The Changing Landscape of SEO: Backlinks No Longer a Top 3 Ranking Factor, Says Google

For over a decade, backlinks have been considered the backbone of search engine optimization (SEO). Marketers, webmasters, and business owners have invested countless hours and resources into building links to boost their search engine rankings and drive organic traffic. However, recent statements from Google representatives suggest that the role of backlinks in SEO is changing dramatically.

In September 2023, during the Pubcon Pro conference, Google Search Analyst Gary Illyes made a surprising declaration: "I believe [backlinks] are important, but I think people overestimate their significance. I don‘t agree that they are in the top three [ranking factors]. They haven‘t been for some time." This statement challenges the long-held belief that backlinks are one of the most crucial factors in achieving high rankings on Google.

A Brief History of Backlinks in SEO

To understand the significance of Illyes‘ statement, let‘s take a look at the history of backlinks in SEO. In the early days of Google, the PageRank algorithm revolutionized search by using links as a proxy for a webpage‘s importance and authority. The more links a page had pointing to it, especially from other reputable websites, the higher it would rank in search results.

This system, while effective, was also prone to manipulation. Unscrupulous marketers engaged in spammy link building tactics like link farms, comment spam, and hidden links to game the system. In response, Google released algorithm updates like Penguin to penalize these practices and reward more natural, editorial links.

Over time, Google‘s algorithms have become increasingly sophisticated, incorporating factors beyond just link quantity and quality. Advancements in natural language processing, machine learning, and user data analysis have allowed Google to better understand the content and context of webpages, as well as user behavior and experience.

The Diminishing Impact of Backlinks

The shift away from backlinks as a dominant ranking factor has been gradual but steady. In 2016, Andrey Lipattsev, a Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google, stated that content, links, and RankBrain were the top three ranking factors. However, more recent statements from Google representatives suggest that this is no longer the case.

In addition to Gary Illyes, other Googlers have commented on the declining importance of backlinks. Duy Nguyen from Google‘s search quality team acknowledged, "First, backlinks as a signal has a lot less significant impact compared to when Google Search started out many years ago." John Mueller, another prominent Google figure, has also suggested that Google may continue to devalue backlinks over time in favor of other factors.

This isn‘t to say that backlinks have become irrelevant overnight. They still serve important functions like aiding content discovery, passing referral traffic, building credibility, and providing a competitive edge in some cases. However, their role as a direct, dominant ranking factor appears to be diminishing.

Several studies and case studies support this trend. A 2020 study by Ahrefs found that 66.31% of pages in the top 10 Google search results had zero backlinks from other websites (Source). This suggests that it‘s entirely possible to rank well for certain queries without an extensive backlink profile.

Number of Referring Domains Percentage of Top 10 Pages
0 66.31%
1 12.04%
2-5 11.44%
6-10 3.31%
11-50 4.55%
51-100 0.85%
100+ 1.50%

Data Source: Ahrefs study of 3 million search queries, June 2020

Illyes himself cited an example of a website with no backlinks that consistently ranked #1 for its target keyword, solely due to the strength of its content. As Google‘s ability to assess content quality and relevance improves, the relative weight of backlinks in the algorithm appears to be decreasing.

The Rise of Other Ranking Factors

So if backlinks are losing their dominance, what factors are taking their place? While Google‘s exact algorithm remains a closely guarded secret, industry studies and statements from Google representatives point to a few key areas:

  1. Content Quality and Relevance
    Google has consistently emphasized the importance of high-quality, relevant content. With advanced natural language processing capabilities like BERT and MUM, Google can better understand the meaning and context of webpages and assess how well they match user intent.

  2. User Experience and Engagement
    Metrics like dwell time, bounce rate, and click-through rate give Google valuable insights into how users interact with search results and websites. Sites that provide a positive user experience and keep visitors engaged are likely to be rewarded in rankings.

  3. Mobile-Friendliness and Page Speed
    With the majority of searches now occurring on mobile devices, Google has made mobile-friendliness a key ranking factor. Websites that are optimized for mobile and load quickly are more likely to rank well and retain users.

  4. E-A-T and YMYL Considerations
    For queries that fall under "your money, your life" categories, Google places extra emphasis on a website‘s expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-A-T). Signals like author reputation, source credibility, and content accuracy play a bigger role in these verticals.

  5. Technical SEO and Site Architecture
    Factors like site structure, navigation, schema markup, and indexability still matter for SEO. Websites that make it easy for search engines to crawl and understand their content are more likely to rank well.

The key takeaway is that modern SEO requires a holistic, multi-faceted approach. Relying solely on backlinks is no longer a viable long-term strategy. Successful websites will be those that prioritize content quality, user experience, and technical best practices in addition to earning natural, relevant links.

Adapting Your SEO Strategy

In light of these changes, how should website owners and marketers adapt their SEO strategies? While link building still has a place, it should be seen as a byproduct of creating exceptional content and earning visibility in your industry, rather than an end in itself.

Some modern, effective link building tactics include:

• Publishing original research, data, and insights
• Creating comprehensive, definitive guides on key topics
• Collaborating with influencers and thought leaders on content
• Earning media mentions and coverage through digital PR
• Building a strong brand and community in your niche

By focusing on content quality and thought leadership first and foremost, you‘ll naturally attract links from people who find your content valuable and want to share it with their own audiences.

At the same time, diversifying your SEO efforts across multiple ranking factors is crucial. Invest in areas like:

• Improving your website‘s user experience and mobile-friendliness
• Optimizing for page speed and Core Web Vitals
• Enhancing your content‘s depth, accuracy, and relevance to search intent
• Strengthening your brand‘s E-A-T through author profiles, external reviews, and accuracy
• Ensuring your website is technically sound and easily crawlable

By taking a well-rounded approach to SEO and adapting to Google‘s evolving priorities, you‘ll be better positioned to succeed in the long run, regardless of the specific weight given to backlinks or any other individual factor.

The Future of SEO

As Google‘s algorithms continue to evolve, powered by advancements in AI and access to vast troves of user data, the role of backlinks in SEO will likely continue to shift. In the future, we may see links carrying even less direct weight as Google becomes better at understanding content quality and context on its own.

However, links will remain a fundamental part of the web and how we discover, share, and assess information online. As long as links exist, they will likely influence SEO to some degree, even if indirectly.

The most successful websites will be those that can adapt their strategies to align with Google‘s increasing focus on user experience, content quality, and holistic optimization. By creating link-worthy content and earning backlinks organically, while simultaneously improving their on-site SEO and brand authority, they‘ll be well-equipped to rank well and drive traffic no matter how the algorithm evolves.

One thing is certain: the era of manipulative link building and gaming the system is over. Google has made it clear that they will continue to penalize spammy tactics and reward sites that provide genuine value to users. The way forward is to focus on creating exceptional content, building real relationships, and earning links and visibility through true industry expertise and high-quality digital marketing.

Ultimately, the decline of backlinks as a dominant ranking factor presents an opportunity for websites to refocus on what matters most: serving their audience with outstanding content and experiences. By keeping that north star in mind and continuously adapting to Google‘s priorities, savvy marketers and SEOs can future-proof their strategies and achieve enduring success in organic search.

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