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The Past, Present and Future of Backlinks

24th January 2024

Ah, backlinks. Also known as incoming links and inbound links, these SEO treasures are created when one website links to another. If a website has a lot of backlinks leading to it, then it should rank higher on the Search Engine Results Pages, aka SERPs. This is what makes them so valuable and why good quality backlinks are highly sought-after. 

Why are backlinks so important?

Think of backlinks as votes of confidence. Recommendations from one site to another. 

Let’s say a back-to-school prep site posts a blog about their top ten favourite notebooks and number eight is a notebook of your design that you sell on your site. In that post, if the back-to-school site includes a link to your site for readers to click on and visit, that’s a backlink.

Now, let’s say this back-to-school prep website is the most popular around. Thousands flock to it to gather inspo for the return to school, so search engines like Google reward this page with lots of authority. They’d see all the monthly visitors and think ‘Wow, this website is the real deal’. If that big shot site links to your website, search engines will also see that and say ‘Hey, maybe this site is a big deal too’. You’ll get authority because the other site with authority ‘recommended’ you.

This is why backlinks are important. They are a fantastic way of building credibility that leads to visible results.

Simple, right? Yes… if you can get them. Acquiring strong, industry-relevant backlinks nowadays is like sunshine in Britain; a rare sight. Backlinks can be difficult to secure, depending on your business or brand type, the sites you want links from, and, sometimes, luck. If you’re struggling to find partnership opportunities, connect with the right people and distribute your content, we can help you with this. Send us a message via our contact form or call us on 01603 859007. 

Now, let’s take a step back. Literally back. Back in time, to the start of backlinks and what we used to do in the digital marketing industry to secure them.

The dark past of backlinks

The history of backlinks is an interesting one. They’ve been important since some of the first Google algorithms back in the early 2000s. In fact, the importance weighed on them was far more then than it is now (though don’t dismiss them, they’re still important). Backlinks were a key part of site success, but before Google’s biggest search algorithm updates, it was essentially a free-for-all. 

Well, a free-for-those-who-could-afford-it.

When it became clear that links helped push your site up the rankings, people got creative, as people tend to do. This is where the exchange of money started to come in. People began offering money for their links to appear on some sites, while other sites started charging anyone who wanted a link mentioned. 

This started a frenzy of bought links. This and reciprocal links became pretty much the only way of getting backlinks. No one wanted to put someone’s link on their site for free when they could charge, like everyone else, or get a backlink in return.

In this era of paid links, marketers stopped focusing on marketing. Why bother, when your pages could shoot up in the Google rankings after some simple cash transactions? They didn’t need to worry as much about other marketing tools because the very foundations of the early algorithms were built on backlinks.

A bit superficial, right? Don’t worry, times have changed.

The present-day of backlinks

The good news is that Google and other search engines caught wind of what was going on.  They wanted to focus on authentic recommendations. This made the playing field fairer for all businesses, as opposed to favouring those who had the money to buy their way to the top, and ensured the user was being referred to genuine websites to answer their search. 

Google can now spot suspicious links from a mile away. The biggest shift towards this was the Penguin Update that rolled out in 2012. Also named the ‘Webspam Algorithm Update’, this is now part of Google’s core algorithm and was designed to ignore backlinks acquired via dodgy link schemes. Now, links are measured on their relevance to the receiving website’s industry and the quality of the website that is giving the link. So, if you’ve paid to host your links on a generic directory or somewhere else entirely irrelevant for the sake of domain authority, you’re in trouble.

Another black hat SEO technique that was targeted at this time was content farms (which we’ll talk about in another post). Again, Google is looking for ‘audience-first’ content, not ‘search engine first-content’. In short, writing for people rather than bots.

So, with that all in mind, have paid links disappeared completely? No, they haven’t. Whilst Google stresses that the key factor to acquiring links should be relevance, quality and genuineness, it’s difficult to police sites that tick all these boxes but who are also monetising the opportunity to feature on their site. 

But are they still as important as before? In September of last year, Gary Illyes, an analyst on the Google search team, said of backlinks: “I think they are important, but I think people overestimate the importance of links. I don’t agree it’s in the top three.” That’s the top three Google search ranking factors he’s talking about. 

So, what does the future hold for backlinks? Are there brighter times ahead for us on the horizon?

The future of backlinks 

The answer is potentially, yes.

Backlinks are in the process of becoming less important. Still valuable, of course, but perhaps not something to focus huge chunks of our time around. Which areas should we focus on? Here are the predictions:

Natural link building

Search engines are going to be looking for websites with good, informative content that naturally attracts backlinks due to its quality. More strategies will emerge that put emphasis on having content good enough to garner backlinks without outreach. 

Of course, this relies on other sites finding yours and willingly linking to it, so the content has to be solid and optimised well enough to be found in the first place.

Build your brand

Brand mentions are going to be more important than ever. Being reputable enough to be mentioned on other sites is predicted to be one of the best ways to achieve quality, authoritative links in Google’s eyes. Search engines will reward sites with credibility if others mention them. 

It’s going to be incredibly important to focus on brand building in the future with a focus on becoming an authoritative voice in the relevant industry. This also applies to mentions without hyperlinks as raising brand awareness is still beyond helpful. This leads us to:

Influencer marketing

With the rise of social media comes the ever-more present influencer. This will continue to be a crucial tool in digital marketing, with the possibility of backlinks from their social media accounts and blog sites. We’re set to see a further rise in influencer collaborations in the future.

Utilise social media

The popularity of social media isn’t slowing down any time soon. Already, SERPs are serving LinkedIn articles in their results and this will only continue. There is a big future in social signals for backlinks, with authority and credit given for site pages being shared directly on social media platforms.

While the importance of backlinks is on the decline and predictions claim that they could become even less of a key search factor as time passes, we can’t be totally certain of their future. We believe that they will still hold importance, but that search engines will start to heavily credit natural links and better content. We can only hope that paying for links will soon be a thing of the past and that content created through hard work, skill and top-quality research will prevail.

Follow along with us as we explore industry topics, updates and news stories from the wonderful world of digital marketing by following us on Instagram and LinkedIn.

Are you keen to get ahead in the backlinks game and adapt your strategy in line with the ever-evolving digital marketing industry? Give us a call on 01603 859007 and let’s chat about what we can offer you through our digital marketing packages.

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