After search engines became a thing, there came search engine optimization (SEO), and for the entirety of its history, the “gold standard”—the most reliable strategy—for SEO success has been link building.
Link building has changed significantly since its original inception as an SEO tactic, but the fundamental need for links still remains; any SEO strategy without some way to, directly or indirectly, attract links to your domain simply won’t be successful.
Over the years, Google has gone through numerous updates, overhauling the way it evaluates things like relevance and authority, and it’s poised to make even more significant updates in the future. So will links one day become obsolete? And if so, what could replace them?
How PageRank Works
First, we need a quick primer on PageRank. To understand why links are so important, you need to understand how PageRank works. PageRank is the first, and continues to be the most important algorithm for determining a website’s authority.
It’s gone through many changes, but the concept is still the same. When determining which website to rank for a given query, Google considers the relevance of a given entry (i.e., how appropriately it serves the query) and its subjective authority.
Google measures authority by determining the quantity and quality of links pointing to a given page and domain. For example, let’s say we’re comparing site A and site B. Site A has 50 links from high-quality sources, and site B has 30 links from mixed-quality sources. Site A is determined to be more authoritative, and will rank higher, because all those links served as third-party indicators or “votes” of its authoritativeness.
That’s an oversimplification, of course, but it’s the system that makes link building so valuable.
Why Penguin Didn’t Stop Link Building
When it was first released back in 2012, the Google Penguin algorithm update was briefly thought to have the potential to stop link building as a viable tactic for improving rank. The goal was to weed out “bad” links that were built for the sole purpose of improving a site’s rank, and reward “good” links that were built naturally. Over time, Penguin’s gotten even more sophisticated, but link building, as an industry and an SEO tactic, is alive and well.
Why? Because search optimizers have updated their tactics. Rather than making it a game of quantity, spamming links wherever they could get them, optimizers turned it into a game of quality, investing time in building and nurturing relationships with offsite publishers and producing audience-focused content that truly adds value.
These links aren’t flagged as spam; they pass authority, and add value to the web. Accordingly, links remain one of the most important factors for a successful SEO campaign—but the way they need to be built to provide value without risk from Penguin has changed.
If Penguin couldn’t stop link building, what could? There are a handful of potential threats here, each coming from a different angle, and how they connect with each other could gradually chip away at link building’s strategic value.
IoT and voice search. First up is the rise of the IoT, and with it, voice search. Home consoles like Google Home (not to mention voice-based assistants on mobile devices) are transforming the average user’s web experience. Users are increasingly relying on conversational queries, and expecting immediate answers. Rather than browsing through websites, users may soon expect these search engines to conjure one singular answer; and at that point, relevance may become more important than authority, reducing the value of links.
Apps. It’s also possible that apps may replace traditional websites someday soon. Google and other search engines have begun incorporating more app-friendly features, and users find it more convenient to rely on app functionality, rather than relying on typical web browsers. This, too, could transform the online user experience, and might diminish the power of link building—and the power of traditional websites alongside it.
Social feedback. Search engines, including those found on app stores, are also doing more to incorporate social feedback into their rankings. Rather than looking at what other sites have linked to a product (a kind of quantitative score), they’re looking at the number and quality of reviews submitted by users (a kind of qualitative score). Ultimately, ratings and reviews could eventually eclipse links in importance.
Yet-undiscovered tech. We’re still in the early stages of search engine development, so there are countless possibilities that could emerge, changing the growth of technology from here.
The Gradual Evolution
If any of these technologies have the power to individually or collectively replace link building as the gold standard for SEO success, they won’t be able to do it for a long time. As fast as it seems to move at times, people rely on search engines on a daily basis, and would be significantly disrupted if everything was overhauled overnight.
In my opinion, it’s more likely that we’ll see a very gradual evolution roll out over the course of, perhaps, 5-10 years.
A Practical View
Right now, link building – as an SEO tactic and as an industry – seems to be stronger than ever. Links are still consistently shown to be among the top 2 or 3 ranking factors in correlation studies, and the benefits they bring beyond simply SEO rankings elevates their value even further.
New technologies like IoT and apps aren’t revolutionizing search—they’re just introducing new elements to consider and are gradually shaping our standards (no faster than they’ve been shaped before). If links ever significantly drop in importance, it won’t be for several years—and by that time, we’ll all be adapted to whatever’s come to replace them.