There are few tactics as important for your SEO campaign as link building.
On-site optimization is important for establishing some baseline authority and giving web crawlers ample, relevant content to crawl, but without a strategy to attract or place more inbound links to pass authority to your site, you’ll be forever trapped as a low authority (and low visibility) domain.
Link building isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it strategy, however. It’s come a long way since its first implementation in Google’s early years, and chances are, it’s going to keep evolving as the years progress. In a study by SEO PowerSuite, 72% of SEO professionals believe links are a significant ranking factor, while 24% think they are at least “somewhat important.”
According to Aleh Barysevich, Co-founder and CMO at SEO PowerSuite, “let’s be honest, there’s simply no other factor now to substitute backlinks as a trust and authority factor for Google.” Barysevich also notes that “Numerous SEO studies still show that backlinks correlate with rankings more than any other factor,”citing a study by Stone Temple Consulting.
Clearly, a big part of any SEO strategy depends on link building; so how will you adapt as the field changes? To know that, you first need to know — or at least speculate — how link building best practices are going to change.
The Evolution of Link Building
First, let’s take a look at how link building has changed to get to this point. A few years ago, I wrote an article for Search Engine Land titled 10 ways link building has changed over the last 10 years,” outlining a detailed look at the history of the industry.
PageRank has been the guiding algorithm for Google search since the search engine’s beginnings, and while ranking factors have fluctuated dramatically over the years, the basics of PageRank remain the same. Essentially, the number of links pointing to a domain, and the authority of the sources hosting those links, determine how authoritative the linked-to domain is — and how visible it appears in organic search rankings.
After its first few years were exploited by abusers spamming links using automated software, Google started fighting against such tactics. Slowly, the link spam faded out, but conventional link placement tactics persisted. It wasn’t until the Penguin update in 2012 that Google took a firm stance on link quality, demanding that links be “natural,” and started penalizing sites with links that aren’t relevant, or otherwise appear that they were built solely for the purpose of improving rankings.
This launched an era of “natural link building,” where link building tactics evolved to attracting links naturally with great content (the passive method) and posting high-quality articles on external publications (the proactive method).
For the duration of this article, I’ll be making speculations based on my past experiences and indicators from Google. Rather than serving as hard predictions, think of these as potential branches along which link building could evolve.
For starters, I think we could see a departure from links altogether. A few years ago, the SEO community was abuzz with the concept of brand mentions as the “future of link building.” Correlational data suggested that the mere mention of a brand name, without any hyperlink to tie it back to a domain, was enough to increase that brand’s domain authority (at least in some limited capacity).
This hasn’t grown as a ranking signal, and is difficult to track regardless, but I think the possibility for brand mentions to become more emphasized still exists. Could it replace links entirely? Not on its own, but collectively, it could be another component that weakens the necessity of links.
Rather than explicitly weakening the power of links, I think we’ll see Google increasing the power of other, peripheral factors in the calculation of a domain or page’s authority. These are just two of the factors that could rival links in the future:
· Reviews. Ever since Pigeon’s major overhaul to Google local search, local reviews have grown to matter much more. The quantity and quality of reviews of your business on platforms like Yelp and TripAdvisor significantly impact your rankings in the local 3-pack. In the future, the power of consumer reviews could expand (to more than just third-party review sites), and linguistic indicators like tone could be evaluated to determine review quality. Collectively, reviews could serve as new third-party signals of a brand’s trustworthiness.
· Social signals. Similarly, I think we could see mentions and interactions on social media serving as an independent measure of a brand’s authority. Currently, social signals (such as social shares) matter very little to a page’s rank, but if Google finds a way to objectively monitor and calculate mentions here, it could revolutionize authority on the web.
New Forms of Link Quality Valuation
In addition to new factors, we’ll probably see a revision to how Google evaluates the “quality” of a link. Currently, it uses natural language detection to notice things like excessive exact-match anchor text, and the relationships of different links on the web to proactively detect link schemes.
These evaluating criteria will undoubtedly grow in sophistication and depth in ways we can’t yet predict.
Revision of PageRank
Finally, though it’s unlikely to happen within the next decade, there’s a chance Google could dismantle PageRank altogether as the web starts to take a new form. Mobile apps are already threatening the traditional website as we know it, so it’s not unthinkable to imagine a future in which online search is completely overhauled.
It’s hard to say exactly what Google will do to improve or change link building in the coming years. The only certainty here is that link building best practices will never stop changing. It’s going to keep changing, just as it’s changed to get to this point, and you’ll need to be prepared for those changes if your campaign is going to survive. The more adaptable and alert you remain, the better.
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