Are backlinks becoming less important of time in favor of Google's ability to judge the quality of specific pages? Or is the opposite happening, are backlinks more important than ever?
In my experience it is niche specific.
Backlinks are the most important for non local products. I have ranked sites only by acquiring good backlinks and nothing else really (just the usual on page stuff). Sales went from 0 to 70-100 orders per month in a matter of 5 months.
On the other hand while trying to apply the same strategy to local sites, it rarely worked well. I would even say that having a strategy mainly based on backlinks is wrong. It is just my experience and while I can consistently rank ecommerce and Software as a Service (SaaS) websites, I fail to rank local contractors with backlinks.
I think local is weighed heavily on reviews/reputation management, along with Name, Address & Phone Number (NAP) consistency.
This is my theory at least…
That is my observation as well. That doesn't mean backlinks do not work at all but they are less important than for an ecommerce site. I prefer building links to blog posts and the homepage and avoid unnatural anchors like "Denver plumber" when doing so
It seems counterintuitive to me that those links should boost search ranking that much, as they are off-page. The page experience didn't change. For the users, that should be the most importance. And if that's the most important, the search engines should rank by that primarily.
Could it perhaps be that the change in visitors and sales came from the referrals that gave increased traffic and trust among visitors?
If the sales boost came from increased ranking and more organic traffic it means ranking is based on some quasi-random off-page elements. That is not a good way to rank pages, as it doesn't lift pages with the best experience to the top. This means it will be just a matter of time before current search engines are replaced by more modern ones.
There was negligible referral traffic and the sites ranked because of the backlinks exclusively. From only the homepage indexed to secondary pages ranking for their target keywords.
And yes, ranking is often based on off page elements, that was always the case.
Ok, thanks. I understand search engines use off page as some sort of indicator to assess page values. But since your page was the same, visitors would have been just as happy to find it before the links came.
So since the difference was just that you had built links, my feeling is that this demonstrates an algorithmic weakness in search engines. And when the technology matures, the value of the links should, ideally, be reduced or disappear.
Understanding backlinks and their worth was the foundation of Google and still plays a crucial role and I don't think it will go away anytime soon. See their paper http://ilpubs.stanford.edu:8090/422/1/1999-66.pdf
There are literally dozens of sites selling the same things, it was a Shopify site, very little content too. The differentiator is the amount of quality backlinks that signals Google that the site is talked about, thus important.
I honestly do not see it as weakness, and I do not think the value of links should be reduced either. I think whenever Google experimented with relying less on backlinks, their results were awful. Except for local keywords.
I see that links were a good ranking factor back in the days, when they came naturally.
But nowadays links are given differently. It seems that it is the marketing power, or ability to buy or trade links that decides who gets links, not the site quality. An example is your site, it didn't change, but when you had the power to build links it got a boost.
Ranking by links can eliminate the spam and unserious sites. Which is awesome. But it also eliminates a lot of great sites that don't focus on the link building. I understand that it is challenging, but when the ranking technology matures I think the users will appreciate a search engine that ranks sites with good experience ahead of sites with great backlinks. Also that will be great for productivity and the economy, since businesses will create quality sites instead of spending money on links.
I hear you in theory but it is hard to judge the content by metrics such as interaction or time spent on site.
That will just generate clickbaity content that will engage users and make them browse through photos etc.
Let's say the keyword is dog grooming.
A well written but clickbaity and low value article about ridiculous dog hairstyles will gather attention, people will stay there, will have interactions but overall it is trash. But with good content written specifically for search engines (marketing budgets will shift there if Google shifts in that direction).
Then there is the article written by an expert but who focused slightly less on on page factors and more on giving value. It is not for everyone but it details common mistakes, misconceptions about dog grooming, gives helpful tips etc. That content is useful and it will be naturally shared, some big dog publications will naturally link to it, maybe it is so good that some salons will link to it on their site as well.
Links are a natural part of the web and it will stay so for a while in my opinion. It is true that right now marketing budgets move rankings but if something else will be the ranking factor, marketing budgets will move there as well and marketing budgets always mess up things
In my experience the "expert article" will these days rank poorly so it will rarely show, and it will have very few links. I am afraid it will be totally dwarfed by the trashy clickbaity and cleverly SEO'd article. But on the other hand I don't have a dog, so maybe this is something I know not enough about.
Real people would easily be able to see the quality difference. But regarding the search engines, since they are currently using basic indicators like "time on site", "bounce rate" and "site popularity" they have no clue.
One way to improve relevancy assessments would be to have humans compare those pages. I understand that this scales poorly, but let's just assume the Artificial Intelligence (AI) will improve considerably. That's what I'm thinking will happen, just I don't know how fast AI is improving.
In my observation, I have seen that backlinks have not lost any of their importance. But the ability of Google algorithms to judge the validity of a certain backlink has increased. Also, the importance of more relevant, beneficial, unique, and in-depth content increased greatly.
Google algorithms now favor content over backlinks. I have ranked many content pieces with 0 backlinks and have outranked Forbes, entrepreneur, and others with just my content's strength. But I have also seen that in some cases my website was not being ranked for the targeted keyword and a single backlink helped my site to gain a posting for my targeted keyword.
In easy words, it comes down to many factors like content, authority, backlinks, and some other internal factors. Also, the copywriting of your site matters as copywriting is the only factor along with the load time of your site that is important to attract Google and Your Audience. So it's a buffet of many factors, not just the dessert of backlinks.
I think it is a little bit of both. Links are always going to be important to a degree because the web, at its core, runs on an economy of hyperlinks. The web is built on HyperText Markup Language. It is right there in the name.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin's key understanding back in 1998 is that economy can be exploited to understand what website answered a user's questions. You don't need to be lucky enough to be at the top of a DMOZ higherarcy or have to $200 to get into Yahoo's directory. I don't think that will ever go away. If you make something interesting, people are going to link to it.
The difference is now, we have all of these other tools for finding what is good and what is bad. Machine learning, AI, magic pixy dust, all of those things are also ways to tell good from bad. I don't think they are any better or worse than links, but they are another way.
I actually think this is good. We know links can be exploited. We know Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning have all sorts of biases. Having more ways figure out what is good and useful makes everything better.
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