Google: Links No Longer A Top 3 Ranking Factor

Links for Rankings
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Google has long touted backlinks as one of the most important ranking signals for search engine optimization (SEO). However, in a surprising revelation at PubCon 2023, a major search marketing conference, Google’s Gary Illyes stated that links are no longer even among the top 3 ranking factors. This signals a notable shift away from link building as a primary SEO tactic.

The Historical Importance of Links for Rankings

Since the early days of Google, backlinks have been viewed as vital for ranking highly in search results. Google’s original PageRank algorithm analyzed backlinks to determine the importance of a webpage. More links from authoritative sites passed more “link juice” and rankings potential.

For over a decade, SEOs dedicated tremendous effort to link building, securing backlinks from trusted directories, partner websites, and through guest posting. Links served as votes of confidence in a site’s value. Conventional wisdom held that more high-quality backlinks led to better search visibility.

Google Distancing Itself From Link Importance

In recent years, Google has been subtly downplaying the importance of backlinks in its search algorithm. As early as 2010, Google Fellow Amit Singhal suggested the algorithm relied less on links, saying “today, links are merely one input in a much larger set of variables.”

In 2016 and 2017, Google’s Gary Illyes advised SEOs to focus less on building links and more on crafting high-quality content. He noted that “links should occur naturally” as a result of content.

Google Fellow Martin Splitt also echoed this view in 2018, suggesting “backlinks are nowhere near as important as rankings factors today as they used to be.”

Original, Expert Content Now Ranking King

With links declining in influence, expert-driven, original content appears to be rising as the top ranking factor according to Google.

In a 2020 Webmaster Central video, Google’s John Mueller said he “[doesn’t] recommend focusing on links” and advised concentrating on “creating amazing, useful content.”

Illyes affirmed content’s primacy at PubCon 2023, suggesting original reporting, analysis and expertise outrank aggregation and linking out.

Google rewards in-depth content answering searchers’ intent. Pages satisfying informational, complex or long-tail queries now consistently beat sites with more links but thin content.

Author authority also plays a bigger role. Building subject matter expertise and trust signals like verified profiles, media mentions and community engagement enhances rankings potential.

Minimal Links Can Suffice With Strong Content

Ranking with minimal links and strong content

Certain sites continue ranking highly with relatively few backlinks, further indicating content now outweighs links at Google.

For example, marketing blog Backlinko achieved top rankings for competitive terms with around 50 referring domains. Brian Dean built the site’s authority mostly through relentlessly publishing in-depth, useful content.

Similarly, health publisher Healthline obtained traffic surges after optimizing content even with modest links. It scaled back link building efforts once discovering Google appreciated its expertise.

These examples demonstrate that while links remain helpful, they are no longer decisive or mandatory. Optimized content, expertise and user engagement can compensate for a lack of links.

Actionable SEO Takeaways for the Links Decline

With links playing a reduced role, brands should evolve their approach:

  • Double down on content quality and optimization. Invest in thoughtful, well-researched content providing value and answering search intent.
  • Earn links naturally through outreach and engagement. Don’t buy links or spam low-value guest posts. Focus on contributing to useful resources.
  • Build domain authority through SERP features. Earn Cards, Knowledge Panels, Site Links, etc. to validate expertise.
  • Monitor user experience signals. Page speed, engagement and time-on-site metrics grow in importance.

The Future Role of Links

It seems clear that links are no longer the ranking dominant force they once were according to Google. But it remains open whether their importance will continue declining or whether links will stabilize as a modest ranking factor.

One perspective is that links retain influence for assessing website reputation and trust. Some webmasters speculate links help most as tiebreakers between content of similar quality.

Others believe links will maintain more value for ranking in competitive niches vs informational queries. For example, local businesses may still benefit from link building to stand out.

Regardless of whether links endure as a top 10 or top 20 signal, brands must pursue a holistic SEO strategy focused on the user. Providing the best content, expertise and experience for searchers is what will ultimately prevail at Google.

Final Verdict

Backlinks are clearly not the SEO silver bullet they were once regarded to be by Google and search marketers alike. While links retain some ranking influence, brands should actively adapt to Google’s content-first focus in 2024. Developing truly useful, engaging content must now be the top priority.

Relying on links alone is insufficient in the current search climate. But marrying the best content with natural links, expertise signals and optimal user experience will remain a winning SEO formula into the foreseeable future.