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Is SEO all about links?

So what have you read or heard? Search Engine Optimization is all about getting backlinks - getting other webmasters to link to your page. It's true some people think that's what SEO is but in fact links can make up only a small part of the process and often you don't need them at all. Let's put links in perspective.

The history of backlinks

When the Internet first became available to the public search engines weren't that bright. They would look at what was on a page and make a decision about its subject area from there.

But this opened the way for spammers. They would fill a page with the phrase "pictures of kittens" in white text on a white background and add graphics advertising their gambling websites or whatever.

That's simplistic but there were 101 ways to get a page ranking high up in the search results for a search term even if it had nothing to do with that search term.

Make backlinks count

The reason Google managed to enter the search market quite late but quickly become the world's number one search engine is because it looked at what was on the page but also who was linking to the site. If trustworthy websites (and that was worked out via a complex formula) were linking to a page about "pictures of kittens" and that page did seem to be about "pictures of kittens" then it would rank in the search results when someone searched for "pictures of kittens".

It made Google's search results much cleaner than the competition with fewer scams featuring in their top ten. The other search engines followed suit and soon webmasters became obsessed with links.

But even since those very early days Google has been working to drop link importance and I'll explain why in a moment. They invested massively in understanding on-page spam - activities like putting white text on a white background, repeating the same phrase over and over again, claiming an image was about one thing when it was about something else altogether. And on and more.

What Google really wanted to do was understand a page on a website accurately and see through the efforts of scammers to mislead it. I believe that deep down they knew using links had some fundamental flaws.

The Catch 22 of link drive rankings

Google's link driven strategy was born in a time when having a website meant knowing how to code and move files from your computer to an online server. It was technical. There was no WordPress or other quick start ways of getting a website up and running. This all meant the number of people or organizations that could give you a link as fairly small in comparison to today.

But in a smaller Internet if you could spot the genuine from the scammers - people who created websites just to dole out links - it worked quite well.

Now of course almost anyone can have a website and give you a link and so often the way to the top of the rankings is not through creating the best quality content but in being able to market that content. If you have systems in place that, when you publish content, can notify thousands of bloggers about it then - as long as it is of half decent quality and you have a name - you're going to get backlinks that count fast.

Alternatively if you've got money you can own thousands of websites yourself and use them to create targeted backlinks on demand. I'm not talking here about the days of SEO Nuke where websites were just thrown up and links dumped on them. I'm talking about massive investments in running thousands of genuine blogs and online stores involving teams of writers who create genuine content, just perhaps not the best content.

The problem? Top rankings belong to the rich, not to the best content. Top rankings belong to those who shout loudest about their content, not to those who produce the highest quality content.

This makes the search results of Google OK and relevant but search is a competitive market and just as Google toppled Yahoo and Bing it could so easily lose its crown if someone could figure out how to solve this conundrum.

Enter natural language processing.

What Google needed to do was have the capability to assess who has the better content on any given subject regardless of their backlinks and, believe me, they have been working hard on that.

At the heart of this approach is something called Natural Language Processing (NLP). The ability of a machine to read, or listen to, an entire piece of text - know what it is about and know what level of quality it is.

There are a number of parts to this approach:

  • Latent Semantic Analysis - understanding which words mean the same as each other
  • Entity Salience - understanding which entities (subjects) have the most salience (dominance) - not just by the number of times they are mentioned but by what other words are used on the page which relate to this entity. If I talk about the Eiffel Tower do I mention things about height, material, location, architect, etc.
  • Term Frequency, Inverse Document Frequency - which terms are coming up over and over again in a piece of content (this is closely intertwined with Latent Semantic Analysis because a term can be talked about in many different ways).
  • Pogo sticking and dwell time analysis- do people click through to a website from the search results only to hit the back button and look at something else - pogo sticking with short dwell time. A measure Google claims not to use I should point out but I see evidence to the contrary.

So do links still count

Very much so. This is an evolving field and links will, I believe, always play a role. How popular a piece is will always remain a signal but increasingly Google and all major search engines will be able to differentiate between depth and quality versus popularity.

This change is already under way. I regularly launch websites with no backlinks and it only takes a few days before they start receiving traffic from Google organic search. The approach of providing in-depth quality content is enough to outrank thousands, tens of thousands, even millions of other websites in an instant.

Backlinks will have their place but as time goes on they'll be a whole lot less important.

Summing up

So returning to the original question, "Is SEO all about links?". The answer is no and it never was. Backlinks became an important signal but there were always ways to rank without them.

With technology moving fast in the fields of machine learning and artificial intelligence we'll now see their importance fade as search engines will be better at understanding who is offering the best content using other signals. Backlinks will always count but not the way they once did.

I'm Tim Hill, a Search Engine Optimization and Online Marketing specialist. I created this site to help others understand that SEO is not a mysterious black art!.

If your a newbie try the Getting Started in SEO page, otherwise feel free to dig around and learn more.

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