Quality links don’t matter.
Let’s say it again: Quality links don’t matter.
Confused yet? If you’ve been reading blog after blog explaining the nuances between quality links and bad links, which have been around for years in the SEO world, then you’re probably wondering how we can say this. And if you know what PureLinq’s business model is about, you’re likely to even more baffled.
Don’t worry, you’re not alone. A recent survey from Rand Fishkin’s new company SparkToro surveyed over 1,500 SEO professionals and suggests that SEOs believe “quality of linking sites & pages” is a heavily weighted variable within Google’s rankings. There are also plenty of high-profile digital marketing and SEO professionals that insist that quality links are critical to SEO success.
But we don’t think quality links make a difference in your SEO strategy. Why? Because quality is too hard to define and because Google is constantly changing.
Before we head too far down the path of evaluating what defines link quality, let’s start by anchoring down in what we do know.
Linking still matters.
Yes, we aren’t throwing out everything here. Linking is one of the most important things you can do to encourage Google to push your ranking up. It establishes authority and grounds your site in the crowded space where it’s competing. In fact, links are still one of Google’s top three ranking factors.
Linking will impact your site, and it will do so in any of these three ways:
- Positive: Increased or help to maintain traditional ranking or visibility secured special snippets (e.g. answer boxes)
- Neutral: Has no measurable impact or no impact
- Negative: A reduction in traditional ranking or loss of visibility
Naturally, the goal is to have a positive impact from linking. The fear associated with bad links is rooted in horror stories of Google suddenly deciding to audit the site’s linking strategy, where it finds a ton of spammy links that go to bizarre sites that often have no real purpose. Google is smart enough to tell that this is happening, and they will penalize sites for it. As the links signal poor authority, authority drops, and so does ranking. This is what pushed many SEOs to start cataloging what is considered the practice of “quality” linking.
A quick glance at blogging on this topic reveals some articles that date all the way back to the early 2010s. Additionally, new articles pop up or updates are made to establish “what’s now relevant in [insert year here].” It appears that no one has been able to fully figure out what Google determines is a quality link, at least not for any considerable amount of time. This isn’t a surprise. As soon as you put your finger on something with Google, it changes.
So don’t stop linking altogether. But you can stop searching for a magic potion with excessive attention on generating (and judging) quality links.
Plenty of people have attempted to define what a quality link actually is. However, it’s not exactly easy to find. The SEO industry doesn’t have access to a lot of reliable information when it comes to evaluating a site’s quality—or even what this ominous word means. And Google offers up little information beyond the link scheme guidelines, which are almost useless when selecting a link strategy or site.
After years of talking to SEOs about link building and building over 10,000 links at Pure Linq, we’ve seen a wide range of understanding of site quality. In addition, clients have come to us for help after receiving manual actions, all in an effort to better understand what Google is thinking and to try and outsmart it.
So what is considered a quality link? The easiest definition is something like this from Neil Patel: “a link that comes from a high domain authority website that is well-trusted by search engines and searchers alike.”
This sounds good. But how do you evaluate this? Turns out, it’s not as easy as it sounds.
We are now living in a time when SEO industry tools are available and readily used. Very few sites do not investigate their progress without the help of Google, Moz, SEMRush, or others. But the metrics that you can access using these programs don’t cover all the variables we must review to evaluate a site’s impact on ranking.
There are a number of variables that come into play with Google. Here are just a few of the top ones out there:
But these are metrics that common SEO tools cannot truly evaluate. For example, how can we really know if Google thinks an article is readable or not? While there are content writing add-ons available that supposedly tell you, this decision is based on a formula that includes length, complexity, and even spacing. If you use one of these add-ons as your only guide for readability, you’ll probably end up with an article that has few words over five characters, lots of short paragraphs and doesn’t end up saying much. Having tested these tools, it’s safe to say that there is a lot of wiggle room when it comes to the idea of readability.
Likewise, context is something that Google places a high value on. But just look at how complicated SEO context can quickly become. It’s no one’s fault here, but context is another concept that’s always shifting. Even back when SEOs started to notice this shift from simple content to context, it was a lot of information to take in. By now, we can be sure that Google has added even more nuances to their understanding of context as it pertains to ranking.
If you want to offer something of value that naturally starts to rank higher, then you can’t simply rely on a machine or a formula. Sorry to break it to you. We’d all love it if there was a way of “beating Google,” but compare the number of resources that Google can employ to create new algorithms against your own resources available to spend time cracking this code.
Not exactly a fair fight.
Because Google is so obtuse, most of us lean on a couple of tried-and-true things to create a quality site. Engaging visuals and evergreen content are two of these factors. We know that every site needs attractive, authoritative rich content that includes imagery and is easy to understand.
The new content standard has become, “Does this solve my customer’s problem?” As Google outpaces our strategies with their algorithm updates, we have generally stopped chasing complex content marketing efforts and landed on a goal of simply making sense for the people that read it. If it is the best answer out there to the problem, it will perform well. There are a number of resources available for creating smart SEO-driven content, so don’t get too worried if you still want a roadmap.
We know that links matter for SEO. Linking establishes authority. Linking draws an attractive spider web around your site. Linking encourages the natural dialogue between sites. All of this is the stuff that Google loves. As it becomes more and more human-like, Google wants to be a fly on the wall of every online conversation between subject matter experts.
Who are these experts? Who do they work for? What are they saying? How does it compare to what everyone else is saying? How are these conversations flowing and moving over time? All of this eavesdropping is to make Google faster, smarter, and more dominant as the leading authority for every question under the sun. And it’s working.
But quality links? We can safely say that we don’t know enough about what this means for Google (who plays its cards close to the chest) to make a definitive case for them.
By now, you’re probably thrilled that we just told you that one of the most popular SEO concepts is too nebulous to figure out. Great, now where does that leave you?
Instead of spending too much time trying to evaluate your backlinks and everyone’s domain authority, make natural links within your site’s content that start to create that spider web in your industry. Lean on the simplest SEO advice we can give— link when it makes sense. You can still use these tools, but it’s not logical to get lost in the weeds here.
Your goal is to create content that’s better than your competition so that links start pointing to you instead. Whether we can figure out exactly what this will do to your ranking or not, it won’t be an effort that’s wasted. The chances of this practice hurting your ranking are very low.
And don’t stop linking out from your own content—just don’t be too afraid of good or bad links. Instead of chasing Google’s definition of quality, spend your time building trustworthy content that’s rich with links that you actually used to write it.
It might seem like we’re throwing up our hands here, but rest assured that’s not the case. For as long as Google is here, SEOs will be thinking through the best ways to help sites establish authority and rank higher. But in a world that’s inundated with tricks, tips, and formulas, it helps to know which ones to focus on.
For now, forget quality links. Whatever you think quality means to Google, you’re still always guessing.