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The Lasting Value of Links Online

Andrew Dennis
The Lasting Value of Links Online

Links continue to be fundamentally important to the web as a whole.

The perception of links within the SEO industry isn’t always the most positive, largely due to the spammy connotations associated with link building in the Pre-Penguin era.

SEOs always seem to be looking for the “next big ranking factor” to supplant links as the primary ranking signal for search engines, and because of this we tend to overreact every time Google introduces a new ranking signal.

We’ve seen it with HTTPS, and most recently the mobile-friendly update (AKA “Mobilegeddon” – you see my point about overreaction?).

Just over a year ago, the Russian search engine Yandex decided to drop link signals from their search algorithm for commercial queries within Moscow. This was done to combat spam and paid links. The move led some within the SEO industry to speculate on a future where links were not a ranking factor within organic search.

However, recently Yandex announced they will be bringing links back into their algorithm for all search verticals. While Yandex will be using links as a positive signal once again, it should be noted that they intend to give negative scores to manipulative links as well, similar to Google’s Penguin algorithm.

Yandex is not the only search engine to dabble with a “link-less” algorithm. In a Google Webmasters video back in February of 2014, Matt Cutts discussed an experiment in which Google had tested a version of search that excluded links as a signal.

“It turns out backlinks, even though there’s some noise, and certainly a lot of spam, for the most part are still a really, really big win in terms of quality for search results.” - Matt Cutts

Google tested a search algorithm that didn’t include links, and it lowered the quality of their search results. Cutts also went on to say he thought there were many years left in links as a ranking signal.

But links are not only valuable in terms of search. Aside from the ongoing SEO value they have, links remain foundational to the web. Some important functions of links include:

  • Navigational portals
  • Establishing digital connections
  • Providing branding power

Let’s look at each of these essential roles links play online individually.

Links Provide Navigation

Perhaps the most significant reason links continue to be important is they enable people to navigate the Internet.

Links are the primary means for getting from one website to another. Imagine how difficult it would be to traverse the web if there weren’t any links connecting sites, if you had to manually type a corresponding URL every time you wanted to visit a website. It would be a nightmare.

Of course Google and social media platforms make finding content and web pages easier, but how do they help you get where you need to go? Links! In fact, Google’s basic search results (excluding the Knowledge Graph) are simply a list of links.

We often take links for granted because they are deeply ingrained into our online experience, but without links the internet wouldn’t be functional.

Because links are the main form of transportation online, they can help people find and access your business’ site. So even if links held no SEO significance they could still provide business value in the form of referral traffic. Particularly if you’re approaching link building with an audience-first mentality, the referral traffic from these links will be some of the best and most qualified traffic you’ll have.

Unless there is a fundamental change in the way the internet operates, links will continue to be critical to the web.

Links Establish Digital Connections

There is lasting power in the online connections formed through links.

Not only do links associate websites, but they also can connect the people and businesses behind those sites. The connections you make through your links can lead to long and mutually beneficial partnerships or relationships. The link itself represents a symbiotic relationship between the two sites - the site being linked gets exposure to a new audience, and the linking site demonstrates trust to its readers by providing them with a helpful resource.

Positive relationships are certainly important within link building, but relationships can also lead to other marketing opportunities. Some examples of the benefits these connections offer include:

  • Collaborative content projects
  • Improved promotional efforts via co-promotion
  • Co-sponsored giveaways/contests
  • Shared authority through association
  • Access to new audiences/communities
  • Improved brand reputation/image

Links establish a digital connection between two sites, but they also foster a real connection between site owners and brands. These positive associations demonstrate the continuing power of links.

Links Offer Branding Power

Branding campaigns and initiatives can be bolstered by links.

Not only do links form digital connections between sites, but they also serve as an endorsement from one site to another. The linking site is telling their audience that the site they are linking to is a trusted and worthwhile resource.

Respected site owners aren’t going to expose their readers (via a link) to an unsavory or dishonest website/company — this would compromise the trust of their audience. Therefore, a link from a reputable website indicates credibility to search engines and humans alike. As more and more sites link to your site, you will cultivate a reputation of authority for your brand that will benefit all facets of your marketing.

Links also improve brand awareness. As mentioned above, when a webmaster links to your site they are sharing your site with their audience. And this means increased exposure for your brand.

With more links comes more brand visibility, especially if some of these links feature branded anchor text. Branded links are basically small billboards placed around the web, and as people encounter your links you will build brand recognition.

Links contribute to brand equity, creating lasting value.


Links continue to play a significant role online.

Even though search engines like Google and Yandex have tested algorithms that disregarded links as a ranking factor at one time or another, both search engines continue to place value on links today. But links remain important for reasons outside of SEO value.

Links remain important because they:

  • Are the primary means of navigating the web
  • Form digital connections between sites/brands
  • Possess branding power for businesses

Links continue to serve a critical function in connecting the web, and provide lasting business value.

Image credit: Canva & Unsplash

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Andrew Dennis is a Content Marketing Specialist at Page One Power, a relevancy-first link building firm located in Boise, Idaho. He is also a regular contributor to Biznology and the link building blog Linkarati. Andrew graduated from the University of Idaho and is therefore a lifelong Vandals fan. You can engage with him on Twitter. His last article for SEMrush was “Why Links Should be a Long-term Investment."
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Utkarsh Sahu
Nice piece, Andrew. I'm confused with one thing -- "spammy connotations associated with link building in the Pre-Penguin era" -- do you actually believe so, or was this a typo for Post-Penguin?
Stan Chris
Utkarsh Sahu
I think that even before the Penguin era (Pre-Penguin), link building was still seen as "spammy". It's just that the thing got more spammy in this Post-Penguin era.
Utkarsh Sahu
Stan Chris
I beg to differ here, Stan. Bulk link building was standard in the Pre-Penguin, and only after the alg. updates, everybody saw the impact of bulk keyword-anchor text link building.

Since then, the practice of link building has become more cautious, and people are actually looking towards authority links over spammy links in bulk. It isn't more spammy, but many other ways of manipulation did appear post-penguin, including dropped domains, doorway pages, sneaky redirects.
Stan Chris
Utkarsh Sahu
certainly will agree with you on this. Just considering the way link building is seen by Google and most SEO experts, one will tend to leave off the practice totally and just concentrate on creating engaging contents that will drive organic traffic.
Utkarsh Sahu
Stan Chris
Yeah, that's the ideal thing to do. But you need great content, and if you don't have one ... then the plan is toast! :)
Stan Chris
Utkarsh Sahu
Actually, what you will need is a content that's able to communicate and interact with the audience. That seems to be the future of content marketing.
Utkarsh Sahu
Stan Chris
Natural interaction is the ideal thing you'd like your content to perform good on, which is very difficult to achieve
Andrew Dennis
Utkarsh Sahu
Thanks for commenting Utkarsh!

I believe that unfortunately, the spammy connotations associated with Pre-Penguin link building practices have been carried over to today to some extent. As Stan mentions below, there are still many within the SEO industry that simply view all link acquisition as spammy.

In reality, it all comes down to application. Jon Ball wrote about this on SEW.

Any link building tactic can be done right and utilized effectively, or it can be done at scale and in a manipulative fashion to the point it becomes spammy.

As you pointed out in the comments below, Penguin actually did clean up a lot of the spam by targeting manipulation. While spammy tactics can still work in the short-term (and many churn-and-burn sites still implement them successfully), Penguin has allowed businesses that build real, worthwhile links to be successful with techniques that actually add value to the web.

Thanks again for your comments.
Utkarsh Sahu
Andrew Dennis
You're welcome, Andrew. All hail Google Penguin, :)