To answer the question I posed in my title succinctly- not in the near future, no. Link building will not die as long as it continues to evolve. Allow me to explain…
Link building is an integral part of Google’s analysis of the popularity and usefulness of a page or site. Since 1997 and Google’s first algorithm, PageRank, search engines have relied on links to act as votes, representing the internet’s opinion on which pages are important and which come first in the popularity contest. Links are the streets between pages, allowing users to navigate their way around in an efficient way while the search engine analyses metrics such as trust, spam and authority. Until Google can come up with new signals to provide and understand websites, links and link builders are here to stay.
Links aren’t everything in the world of SEO but professionals do believe link-based factors make up a large portion of the search engines algorithms. The engines themselves have refined the use of link data; complex algorithms create nuanced evaluations of sites and pages based on this information. Growing the link profile of a website, through this focus on algorithmic use and analysis of links, is critical to gaining attention and traffic from search engines. As an SEO, link building is among the top tasks that lead to successful search ranking status and a steady flow of traffic to the site.
Trust in websites and pages is key within Google and links are a basis of this trust and authority. Trusted sites tend to link to other trusted sites and ‘spammy’ sites will receive very few links from trusted sources. A link partnership develops with topic-specific sites linking to each other, strengthening the usefulness of the results. Authority models suggest links are an excellent way of identifying expert documents on a given subject with ease. Websites can boost their score by earning links from highly trusted domains such as government sites or non-profit organizations. This creates a strong, solid network that works well with regards to the needs of the consumer and it is showing no signs a weakening. Although over 60% of web pages are considered spam, to get rid of the irrelevant content, search engines use systems for measuring trust, many of which are based on a link graph. Your ‘link neighbourhood’ is important; if you aren’t selective when choosing who to link to and who to earn links from, you could end up damaging your site. Links are still incredibly important when selling your site. Google won’t trust those in cahoots with spammers and neither will prospective consumers.
Links themselves do decay over time; fresh links are needed to avoid stale sites and to allow Google to judge the current popularity and relevance of your site fairly. As it stands, those with the freshest links to high quality sites rank highest in the popularity contest that is Google.
Social sharing is treated differently to standard links. An explosion in the amount of media shared on networks such as Facebook and Twitter show the rising importance of social channels and their influence on the continuity of links. In 2011 and 2012 there was a huge rise in social sharing- Google incorporated a huge number of social signals into search results leading to personalised results for logged-in users who used their social influence to gain promotions. Sharing and natural linking can be useful, informative and humorous, creating a viral effect. People can see information through shares and links. For search marketers, the potential power shift to social media is huge. High quality, editorially earned votes are invaluable to building trust and ranking potential. Those with a larger social circle who share a lot are more likely to see their material promoted in search results. Links are still seen to be superior and a more lasting way to promote popularity, but this evolution of the link highlights link building’s ability to adapt and stay alive.
Link building is almost always seen to be the most challenging part of SEO and with recent Google updates, such as Hummingbird and Penguin, it is getting increasingly difficult. It is also still one of the most critical to the success of a website, involving creativity, energy and often a budget. No two link building campaigns are the same; they depend of the site itself and the personality behind it. By exploring backlinks of sites that are already doing well, SEOs can get an idea of what is needed to make a success of their new site. Consistent delivery of excellent results can be seen to be primarily down to the impact of high quality back links. Links that send high amounts of direct click through traffic tend to provide better search engine value rankings and send targeted, valuable visitors to you site.
The role of a link builder has developed over the years. Perhaps ‘link builder’ as a title is no longer sufficient as the role now encompasses PR and brand building, as well as a closer relationship with social media teams. They have to learn a broader range of skills and develop their knowledge of marketing. Data capture, email marketing and social media all go into a successful link building strategy. This need for the development of new skills can be attributed to the introduction of the Penguin algorithm by Google. Penguin performed a clean-up and penalised those with unethical link building strategies and backlink profiles, both manually and algorithmically. Shortcuts are no longer successful. Link building has had to develop; creating better sites and thus avoiding becoming obsolete.
In the same way a bumper sticker or t-shirt can be used to advertise, a link will provide a visible and quick advert for your site. They allow conversations to occur across the web, linking fresh material and creating a trusted network to help one another progress. Link building has maintained its position as one of the most important marketing tools increase search visibility.
‘There’s this perception that everything will go social or that links will go obsolete, and I think it’s premature to reach that conclusion,’ claimed Matt Cutts, head of web spam at Google, in June 2012. ‘I don’t doubt that in ten years things will be more social and those will be more powerful signals, but I wouldn’t write the epitaph for links quite yet’. However, in October of this year, he changed his tune slightly. Although he is not writing off links immediately (believing ‘backlinks have many, many years left in them.’), he goes on to state that backlinks may, over time, have less emphasis put on them, but we will still use them to determine the basic reputation of sites for the time being, at least until new signals are developed.
Links are still valuable. Organic search is still the biggest referrer of traffic and sales for many e-commerce clients. In this case, it is important to maintain and improve your position in search results. If you don’t you miss out on a wealth of traffic so it’s important to be at the top. Getting to the top still requires all elements of SEO (including link building) working in close proximity to each other. Links remain core to Google’s algorithm, despite various updates over the years. There is no getting away from link building if you want to rank with Google, at least not in the near future.
In February of this year, Cutts said, in one of his videos on the Google Webmasters Youtube channel, that Google had internally tested search engine results without links and it was a disaster – ‘turns out backlinks, even though there’s some noise and certainly a bit of spam, for the most part are still a really, really big win in terms of quality for search results.’
Google and internet users in general have always relied on links; originally they were navigational tools to get from one place to another and directories were popular for being a list of links or resources to help find what the user was looking for. Google results are still, essentially, a list of (hopefully) relevant links to what you want. Google are always searching for more data, more signals and more indicators as to whether a certain page is a good result. Once they find these and gain more intelligence and understanding, we can assume that, as a natural consequence, links will be diluted. Signals such as location, device and search history are also being used by search engines now. As a result, links valued by Google will be ones you can get as a result of a great product and great marketing. Links, for the foreseeable future, will be a ranking factor in some way or another. They aren’t going anywhere fast but the world of the web is changing and the world of SEO and link building needs to keep up. As long as links influence search rankings, they remain important.