What is a Backlink?
A Backlink is an HTTP link on one page that you can click through to move forward to another site. An example that should not influence anybody’s Page Rank is https://www.google.com. You are no doubt familiar where you will end up if you click that particular link. If you don’t, well, uhm….. you should seek a new dayjob.
Why WERE Backlinks SO important?
In the olden days (in the context of SEO and the likes that can mean as recently as last week), links were the primary way of navigating the web. It worked like a kind of ‘word of mouth’ system: “Go to linkety-link-link and you will find great contenty-content-content there.”
Then “they” invented search engines. Now Backlinks are used as part of the “secret search engine sauce” that determines how high a page should rank. The logic, which seems pretty straightforward, goes something like this: If a lot of other pages link to http://www.myspecialwebsite.com/, then it must be important. The more Backlinks, the more people are interested in it, and therefore the more important the site is or theoretically should be!
As you could expect, it did not take long before this approach was exploited by all the smarty pants SEOs and upstart small businesses out there. The big brands got in on the action too. The most famous example, perhaps, is when J.C. Penny was caught with around an egregious 2,015 web pages all pointing back to its website via a horde of unnatural Backlinks.
The End of an Era
J.C. Penny met its impending doom in 2011. We saw its product pages like “Samsonite carry-on luggage” dropped from number one to a dreadful number 71, once Google caught on to their, shall we say, “Blacklink” strategy.
This example, along with Google’s Penguin algorithm, which was created to punish sites using unnatural link schemes, meant that Backlinks could no longer be relied upon as the only means to an end in SEO. Google has devalued “spammy links,” and they have shown that they will punish a website that abuses these.
But then again…
Matt Cutts, the pope of SEO, has recently said, “But I would expect that for the next few years, we will continue to use links in order to assess the basic reputation of pages and of sites.” He also admits that experiments where Backlinks do not feature at all in their search algorithms have consistently produced worse results.
This year, SearchMetrics still lists “Number of Backlinks” as the 2nd most prominent ranking factor in Google. Rand Fishkin of Moz has also recently admitted that there is still nothing as potent in increasing a rank for a particular keyword as an exact match anchor text backlink.
Back to the Future
Matt Cutts is a trustworthy guy, so we can take him at his word when it comes to Backlinks. (He said the above in early/middle 2014.)
Backlinks still matter today and will still matter. Google cannot deliver a better set of results if they ignore them. The trick then is to figure out how to stay on Google’s good side when it comes to Backlinks.
There are millions of theories abounding the web on how to do this. Arguably, all involved will win if Google lifts their skirts and show us how they use Backlinks. Show us what you want and over-penalize those who try to cheat!
They can call it the Zebra algorithm, to stay with their black and white animal theme.