another website. Links provided a fundamental pathway from site to site.
The web has been around long enough for it to wholly infect our culture. Kids nowadays grow up playing with smartphones and have an apparent inborn ability to use all things tech. I’m only 27 but I didn't receive my first cell phone until the very end of my senior year in high school. My brother, two years older than me, was only able to call home from college through friend’s land lines.
The point I’m making is that technology becomes ingrained surprisingly fast. Nothing demonstrates that better than cellphones. What was a novelty ~15 years ago is now a basic necessity.
The internet and Google are now in a similar situation: they’re ingrained enough for the online culture to appreciate the power of a link. As time passes this will only be more true, especially as younger people begin to invest in their online identities. Think about how easy it is to hack together a site or blog today with the likes of WordPress, Tumblr, Blogger, etc.
More and more people will be involved in creating and running websites, and as they learn about how to increase the visibility of their site, they’ll learn all about the power of links.
This means that the online population in general will better appreciate what a link represents, and be less likely to link without just cause. Webmasters are on the bleeding edge of this trend, and reticent is probably the best way to describe the current online linking culture (or so it appears to me as a jaded link builder).
This trends is unlikely to reverse. Website owners understand the value of a link, and nobody wants to give something valuable away for free.
Good links have to be earned – through inherent value, persuasiveness, and strong marketing.
Authoritative site owners are commonly hyper vigilant with their links
Owning and managing an authoritative site is no longer a small venture. If you operate an authoritative website, regardless of your niche, you have the strong ability to lead, develop, and grow your industry’s online culture.
Beyond that, any authoritative site has the opportunity to be lucrative. The web is very nearly a modern day gold rush. If you can bring in and control enough traffic, you have many opportunities to make money in a variety of manners, be it ads, product, or services.
All of this means that owning or managing an authoritative site is by nature a professional and business oriented venture. Anyone smart enough to develop and maintain an authoritative site will be savvy enough to understand the power of their links, and what those represent. Each and every link out will be a conscious decision to provide that link - ergo, editorial choice.
The simple truth is that authoritative sites are more hesitant to link out than regular sites, and regular sites are already reticent to link in many cases.
This means that any link you acquire from an authority site will typically be the most editorial link you have.
Links have a high barrier of entry
Not just anyone can link to your site – they need to have their own website first, obviously.
In order for it to be a worthwhile link, their site will need to be in some way relevant to your own site, with a built in community/engaged audience or some sort.
And again, these site owners will understand the value of the link they’re providing, and will be cognizant that that link will have the power to direct people away from their own site to yours.
So, just to review, in order for someone to provide you with a worthwhile link they need:
- To come across you website/content (or have it be presented to them)
- Appreciate the value of your site/content
- Have a website they control
- Be active enough to update their site while your site/content is in their mind
- Link in an SEO friendly manner (no java, redirects, nofollow, etc.)
That’s a far cry from people tweeting, liking, or +1ing your site/content – not to pick on social media. Social media is extremely important, but it really demonstrates the difference between the two as potential ranking signals.
Providing even a low quality link takes considerably more effort than a low quality social share.
So realistically, there’s less likely to be noise that can interfere with links as a signal. Sure, there will be some manipulation, but since there’s a high barrier of entry to link to another site, backlinks serve as a strong signal to Google.
Let’s be honest: SEOs and marketers are a jaded group
Generally speaking marketers and SEOs are a great group to hang around, if you have to pick. However, we have a tendency to be awfully jaded about any form of advertising or messaging.
The first thing the majority of us thought of when we saw Amazon’s drone campaign wasn’t wonder for the future, it was cynicism for the now: what a PR stunt. The FCC hasn’t even weighed in on legalities. Brilliant, but I can’t believe everyone’s falling for it. And so on and so forth.
Worse, as SEOs we tend to see any link, share, tweet, etc. to be the result of a campaign, if not outright manipulation. How many times have you seen a link and immediately jumped to conclusions? We've seen behind the wizard’s curtain like few others, and spend a scary amount of time thinking about these things. We’re all likely one bonk to the head away from putting on a tinfoil hat. And don’t even get us started about Google.
The fact of the matter is, that despite our cynicism, natural links happen. Plenty of editorial links, given naturally and organically, day in and day out. Even when webmasters know and understand the power of a link.
It’s part of what keeps me going as a link builder, really. There’s still sunshine and meadows, even if I feel like I’m stuck in the no-link forest.
Links are still a worthwhile signal for Google to use in search. More than that, I believe links are still an editorial vote in most circumstances. Especially once you take into consideration the links Google likely filters out of the algo.
If forced to point at reasons, there are five that I would give:
- Google’s ability to discount manipulative, low quality, or generally bad links.
- The fact that the internet has become ingrained in our culture, and that users and especially webmasters are savvier than ever.
- Authority sites are even more vigilant with their links, for good reason.
- Linking itself has a high barrier of entry, and thus generates less noise than other potential signals.
- Marketers and SEOs are generally a jaded group, and things tend not to be as bad as we say.
And that is why I think links are not only a worthwhile core signal in Google’s algorithm, but that they still represent an editorial vote.