Matt Cutts, head of Webspam at Google, tackles the future of backlinks in this latest Webmaster Video from Google.
Leah, from New York, asks:
"Google changed the search engine market in the '90s by evaluating a websites backlinks instead of just the content, like others did. Updates like Panda and Penguin show a shift in importance towards content. Will backlinks lose their importance?"
Matt Cutts answers the question head on, explaining that Google will continue to evolve over time, and as that evolution happens, links as a signal might fade "a little bit." Google is working hard to better understand natural language, and assess the true meaning and authority of content on the page. As this happens, links might matter "a little less."
However, links still have "many many years left in them," says Cutts. "I would expect that for the next few years, we will continue to use links in order to assess the basic reputation of pages and of sites."
So, Cutts does say that links might lose a little value over time, but at best that is years from now, and even then links will still be a useful signal. So, if in the next few years SEO, organic search, and organic traffic are important to you, link acquisition will be important as well.
This is certainly not the first time we've heard questions about the strength of links and the future of ranking signals. Just in the last six months Google has had to repeatedly, determinedly, answer a myriad of questions concerning the future of ranking signals, and particularly links.
Google's Recent Responses to Ranking Signal Questions
Most recently there was the Webmaster Video answering a question which assumed that social signals were being added to the search algorithm on a "continued" basis:
Before that was the Webmaster Video answering the question of whether or not Google has tried to exclude links as a ranking signal. Matt Cutts called links a "really, really big win in terms of search quality."
There was also the Webmaster Video directly answering whether or not social signals are part of the algorithm (they're not).
Bear in mind that these are just the times that key Google employees were directly asked about ranking signals, in the last six months, and chose to publicly respond.
So it's not as if Google isn't talking - it just seems like SEOs aren't hearing the message.
Can you even imagine how many questions, requests, and queries Google receives about ranking signals and links? Or how many articles, posts, comments, tweets, etc. are made about ranking signals, week after week?
The point is, SEOs are a bit signal obsessed right now. And I have a theory for that: links are getting harder and harder to acquire, and SEOs are looking for the next golden egg.
Backlink Importance and Difficulty
If there's one thing to take away from these videos, it's that links will continue to remain a strong signal for the foreseeable future. Is Google working to improve their search engine? Absolutely. Are they working to improve the knowledge graph and tackle semantic search? According this latest Cutts video, it does seem that way.
But the bare bones fact is that today, and for at least the next few years, links will be an important signal to Google. If you want to rank for competitive terms in Google, you need a link strategy.
You can't bet the farm on what Google might do, or where Google might go. There's even pretty good odds that links will matter, even after Google begins to introduce new signals and better understand on-page content. Just check out the recent White Board Friday where Rand covers both sides of the issue. Bear in mind as well that Rand has been backing methods other than link building for quite a while.
The point of all this is we need to stop demanding a ranking algorithm from Google that doesn't involve links. The message is loud and clear: links matter, and will continue to for quite some time.
So it's time to stop complaining, and do the hard work it takes to build good links that make sense in today's online ecosystem.