Once very influential, incoming links have lost ground. Are they still essential in SEO?
A few years ago, netlinking was a business in its own right: backlink was “sold” and “bought” at all costs. Because Google had made it the pillar of web page positioning, a site could only hope to rank on the top places in the SERPs by displaying a nice list of incoming links – even if it meant that these links were the subject of a real smuggling. But things have changed a lot, and SEO specialists now swear by the quality of content or technical performance. Boosted by the machine learning and by the ever-increasing demands of Internet users, SEO is reinventing itself in SXO to give pride of place to the user experience – understanding the intentions behind requests, proposing an intuitive website, accompanying the visitor throughout his purchase journey, etc. In this context, does the practice of netlinking for referencing still make sense?
For a long time, backlink (= incoming link) has been the pillar of natural referencing strategies. The referrers “raised” links in industrial quantities in dedicated farms, in order to bring SEO juice to their customers’ pages, and thus boost their positioning in Google’s SERPs and others. For Google’s robots, links work like highways: they are the safest and fastest way to get from one site to another. The equation was therefore simple: the more links there were to a website (internal mesh, links from third party sites), the better the pages of the latter were positioned by Google’s algorithms.
In facts, netlinking has not lost all its importance. A US study (to be consulted in its entirety on this page) has shown that a coherent linkbuilding strategy remains decisive, since the ranking of a given page is always correlated to the number of links pointing to it. But the study weighs this importance when it states, in conclusion, that only links from authoritative sites really matter; and that “links cannot rescue poor quality content, nor allow irrelevant content to position itself well”.
Does this mean that the practice of netlinking no longer makes sense as part of an SEO strategy?
Not at all. Simply put, the linkbuilding has fundamentally changed. What needs to be integrated is that added value and interactions are much more important than just internal links to a page.
– The added value refers to the quality of the pages of a website, and their informative potential in the eyes of Internet users.
In today’s SEO context, the observation is very simple: a page is well positioned on Google when it deals qualitatively with a given subject. The best example is the famous Zero Position. (This does not in any way affect the essential work on the technical aspect of SEO, please note.)
– Interactions concern the different actions carried out by Internet users on a given publication, as well as the communication biases between brands/companies and their prospects/customers. Newsletters, internal forums or social interactions (sharing, likes, retweets, etc.) now have a significant influence on the popularity of a page and the way it is positioned by Google.
As such, backlinks only make sense if they generate clicks. This is the hallmark of SXO (Search eXperience Optimization), which is supposed to be the logical evolution of SEO: we literally try to “kill the click”, i.e. to ensure that the Internet user is so satisfied with his choice of link in the SERPs that this click is the last one in the context of his specific request. However, the click from a third party site rarely makes it possible to be definitive… In this sense, popularity, reputation and conversion are the markers to be taken into account, much more than SEO juice – which is no longer a totem of natural referencing.
Today, a backlink is therefore mainly useful as an entrance door to a website… or as a recommendation provided by a normal user. Because, as the Harris Interactive study again shows us, consumers are most sensitive to the speeches of their loved ones (65%) and online comments posted by other Internet users (51%).
Morality: it is more effective to seek natural backlinks, posted without any incentive by Internet users who appreciate your content, products, services or interventions, rather than to rely on the authority of intermediate sites for your incoming links.
Netlinking has changed
Netlinking has not (yet) disappeared, but it is undeniable that it has changed, and that its role in the SEO strategy is no longer the same as before. Today, the success of an SEO approach is based on the strategy as a whole rather than on a single lever such as linkbuilding.