Are links no longer a top 3 Google Search ranking factor?

Adele Webb Written by Adele Webb

4 min read   -  16th February, 2024

Are links no longer a top 3 Google Search ranking factor?

It’s been debated for decades among digital marketers just how important links are to Google, to establish a rank in the elusive top 3 of Google’s search results. Recent discussions spurred on from Gary Illyes, an analyst from Google, have sparked questions about whether links are still a top-ranking factor.

But what’s been said, and what does it mean for your marketing strategy moving forward?

Let’s cover all the details and get to the bottom of what matters to marketers in 2024 as a result:

Are links really dead to SEO?

Gary Illyes, the self proclaimed “House Elf and Chief of Sunshine and Happiness at Google” (we’d also call him an analyst), suggested that links may not be among the top three ranking factors. This was back in September, 2023, at Pubcon Pro in Austin, but the global debate is ongoing.

When asked about links and whether they are still one of the top three most important Google Search ranking factors, he replied:

“I think they are important, but I think people overestimate the importance of links. I don’t agree it’s in the top three. It hasn’t been for some time.”

This suggests a shift in focus in priorities towards other elements in the secretive Google algorithm, with links perhaps taking a back-seat in terms of what is most useful and relevant to ranking.

Our immediate follow up questions go something like this:

  • Why do you think this has changed and what has contributed to this?
  • What would you consider to be the top three factors?
  • Can you tell us the secret formula to consistent ranking in the top three? (Please?)

Thankfully, Gary provided some enlightenment in this area of discussion.

He highlighted that other factors, such as content quality, user experience, and mobile-friendliness, are gaining importance. The top of that list seems to consistently be content. The quality of your content and the variety, relevance and length all count towards a strong SEO rank for your page, and ultimately, your site.

It’s important to note that he never said that links are dead, useless or ineffective in ranking. They still hold great significance and power in your SEO strategy, it’s just best to team them up with content and tags at the same time.

Those who agreed and what we learned

Some SEO experts agree with Gary, emphasising the evolving landscape of search engine algorithms.

They argue that user experience, content quality, and mobile-friendliness are gaining prominence as ranking factors. This is entirely possible, as Google uses numerous systems to rank factors and signals on billions of sites globally, which all look at different elements of your site. Including an AI system known as BERT, that considers how your copy expresses intent and meaning, and a “helpful content system” which looks at how genuinely useful your content is, as opposed to the sort of writing that has been created purely to bring in traffic.

This emphasises the complexity of search algorithms and the need to consider a combination of factors for effective SEO. Other experts stressed the importance of adapting SEO strategies to align with Google’s ever changing algorithm updates.

Google’s infamous “How Search Works” page details some key factors that determine which results are shown for specific search queries:

  • Meaning
  • Relevance
  • Quality
  • Usability
  • Context

Notice how links aren’t mentioned? That’s not to say they aren’t important, but it’s evident that Google already factors in many more elements into SEO ranking.

Those who disagreed and what we learned

Some experts maintain that links are still a crucial factor in strong ranking. They back the more traditional view that links are essential for SEO success.

While the fact that SEO ranking may be influenced by many other factors still stands, it’s important not to gloss over how useful links can be for your SEO strategy.

Many experts across social media have highlighted the correlation between the quantity and quality of backlinks alongside higher search rankings. Simply put, if you clearly signpost content useful to users via well organised backlinks, Google is more likely to improve your ranking for certain search terms.

Backlinks are ultimately still seen as good signals of authority, trustworthiness and relevance, and can contribute significantly to a webpage’s credibility. For some experts, backlinks are considered to be valuable metrics, despite any changes to the Google algorithm.

It’s safe to say, even if links are no longer one of the “top three”, they are still vital to your SEO campaign success and overall ranking.

In a nutshell... 

The significance of links in Google Search ranking is under scrutiny, with some conflicting options being thrown into the mix.

Some experts believe links are becoming less relevant, but others assert that backlinks continue to be vital for SEO, highlighting the ongoing complexity of search engine algorithms. 

Gary Illyes' suggestion of a potential shift in algorithm priorities raises questions about the ever-changing criteria for search engine rankings. One thing is clear; links are still important, but there may be further elements that now have more of an impact on ranking.

We recommend following these discussions as they develop over the next few months. The future of SEO is unpredictable, and as elusive as Google’s super secretive algorithm. But if you’re prepared to update your strategy and adapt as the algorithm changes, your campaign is in safe hands.

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