Why Backlinks Are Not The Number 1 Criteria for Ranking Well in SEO


Part of my job, and to be honest one of my favorite parts as SEO Director role here at MKG, is answering clients questions about SEO as a whole, not just pertaining to their specific website. I was lucky to receive a great question today:

Someone just told me that backlinks is the #1 criteria for ranking well in SEO. Sure page load speed, tagging, schema, etc. are all important but backlinks is the most important. Is this accurate?

My answer as you’d expect was typical “SEO speak”, yes and NO. Hard on the “No.” So we venture to “it depends” level of an answer.

To Clarify:

Links are a part of Google’s algorithm.

Links are beneficial as a signal to Google of content on the page of website.

Links are easily manipulated through link purchasing and link building schemes, which prompted Google to release a major algorithmic update, across all domains. This update was named Penguin and released in 2012. The intent was to devalue links that were acquired for the sole purpose of building rankings through links.

All links are not counted equally. Link quality is more important than raw link quantity, which means that you’ll want to get links from relevant, high-authority domains and contain relevant, accurate anchor text.

If your website has a lot of low-quality, unrelated websites linking to your website, this may have a negative impact on your rankings — and you may even be at risk of a Google Penguin or “unnatural links” penalty, this penalty can also include a partial link penalty.

Google is swift to assign a penalty and slow in recovery. A penalty can result in your entire URL / Domain being “deindexed”, which means no longer searchable in the SERPs. Even by your brand name, that action is devastating to your business.

“Overstock.com – During fiscal year 2011, Overstock.com attributed a decrease from $1.08 billion to $1.05 billion in revenue to Google penalties.”

In some cases, such as a partial manual penalty, Google will just drop the offending URL’s from the index, which can be any page Google chooses, this is probably the most difficult to locate and resolve, even a partial penalty can cost your business money.

Anchor text refers to the clickable text (e.g. hyperlinked) in a link and when we conduct link audits, we review the anchor text of the links pointing to your website to see what kind of words they include. Analysis of the incoming anchor text is a large part of a backlink audit.

For years, Google has been penalizing websites for having over-optimized anchor text, so it’s important to keep your anchor text natural. A sign of a natural link profile is that most of the anchor text is brand-based (the name of your website or your company) with a smaller ratio of keyword-based anchor text (the non-brand keywords you want to rank for).

So, for example, if you have an unnatural concentration of valuable non-brand anchor text, you may be at risk of a Google penalty.

Another tool has given us the analysis that while you have a tremendous amount of links, they do offer value to the visitor, and have a varied amount of ‘influence’. All in all these are “ok”.

MKG believes there are several factors that trigger a possible penalty:

  • Widget Links & App Links with identical anchor text
  • 100’s of links that respond with server errors or timeouts
  • Quality of the incoming links from smaller websites (most have a low domain score due to the nature of the website).
  • Links containing parametered URLs and use a 301 redirect to the homepage- this creates the appearance of manipulation via link schemes.
  • Lack of parameter handling rules within Google Search Console
  • Large amount of links from same domain
  • Ratio of incoming links vs. number of domains
    • Eg; 1000 incoming links from 30 domain
  • Participation in link buying scheme, these are identified by our staff

Penguin (the Google update that focuses on unnatural link schemes), is an aggressive update and often difficult to recover from. In certain situations the best option is to delete and recreate the page that has the unnatural anchor text and links.

Aside from unnatural and/or empty anchor text in tens of thousands links, another negative to the backlink profile is the domain authority of the linking site.

MKG reviews the entire backlink profile with the following questions in mind:

  • What was the intent of the link? Is it designed to help users, or just to get better Google rankings?
  • Is the link on a site/page that is not topically related to your website?
  • Was the link purchased?
  • Does the link use a keyword phrase as the anchor text?
  • Is the link site wide or in a footer (possible risk factors)?
  • Was the link editorially given by the webmaster?
  • Is the link on a site banned or penalized by Google?
  • Is the linking site part of a network of sites (especially if the network of site has low trust metrics or other spammy-characteristics)?
  • Is the link on a page with spun, low quality, or duplicate content?

The Penguin algorithm was created in order to catch websites that are cheating in order to get higher Google rankings. If the algorithm determines that a high number of your links are unnatural, then this lowers the amount of trust that Google puts in your site. As a result, your entire site, (not just the pages to which you have built unnatural links,) can struggle to regain rankings.

The only sites that will recover from Penguin are ones that did an extremely thorough link cleanup. In many cases, these sites may have disavowed some links that could have potentially been good links, but in my mind it’s better to err on the side of caution if it gives you a better chance of getting all of the links that is causing the Penguin algorithm to distrust your site.

As the last refresh that was identified as Penguin, was in 2017 followed in 2018 this was rolled into the main algorithm of Google. These are now difficult to assign for ranking drops, as part of the overall algorithm so recovery and or penalty can happen at any time. Sadly, recovery isn’t going to happen until Google decides your site is trustworthy and your URL is an authority on your industry.

Some sites will need to see two Penguin refreshes before recovery happens. The reason for this is that in some cases, it can take up to six months for your disavow file to be completely processed. Google has also announced that a partial “penguin” algorithm has been rolled into the main algorithm.

Here is a list with examples and recommendations from Google.

MKG offers various solutions to this problem, if we locate issues with your backlink profile, MKG will walk you through the steps to a full recovery. We have a 100% success rate.

Read more from Tammy Wood. See her predictions for 2019.

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