A World Without Backlinks: Matt Cutts Doesn’t See It

For years, SEOs have wondered what search would look like if backlinks were eliminated from the equation. Since backlinks are often a major part of spammy practices, some SEOs have speculated that getting rid of backlinks as a ranking factor would allow great SEOs to come out on top while severely impairing black hat SEOs.

Recently, Search Engine Roundtable even asked SEOs to consider how they would respond if backlinks were excluded from the algorithms. The vast majority reported that they would either be excited or curious, with only 17% admitting that they would be very worried. Despite our reliance on backlinks as SEOs, most of us have to recognize that backlinks pose many problems as a ranking factor.

Google’s Perspective on Backlinks

Matt Cutts addressed the idea of search without backlinks in a video that he released two weeks ago. Cutts reports that Google has played around with this idea and has actually run tests to see how search would work without backlinks. Unfortunately, Google found that search was actually much worse without backlinks as a ranking factor. Cutts suggests that backlinks are actually a “really, really big win” for search relevance.

Although Cutts’s revelation about Google’s experiments is fascinating, he also comments that this version of Google isn’t available to the public, which means that SEOs are left to speculate and wonder about how the removal of backlinks would affect the algorithm. In all probability, most of us would be surprised and horrified at how the change would affect our sites.

Why Does It Matter?

The good news about this information is that we now know that backlinks are most likely here to stay. In the world of SEO, uncertainty is a part of daily life, as Google could release a new update at any second that could cause all of your rankings to crash and burn even if you’ve followed best practices.

However, Cutts’s video suggests that backlinks are here to stay. This small level of certainty about the staying power of backlinks means that SEOs need to devise high quality, long-term strategies in relation to backlinks so they can make the most of this ranking factor without succumbing to spammy practices.

Making the Most of Backlinks

So what are the best practices in regard to backlinks in 2014? These days, SEO is all about quality, which applies to backlinks as well. In order to ensure that backlinks will serve as a positive long-term influence on your rankings, ask yourself the following questions about each backlink you build:

  • Is this link valuable to the audience? A backlink should offer a reader the chance to learn more about a topic that is related to the content. If it doesn’t add to the content, it isn’t worthwhile.
  • Is a reader going to be interested in clicking on the backlink? This concern often has to do with how the content portrays the link. A backlink should be at least nominally explained to the reader so that he or she has some incentive to click on the link.
  • Is the link posted on a site that is relevant to my brand? The site where a backlink is posted should have some relation to your goals so that it directs an engaged, relevant audience to your site. It won’t do any good to get traffic from an audience that isn’t actually interested in your brand!
  • Is the content on the specific page relevant to the backlink? Backlinks that don’t really relate to the on-page content look highly spammy and are likely to draw penalties from Google.
  • Is the link unique from other links on the page? Again, it looks highly suspicious for a link to be repeated on the same page. Don’t let it happen!

Remember, the best way to attract quality backlinks is to make sure that your site is worthy of those backlinks. This means building pages that feature a variety of engaging content. Content should also incorporate interactive elements such as videos and images as well as links to more engaging content. By focusing on the quality and relevance of your own site, you increase the chances of attracting excellent backlinks.

Major Pitfalls to Avoid

Even when attempting to follow best practices, there are a number of dangerous backlink pitfalls that must be avoided at all costs:

  • Never pay for backlinks. This one should be obvious, but is worth mentioning. If you pay for backlinks or agree to an underhanded deal, Google will absolutely find out and penalize you. Even if you gain the benefits of the link for a few months, it isn’t worth the long-term damage that will inevitably occur.
  • Don’t allow backlinks to appear on low quality pages. If you find that a backlink to your site has popped up on a low quality site, get it removed as soon as possible. If Google begins to associate your brand with that page, your rankings will begin to drop.

By avoiding these pitfalls and focusing on best practices, SEOs can prepare themselves for long-term success with backlinks. Strong backlinks are capable of providing a steady flow of new traffic, improved social signals, and a greater awareness of a brand.

Do you agree with Matt Cutts that backlinks are a really big win for search relevancy? What is your best advice for building a long-term backlink strategy?

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Sarah Beth

Sarah Beth Wiltse earned her BA in English at Boston University. Though she currently lives in Dallas, TX, she spent a year in Paris, France after college, cultivating her love of the French language and a passion for travelling. She has spent much of her life developing her skills in the arts, primarily as a ballerina, violinist, and pianist - and now, a writer! Follow her on Twitter!

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