In handling the SEO strategy for many different clients, we frequently are asked what we do for backlink creation. This is a brief summary of our policy.
Are Backlinks Good For SEO?
It has been claimed for many years that good quality backlinks are a ranking factor for Google. The more you have, and the better the links are, the better your rankings will be. But is this true? Sure, top-ranking sites will likely have lots of backlinks but we also propose an alternative theory to explain the correlation between links and rank position, lower down in this article.
Regardless of how much you believe in the power of backlinks for SEO, common sense would suggest that Google ultimately wants to see naturally created backlinks, not artificially created links. The traditional theory is that Google regards backlinks as a vote of trust in your website, so if it’s possible for a site owner or SEO agency to build links purely for the purpose of ranking higher, Google will ultimately want to either penalise this practice or discount the value of links in assessing how to rank a website.
Due to the commonly held belief that backlinks are good for SEO, the temptation is to try to create more of them, and this has two distinct dangers:
- If Google deems them to be artificial, there is a risk they will apply a penalty, and you will be worse off than if you had not created them.
- The time or money spent in creating them could have been used to improve other areas of the website that would have had a bigger and more obvious impact.
What Do UClimb Do About Backlinks?
Firstly, when we audit a new client or website, we scan and check for toxic backlinks. These are links to sites that are known to be bad and could potentially damage your rankings or reputation. These can then be disavowed by Google, to prevent any harm.
Secondly, on commencing an SEO overhaul of the site, we would check that the company is listed on 15 or 20 of the most common, reputable, online directories – this is a simple and sustainable source of verified backlinks.
After that, we focus on all the other aspects of SEO, such keyword mapping, creating excellent content, good user experience, and keeping the technical side of the site tip-top. We leave a link-tracking widget running on our SEO client dashboard, just in case we need to monitor an unusual trend, but to date, we have found that excellent ranking increases don’t depend on efforts in backlink creation. Read our article on On Page SEO for a summary of effective SEO methods that don’t require link building.
Backlink Case Studies
To illustrate the impact backlinks have on SEO in recent years, here are 2 client examples:
Case Study 1: Rank Increases Without Link Building
We’ll start with Encompass, a client that outranked major established firms like Lloyds Pharmacy and Boots for competitive covid test kit keywords with 1000s of monthly searches, within just 6 months of the website going live. During the first 6 months of their campaign we built less than 5 backlinks, all of these were from simple online directories like yell.com – our SEO focus was instead on content and technical SEO which seemed to pay off (the green sections on the graph below represent page 1 rankings, with dark green being keywords at positions 1-3 on page 1):
To learn more about this specific project for Encompass, view the full story here: An Intense SEO Campaign That Went Wrong – At First
Case Study 2: Rank Decreases Due To Link Building
Next, let’s take a look at AURA Architecture. During early 2020 we decided that there must be some truth in all the online articles proclaiming the value of backlinks, so did try to build backlinks from any relevant blogs we could find, doing a specific focus on building links to 2 key pages that the client particularly wanted on the first page of Google.
However, we quickly realised that the pages that were performing best were the ones that we were not building links to, and in contrast, the pages that had new backlinks pointing to them were dropping in rank, in spite of the links being built from apparently reputable blog sites with reasonably high domain authority ratings on Moz.
Therefore we abandoned the link-building part of their SEO campaign, and as you can see on the graph below, their rankings really took off from early-2020, which is the point when we stopped building back-links – the green section on the graph represents page 1 rankings (keywords in positions 1-10), which increase from 23 in January 2020 to 53 in December 2020, and reach 93 by December 2021:
Our Theory On Why Top Ranking Sites Have The Most Backlinks
An online search about the value of link building for SEO will quickly pull up lots of articles and well-researched studies that seem to indicate a definite relationship between the number of high-authority links a page has and its rank position.
Most of these articles then conclude that having lots of links from authoritative websites is a significant reason why these websites rank higher than sites with fewer links pointing to them.
However, we have an alternative theory to suggest…
As outlined clearly on this ahrefs study, top-ranking pages gather links more quickly than lower-ranking pages. This makes total sense because when you’re writing content and looking for a supporting article to link out to, you typically search the topic on hand and choose one of the top-ranking articles, both for convenience and because you naturally assume that these are most relevant.
Because ahrefs believe in the common assumption that inbound links are also a significant ranking factor, they then go on to talk about the “vicious circle of SEO”, a theory that top-ranking websites get more links (which is undeniable and perfectly logical) which then makes them rank higher (which is the bit we’re not so sure about).
In our experience, it’s perfectly possible for a website with great content and sound technical SEO to outrank websites that have a high domain authority, see below example showing the domain authority of websites on page 1 of Google that rank when you search “nose only covid text kits vs nose and throat test kits”.
You can clearly see that our client’s website, who’s Moz domain authority score is just 11/100, is outranking sites with domain authority scores of over 90/100, e.g. the NHS website and gov.uk:
Our current theory is that when you see graphs ‘proving’ the relationship between Domain Authority and rank position, it doesn’t prove anything because people tend to build links to the top ranking articles, so having a good domain authority is a symptom of ranking high, not (necessarily) a cause.
Also, to be clear: we do like authoritative links pointing to our client’s sites, as they drive traffic, brand recognition, and may also help their rankings. What we don’t like is time wasted building links that don’t help.
As always, we remain curious and open-minded and are willing to have this theory disproved, but to date, the evidence on our own client campaigns has only validated the theory.
Google’s ranking algorithm evolves over time, so we’re on the lookout for further changes over the coming months, and will continue to adapt in our efforts to deliver top-ranking results for our clients.