Do Links Still Matter for SEO?

You'll need additional strategies to succeed

Your link building strategy should be mixed with other SEO tactics. Getty Images
Headshot of Molly St. Louis

Here’s a shocker for you: the SEO landscape is changing. Just when you think you’ve mastered the basics, the ground shifts beneath your feet. Marketers are used to the goal posts constantly moving when it comes to SEO. But the one thing that’s always been constant over the years is links.

Links, links, links.

Companies have been trying to get ahold of links like the prospectors in the California Gold Rush of 1848. But in the scramble to accumulate links, blinded by the illusion of a massive payout, they may be missing a trick.

In fact, links may not always help your site’s ranking or visibility.

Even Google’s John Mueller said, “SEOs often focus on links too much, it doesn’t always help their sites in the long run or is probably not the most efficient thing to do to promote a website.”

So, if SEO professionals shouldn’t chase their tails looking for links, what else should they be doing?

Well, Mueller isn’t saying that links are dead. In fact, far from it. You still need authoritative links from legitimate companies to validate your status and separate you from the spam. But your link building strategy should be mixed with other SEO tactics as well.

Creating quality video content

You know the importance of creating quality content. And then doing your best to get that content looked at, liked and shared, creating organic links to your website. But if you want to keep drawing an audience, you’ll need to add a new page to your playbook.

Fifty-five percent of all Google searches bring up videos in the results. Video content is fast gaining in popularity, set to make up more than 80 percent of all web traffic by 2021.

It’s not just that people are watching more videos. Google is prioritizing pages with videos embedded in them. Since Google owns YouTube, using this giant social media platform to embed your video is a winning combination.

Have you noticed? Google has even started to add videos to image searches. So, rather than focusing all your marketing budget on chasing links, try attracting them organically. Get some videos done, host them on YouTube and watch your SERP ranking go up.

Also, think about that other Google ranking factor: time spent on page. Videos (good ones) keep eyeballs on your site for longer. That means that you’ll increase engagement and site stickiness, without obsessing over links.

Spend more time on on-page optimization

Remember all your website and blog pages? The ones you searched keywords for, figured out a strategy and ensured they hit a well-balanced keyword density?

Well, that may have worked in the past, but as AI becomes more widely adopted, voice search is gaining in traction. It’s important to take into account that people don’t speak the way they type.

So if you want to come up first in Google searches, you need to start focusing on keywords and phrases the way that people say them. They don’t say “New York restaurants” or “steel-capped boots.”

They’re much more likely to utter the entire phrase: “What’s the best restaurant in New York?” or “What are the best steel-capped boots for construction work?”

These kinds of long tail keywords may have been frowned on in the past, for containing stop words. But now sites that are preparing to be voice search-friendly are getting ahead in the race.

If you can answer questions that people have in a concise and simple manner, you’ll land one of Google’s snippets, way more powerful than any ad. So for example, provide the best answer to the question “What is Bitcoin?” or “How many frogs live in Africa?” and you’ll shoot to the top of the ranking.

Invest in technical SEO

It’s fundamental that your site’s performance and usability go hand-in-hand with the number of links you have. Site speed is one of the most important metrics and a Google ranking factor.

Nearly half of all web users abandon a site that doesn’t load in at least three seconds and that doesn’t work well for your sales or your ranking. You could be adding impactful images and informative videos, but if your site loads too slowly, no one will ever see them.

Google also prioritizes websites that are secure. In fact, starting next month, all sites that are HTTP only will be marked as not secure. This is another major reason to invest in your technical SEO and not just your links.

Also, keep in mind that more browsing is done on mobile rather than desktops. So, ensure that your site is optimized for mobiles with AMP pages that Google also gives points to.

To sum it up

Yes. Links still matter for SEO. But not if you’re linking to a thin site with a slow load that has shallow content and multiple errors, or that looks hideous on a mobile.

Make sure that you budget your SEO hours accordingly. Rather than spending all your time looking for links, ensure that your content and website are optimized and ready for these changes. And then, start getting ready for the next ones.

@MollStLouis Molly St. Louis is a freelance writer for Adweek.