Why links still matter, even if Google says otherwise

Zoe Schofield

Acting Head of Digital PR


Google’s latest Core Updates emphasise quality and relevance in search results, downplaying the significance of backlinks in favour of practical, original content. Despite this, digital marketing experts feel that backlinks from authoritative sources are still important, and encourage a more user-centric approach to SEO.

Google’s core updates and the shifting landscape of SEO: Navigating the impact on link signals


In March 2024, Google unveiled its latest “Core Updates,” signaling a renewed commitment to quality and relevance in search results. These updates represent a significant shift in the landscape of SEO, emphasising the importance of valuable and original content to combat clickbait and spam-like tactics.

Google Analyst Gary Illyes has stirred the pot at industry conferences by calling out the diminishing significance of backlinks, stating, “We need very few links to rank pages.” Gary’s assertion, coupled with the rollout of these updates, has sparked apprehension among digital marketers and SEO specialists. The concerns stem from the potential upheaval of traditional SEO expectations and strategies, particularly the pivotal role of link-building.

This blog delves into the dynamic evolution of links in SEO, explores the ramifications of Google’s latest Core Updates on the future of link signals, and offers a few perspectives from our industry experts about these developments.



Tracing the evolution of link-building: From Webrings to automation


Link-building in the 1990s was initially characterised by practices like Webrings. These methods fostered collaboration among digital marketers and business owners by publishing links to each other’s sites. At the time, this approach had minimal spam risks.

However, this changed when “Black Hat” SEO techniques, such as link farms, rose. These networks of interconnected websites aimed to manipulate search engine rankings through excessive hyperlinking. As a result, spammy links became more prevalent, and users increasingly encountered irrelevant content in search results.


Entering the 21st century


Search engine algorithms have become more complex as the 21st century has rolled on. Search engines prioritised quality and relevant content in search results, which meant SEO specialists adjusted strategies to emphasise website authority and the utilisation of semantic signals.

Automation tools have since played a role in optimising outreach and monitoring processes. As digital landscapes evolve, so do SEO strategies. While Google’s recent updates and discussions regarding the decline in the importance of historically valuable links have sparked apprehension, it’s essential to consider the broader context.

Understanding Google’s Updates Regarding Link Signals


Google’s updated spam guidelines, introduced alongside the core updates, outline key changes in link signals. Notably, the emphasis on links as a crucial ranking factor has waned, with Google no longer highlighting their importance in determining relevancy. This adjustment reflects Google’s ongoing effort to prioritise content quality and user experience over manipulative tactics that boost a site’s search rankings.

Google has also broadened its content restrictions, changing the title from “spammy automatically generated content” to “scaled content abuse.” This revision reflects a deeper awareness of generating low-quality content to manipulate linking and ranking signals. Finally, Google introduced two new ranking signals: one to detect manipulative outbound links and the other to evaluate domain usage. Acknowledging scrutinising manipulative outbound links represents a significant shift from previous practices focused on incoming links.

Regarding domain usage, as some expected, Google isn’t targeting expired domains. Instead, Google aims to identify domains engaging in “expired domain abuse,” which involves assessing how domains are used and changes in their content focus.

For instance, Google’s updated guidelines illustrate this tactic by highlighting an example acquisition of a domain formerly associated with a medical website and redirecting it to unrelated or low-quality content, such as casino material. This maneuver exploits the domain’s historical credibility to improve search rankings while often providing minimal or no value to users.

Both signals enhance transparency and clarity by distinguishing between legitimate changes and manipulative tactics.



Reframing the Importance of Links: A Holistic Perspective from Our Experts


Our Head of SEO, James Bentham, disagrees with the concerns about the decline in the importance of links. Despite the recent updates, James believes that links will retain their pivotal role, extending beyond standard SEO strategies to become fundamental elements in successful Digital PR campaigns:

“Google has been telling us for a long time that they are constantly diversifying their ranking signals. Links in isolation may have decreased in importance. Still, the other signals gained from effective digital PR have not: brand awareness, audience engagement, relevance, and link equity, which all still play a part in driving organic performance.”



Headshot of James Bentham, Head of SEO at Search Laboratory digital marketing agency.


One of the main objectives of a successful digital PR campaign is to capture the attention of journalists at high-authority publications, encouraging them to share content with their audience and link back to your site, increasing your value to Google in the process.

Backlinks from authoritative sources, such as reputable and relevant media publications, are crucial. Google continues to rely on these links to assess the trustworthiness and authority of your brand, elevating your website’s ranking in search engine result pages, resulting in increased visibility and engagement.

James believes that Google intends not to devalue links but to promote a more holistic, user-centric approach. Google’s update emphasises on-site content quality, site structure, and website speed. Evolving algorithms now consider a multitude of ranking signals beyond links, leveraging AI advancements to evaluate website content accurately.

While SEO professionals may initially be alarmed by the perceived diminished importance of links, it is essential to acknowledge that links still retain significance. The key lies in diversifying SEO strategies to encompass a broader array of ranking signals and adapting to the ever-changing digital landscape.

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