Is link building important anymore?

by Tim Hill (aka Doodled)

September 6th 2011
Google Toolbar gives Google vast pools of data which it uses to rank websites in the search results
Google Toolbar gives Google vast pools of data which it uses to rank websites in the search results

The idea of Google Panda was to try and remove poor quality sites that were clogging up the search engine results pages (SERPs). The plan was to kill off duplicate content or content that was no more than a bunch of links.

But why have so many innocent people seemingly been caught in the cross fire? And are they really innocent?

The answer to the first question lies in how Google is ranking websites in these post Panda days. I've long argued that building links is no longer as important as it once was when it comes to obtaining a Google top 10 position and here is another reason why.

Google has the toolbar, installed by millions of internet users, that tells it exactly where people are going, how much time they are spending there and if they return. This is data which cannot be simulated by SEO companies.

On the other hand links to a website was traditionally a good indicator but as this can be hijacked by link-builders it is no longer reliable.

The route for Google to follow was obvious. They never even hid it as Mike Grehan reported:

“Andrew Tomkins, Engineering Director at Google and former Chief Scientist at Yahoo, made it quite clear at SES New York in 2008 that, in his opinion, whereas anchor text had always been the 'workhorse' of search, the strongest signal now comes from the toolbar ”.

So Google Panda was much more about ignoring links and considering user behaviour. So to our second question from the beginning of this blog – were the people who got caught out really innocent?

Some of the biggest losers have been online shops. Ecommerce websites experience visits where users might come in to check a price and bounce out very quickly when they are doing their first scan of the web.

This doesn't mean it's a bad site, shop or price. It means users often search the web several times on different days to check prices and/or specifications of a product but those pages that they visit, because they rank highly, are simultaneously committing SERP suicide.

However Google is what we've got so Google is what we must live with. What's the answer?

Ultimately too many online shops have relied too much and for too long on links alone to maintain their position and have not considered user experience. A retailer that offers reviews, alternative products, quality and unique descriptions deserves to rank higher.

And a retailer with all of those things will because users will spend more time on the site and go deeper. A retailer without may consider itself an innocent looser but ultimately it is simply being out-competed by others who offer a better

Does this mean link-building is finished as an SEO activity? Not at all. While Google may become ever more reliant on toolbar data it's important never to forget Bing and Yahoo still hold a sizeable share of the search market.

They too can monitor bounce rates when these are back into the search results but apart from that they can still only gauge a website's popularity based on links and 'buzz' (where the site is being mentioned on the next in places like Twitter, Facebook and the like).

Furthermore I don't believe Google is ignoring links wholesale but building a database of websites where links count. So if your mentioned by CNN, the BBC or any number of trusted 'big boys' then that's all Google brownie points coming your way.

The net result is that when it comes to link-building spend time creating one good link rather than $20 for 1,000 that won't count anyway.