On Thursday, September 21st, 2023, Google’s Gary Illyes took part in an AMA (ask me anything) at Pubcon Pro in Austin, Texas. 

Illyes touched on many topics during the session, including Google ‘un-launches’ (which apparently happen more than we think), AI content, user click data and algorithm updates. 

Yet, it was the claim he made about link-building that has the SEO world buzzing with speculation right now. 

In particular, someone from the crowd asked if links were still one of the top 3 ranking factors on Google, and Illyes claimed, “I think they are important, but I think people overestimate the importance of links. I don’t agree it’s in the top three. It hasn’t been for some time.”

This is nothing new, as Illyes made a similar claim during a keynote speech at another Pubcon event in February, stating, “Links are important, but not as important as people think.”

In fact, Google has been downplaying the importance of links for several years now. 

In November, Duy Nguyen of Google’s Search Quality Team said links don’t matter as much for SEO as they did when Google first launched. 

Back in 2020, John Mueller proclaimed, “Links are definitely not the most important SEO factor.”

So what gives?

Why is the search platform that invented the concept of links as citations to improve the quality of search results suddenly backing off their importance? 

Do backlinks really not matter as much, or is something else going on? Read on to learn more. 

The HOTH’s Argument on Link-Building for Authority 

As one of the world’s leading SEO companies, we do our fair share of link-building here at The HOTH. 

Our Link Outreach and Link Insertions services are among our most popular (and successful) products. 

In fact, we’ve propelled hundreds of clients to the top of the SERPs by exclusively using link-building tactics. 

As such, we can attest first-hand that links are still a significant ranking factor for Google Search

The proof?

Here are metrics for our HOTH website proving that links and traffic still go hand-in-hand:

A screenshot of The HOTH’s referring domains and organic traffic. 

That’s not to say that Illyes’ claim has no merit or basis in reality, just that you shouldn’t abandon your link-building campaigns anytime soon. 

Also, it’s crucial to note that he didn’t say that links aren’t an important ranking factor, just that he doesn’t feel it’s in the top 3. 

In reference to Duy Nguyen’s comments, it’s definitely true that link-building is a different game than when Google Search first launched, but so is SEO as a whole. 

In the early days, every link counted as a ‘vote,’ making it easier for webmasters to manipulate search rankings by accumulating lots of links from any website they could find.  

Countless algorithm updates have come and gone since then, including many focused on eliminating link spam. 

As time went on, quality came to beat quantity, meaning that links from high-quality, trusted websites mean a lot more than links from subpar domains. 

So it’s not that links don’t matter for SERP rankings anymore, just that link-building as a practice has evolved. 

Content and On-Page SEO as Top Ranking Elements 

Something that no one debates is that content is the #1 most important ranking factor on Google, followed shortly by on-page SEO factors (optimized metadata, headers, readable layout, keywords, etc.). 

Illyes was quick to point out during the AMA that “Without content, it literally is not possible to rank. If you don’t have words on the page, you’re not going to rank for it.”

What’s interesting is that this is nothing new either, as content and on-page SEO factors have always been more important ranking factors than links. 

After all, if you don’t have any content to link to, then links aren’t going to matter anyway. 

On-page SEO and content factors have been more important ranking factors for a long time

The best thing you can do for your website’s search rankings is create engaging, relevant content that your audience wants to consume. 

At the same time, you can’t ignore vital on-page factors like:

  • Proper keyword placement (first 100 words of the copy, title tag, several times in the body copy, H1 tag, etc.)
  • Engaging headers that summarize each subtopic and follow a logical structure (H1, H2, H3 under H2, H4 under H3, etc.) 
  • Meta descriptions that summarize the content and encourage users to click with a CTA
  • Keyword-rich metadata 
  • Structured data to quality for rich results 
  • Internal linking to other relevant pages on your website
  • Stellar page content that features short, readable sentences and paragraphs 
  • Lines of alt text (containing keywords) that describe all images 

So yes, content and on-page SEO have long been the most important ranking factors for Google Search. 

But does that mean that you can dominate your niche’s SERP rankings with only content and on-page SEO?

No, it does not. 

It’s easy for Google to say “For SEO as a whole, links are not in the top three factors.” because that makes sense

However, assuming your site is great, “What are the next biggest factors?” is really the bigger question. There is no specific list that Gary is referring to, but for example:

If the list was:

  • SSL
  • Site Speed
  • Clear title tags
  • On Page Content
  • Links

It would surprise no one because we take some of those for granted with just following webmaster guidelines.

Trust us, we’ve dealt with countless clients who have had top-tier content and flawless on-page SEO, but they were still getting outranked by competitors (even ones whose content wasn’t as fantastic). 

Why were they getting outranked? How were we able to close the distance?

It was because their competitors had stronger backlink profiles and, thus, more authority in the eyes of Google

Only through strategic link-building tactics were we able to close the competitor gap and reach the top of the SERPs. 

Google’s Motivations for Downplaying Links in Search Results 

As mentioned in the intro, Google has been downplaying the importance of links in SEO for years now. 

Yet, as we’ve pointed out, link–building is still one of the most effective ways to bridge the competitive gap and reach top-ranked positions. 

Just to reiterate that point, here’s one of our clients that’s seen massive benefits (more traffic and better SERP rankings) from just using our link-building services (no content creation):

A screenshot of a HOTH client’s organic traffic and referring domains. 

HOTH Client Case Study:

One of our clients, who has been on our managed link-building service, HOTH X since May of last year, runs an e-commerce shop with over 400 different pages, all properly optimized with e-commerce Onpage SEO best practices. 

The consistent link-building is really what allowed them to grow their authority and overall trust in Google’s eyes allowing them to outrank their competitors in the long run.

As we built consistent links to their pages every month, they began to rank for more keywords and get more organic search traffic to their product pages. 

This specific page (screenshot above) went from 0 referring domains and about 50 organic visitors in October of 2022 to over 18 referring domains and almost 1,100 monthly organic visits.

Now take a look at the entire domain:

So why do the folks at Google keep telling us that links matter less and less with each passing day?

Is it possible they could have some sort of ulterior motive?

Yes and no. 

We’ve learned something over the years when dealing with statements from Google regarding SEO, and that’s to take what they say with a grain of salt (make sure it’s sea salt, though, for your health).

In other words, they have an incentive not to be entirely truthful when speaking to the public about SEO, and the reason stretches back to when they first began hiding PageRank data. 

Google’s attempts to prevent the manipulation of search results 

PageRank is the algorithm Google uses to rank websites based on user queries, and the data for it used to be public in the very early days of the company. 

However, they quickly discovered that many site owners were using the PageRank data to manipulate the search rankings using less-than-favorable tactics (i.e., link spam, keyword spam, and the like). 

Let’s not forget that Google’s ultimate goal is to match user queries with the most relevant, highest-quality results (literally the reason behind every algorithm update). 

That’s why they now hide PageRank data and why their webmaster guidelines frown on just about every SEO tactic. 

Accordingly, Google has a bit of a love/hate relationship with search engine optimization as a whole. 

If it were up to them, nobody would ever intentionally try to improve their search rankings, and every search result would show up based on its merit and quality alone. 

We live in the real world, though, and Google knows that’s not possible, so they do their best to crack down on spam through algorithm updates – and by not always being completely forthcoming with the public. 

That doesn’t mean that everything out of Google’s mouth is an outright lie, but they have a tendency to be… cagey when it comes to topics about SEO.

Examples of Effective Link-Building Strategies 

During our work with our clients, we can vouch that link-building continues to yield impressive results for our clients every day. 

It’s not by accident, either. 

Through our years of practice, we’ve discovered the most effective ways to build high-authority links, and our tactics are always changing and evolving. 

Here’s a look at some of the link-building strategies we currently utilize:

  • Link Outreach. (formerly known as Guest Posts.) A classic technique, the effectiveness of guest posting continues to this very day. The trick is to focus only on writing for trusted, high-quality websites that are relevant to your target audience. 
  • Link Insertions. This is a newer technique that involves less outreach than guest posting but still provides excellent results. It involves placing one of your backlinks into an existing piece of content on an authoritative website. 
  • Press Releases. We use our massive network of over 300+ media and news outlets to get the word out about new developments at your business, all while accruing valuable backlinks. 
  • Article Syndication. Similar to airing repeats of your favorite sitcom, our syndication service involves posting your ‘greatest hits’ to other relevant websites around the web. 

How Link-Building Can Still Improve Your SEO 

While some may misinterpret Illyes’ comments to mean that links don’t matter for SEO at all, don’t forget that he still said they’re important, just that he doesn’t think they’re in the top 3. 

Another interesting comment he made was, “There’s no universal top 3. Every site will have something different as the top 2 or 3 ranking factors.”

If that sounds confusing, don’t worry (it’s likely meant to be anyway). 

At The HOTH, we have one ultimate determining factor for any SEO technique – and that’s the results it’s able to yield. 

The numbers don’t lie, and link-building continues to work its magic for our clients. 

If you want to see drastic improvements in your website’s SERP rankings, referring domains, and organic traffic, don’t wait to check out our Link Outreach services today.

P.S. If you’re still unsure that your site would benefit from Link Outreach services, schedule a free no-pressure 15-minute demo with me here.