Google is Turning 20, and Backlinks are Still the #1 Most Important Ranking Factor

Humble Beginnings

It’s hard to believe that this September, Google celebrated its 20th anniversary. From humble beginnings in a Menlo Park garage, Google has become a giant with over 60,000 employees in 50 countries and has created hundreds of products.

The First Google Office (Garage, located at 232 Santa Margarita Ave in. Menlo Park, California)

Backlink Signals Made Google Unique

Google’s success started with its simple, user-focused search engine that indexed and displayed relevant web pages to users. In 1998, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin understood the fundamental infrastructure of the World Wide Web – hyperlinking – and based its algorithm heavily on incoming links to associate relevancy. Today, Google maintains its hold on 90% market share with available search engines worldwide.

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in the first Google office (in a borrowed garage) Photo Credit: Google

Google Updates and External Link Signals

In the early days of Google, webmasters took advantage of Google’s bias towards link building by over-optimizing anchor text and leveraging low-quality link networks. This allowed low-quality pages to rank quickly. Even large companies caught on to this technique and made big profits.

JCPenney, for example, was famously penalized in 2011 for using keyword-rich paid link building tactics to game results, generating millions in revenue during the process.

Keywords in anchor text are still an important relevancy signal and should be intentionally pursued by brands, but shouldn’t be overused. For example, JCPenney (who has since recovered their rankings by the way) can write guest blog posts to link to their Men’s department page using the anchor “ties.” There, I just gave them a boost. Not a big deal.

This works for whatever keyword you are pursuing, whether it be used RVs for sale, bar cart, or invitation maker, Google still needs some relevancy signals through external links to help users find the best results.

But if you do that too many times – that is, if more than 10% of your link profile is anchor text heavy – it won’t help, but can hinder results. Prior to 2012, people linked using heavy anchor text in volume and results were too easy to game. Essentially all you had to do was link any keyword enough times and it would rank.

As a result, Google has subsequently made dozens of additional updates to its algorithm to combat Webspam and has become very effective at ranking only the most relevant, merit-based content.

Google Ranking Factors

What’s important to note is that even though Google now considers over 200 ranking factors – including semantic keyword relevance, user-engagement metrics, RankBrain and machine learning technology – its search engine still relies heavily on link authority as an important factor.

Former head of Google Webspam, Matt Cutts, said a few years ago that Google tests ranking factors on a non-public version search which removes backlinks from the search equation and the results are “much, much worse.” In other words, you need backlinks to validate your content in order to rank well for your relevant content.

How to Rank Well in Google, Using Backlinks, in 2018 and Beyond

So, how do you rank well in Google in 2018 and beyond? John Mueller, the current Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, gets asked this frequently. Here’s his typical response:

What is awesomeness? Ultimately, John Mueller says awesomeness the as share-worthy (aka link-worthy) content that users are seeking out. In its most recent Search Engine Ranking Factors Survey, Moz listed the following ranking factors, in order from most to least influential:

  • Domain-Level, Link Authority Features (backlinks)
  • Page-Level Link Metrics
  • Page-Level Keyword & Content-Based Metrics
  • Page-Level, Keyword-Agnostic Features
  • User Usage & Traffic/Query Data
  • Domain Level Brand Metrics
  • Domain Level Keyword Usage
  • Domain-Level, Keyword-Agnostic Features
  • Page-Level Social Metrics

Link authority and page-level link metrics can be defined as incoming link signals, as a measure of link worthy, validated content from authoritative link sources.

An Example of Awesomeness

Here’s a screenshot of a recent client (July 2018) that has share-worthy content that was not being found as readily as it should have. A considerable link building effort and campaign was started. Finding relevant sites to link from, a team of marketers acquired links from a variety of sources, including EDU links with resource pages that found the client’s content link worthy. This resulted in a massive spike in traffic and visibility. Awesomeness achieved!

Looking back, it’s not hard to see why Google has grown so rapidly in the past 20 years. The World Wide Web is now trillions of pages large and there are over 4 Billion internet users worldwide. Google has made it easy to quickly find the best content – the through backlink signals.

Want to grow your business exponentially or make your brand shine even brighter? Check out BIG YAM’s services and contact our team of marketing professionals today. And connect with Art Enke on LinkedIn for more SEO insights.