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The Great SEO Debate: Are backlinks important?




Harry: Welcome to the first episode of the Great SEO Debate. I'm Harry from StudioHawk, and we've also got Jacob over there. We're just basically going to be going through the first topic, which is, “are backlinks as important as everyone likes to make them seem?” 

Dejan over there is going to be presenting for backlinks, and of course, David is going to be talking about some of the considerations that you may have when talking about backlinks as well. Jacob, do you want to get our lovely guests to introduce themselves? 

Jacob: I'm Jacob. I'm the general manager of StudioHawk. We've got David. He'll be talking about why backlinks are maybe not as important as people think. And then we've got Dejan from Prosperity Media, he'll be talking about why backlinks are important. All right, first question. Are backlinks important for small businesses?

Are Backlinks Important for Small Businesses?

David: I think they're important, but I don't think they're the most important thing. If you go back 13 years to when Dejan started, I think backlinks were extremely important. But over time, Google has made a lot of changes to the algorithm. They've started to move towards user-first, and links don't really fit that user-first mentality that they're going for. 

While they are important, and John always says that they're still one of the ranking factors, I think there's a lot more that people can focus on. I actually have a good example of why I come to this conclusion, kind of a real-life example. 

Here's an example of a search term in Australia which has 480 searches a month at a massive $32 CPC, right? Managed IT. And you can see there, these are the top five organic listings. Now you would assume, one would assume, that the highest domain authority website would be somewhere near the top, right? Well, you'd be wrong. Because our number one domain authority site is at number five.

And you're like, "Well, that's cool. There are other factors, and maybe the guy at the top has just a few less links, slightly lower DR." His number of links are literally one one-hundredth of the number five guy, all right? 

Just to show you the rest of it, to see if maybe he's an anomaly, you can see here above him as well, somebody with a DR seven, a DR 10, and a DR 31. As I was saying, I do still think links are somewhat important, and you can kind of see that trend in numbers two through four, where they kind of have that diminished link building, but I think it's a really good example showing that it's not always about link building.

There's a lot of other factors that come into play when you're talking about where you're ranking. And when you're doing a small business, link building is really hard, right? It takes a lot of effort, a lot of time, especially when you're first starting. 

It's a lot of other things; on-site technical, creating content that speaks to your user about the product you're offering, local business schema markups. All of these things are really important and will help you dominate the organic search results without ever doing link building. That's kind of where I sit with small businesses is link buildings are fine, but it's not necessarily a place to start.

Dejan: All right, so, valid points, David. I'll pull up a quick presentation and then I'll get back to what you just said. I pulled up the example, and I can tell you straight, I've noticed something that's correlating to why that's ranking, but let me just share my screen quickly with you guys. 

All right. Are backlinks important for small business? A small business is technically any business with $50 million or less. It's quite substantial. I mean, 100 employees, $50 million. Straight away, we're talking about some big queries, big commercial keywords. 

Let's just say you've developed a content strategy around a topic cluster, you've implemented GMB, you've done all the technical SEO optimizations and you're still not ranking at least on the first page for your dedicated query, and you're out of the sandbox. Backlinks could matter, especially when you're going up against websites that might be five, 10, 20 years old in some circumstances. 

Another factor to remember is it's not every single entry is going to be the same, right? Some niches are going to be a lot easier to rank in than others. Some businesses can drive more revenue from online. Therefore, there's going to be more competition. And therefore, when there's more competition in a niche, normally the one big factor you'll see separating the first three at least, first three positions, is backlinks. There is definitely certain sectors where backlinks are a lot more important.

Here's an example. This is a tool called Clearscope. What it does, it pulls the top 20 results and gives it a content grade, right? Our agency, Prosperity Media, are ranking number one for this term, and we are at A-. 

Here's a website ranking in 16th position that has perfect onsite content, great technical SEO, getting to position 16. It's because the competition is so high for this query that links are a factor. Content, technical optimizations are not enough. You need that extra boost in order to get certain rankings for certain commercial queries. 

To go to your example, David, let me just share my screen again. Managed IT is number one. The two things this site has going for it is it's an exact match domain. I mean, when you have an exact match domain, it makes it very easy because all your backlinks are going to be branded, and if they're branded and they're using the words managed IT, it gives you direct topical relevance for the word managed IT. 

A better question would be, what queries or what type of keywords does this website rank for in the niche that don't include the word managed IT? Also, the domain age is 20 years. If we look at the first 10, top 10, the average is 11 years. This site's been up for 20 years. Whilst it may not have the links, it definitely has the domain age, and that's where different factors come in. 

I do agree, David. Links aren't the be-all and end-all, but they're definitely very, very important for queries or more competitive type commercial queries.

David: I think it partially proved my point that backlinks aren't the end all be all. The example he showed, being a 20-year-old website, using a domain name that specifically targets that search term... That's what I'm saying. There's so many other things that you can do.

There was a guy in the UK who used to do single page websites. He would buy a domain name, it was targeted towards a keyword that was highly competitive. He would build no links, and he would just do onsite content, on just the one page, and he said he used to sell, he was selling, his plumber's website sold for three or four thousand dollars because he ranked number one for a local suburb plumber with zero link building. 

He just put all the local signals, all the schema markup. Good content, targeting that local term, and it was like, wash plumber suburb, or whatever, in the UK. He just did all those other things to rank. And yes, if he did all that and he was number three, the next thing you do is go out and you do link building, because what you've done is not enough. Then you go to that next step. 

But I really feel that so many people focus on links so much, and they spend all this time doing it, that sometimes they forget, “let's just do a content refresh”. 

Are Backlinks Dead?

Harry: Tell me, if this is so true and we're seeing this happening but we're still seeing links playing a part, why do some people still believe backlinks are dead? Do you guys have a hard-line stance that backlinks are dead? Why or why not?

Dejan: Backlinks are definitely not dead. What I dare say is the type of backlink. The ScrapeBox blast of 15 years ago doesn't work anymore. The blog comments that worked a decade ago don't work anymore. It's the type of backlink that matters.

You want to be building it for relevant sites that have decent topical authority that preferably have referring domains coming back to them, back to that page that is, that are relevant to the topic that you're trying to get a link to. 

I think a lot of people avoid link building because it is difficult, and I'm sure you would agree Harry, it's a grind. It's not easy to get a good link in 2020. It's just not. Every webmaster under the sun has hundreds of emails in their spam box or in their inbox, people trying to get a link off any site that's above authority score of 30 or 40. This is the reality we're in.

I do agree on your content point, David, I do agree that content is a factor. There's no doubt about it. I mean, I personally see the two biggest factors in SEO are content and links, and then obviously you've got the technical support there.

David: I agree with you, backlinks are not dead. I think anybody that says that is wrong. I just think that, as I said, they're not the first thing you do. You start a brand new business and you're like, "I'm going to go out and I'm going to get 100 links and I'm going to rank for my search term." And it just doesn't work, not if you don't have the right foundation. 

Backlinks for New Businesses vs Existing Companies

Harry: We've got a lot of questions coming in, guys, and keep them coming....Big DC, Daniel Cheung himself, he'd like to hear some perspectives from brands with a new business on a new domain versus an existing business with an old domain, and how do backlinks play in? 

David: If you're looking at the perspective of brand new versus existing businesses, if you've got an existing business and you've been around for 20 years or 30 years and you're in a particular industry, you're probably getting a lot of organic value in link building, right? I don't think Commonwealth Bank goes out and does a massive link building campaign to try to outrank their competitors. They just get links all the time, because people link to their news articles.

Dejan: I have looked into that space extensively and I have seen the links coming through, and I can definitely see some correlation to link building occurring in the finance sector, for sure. You'd be surprised, you'd be surprised, is all I'm saying.

David: Oh, you think they're earned? Because I've looked at their backlink before, and I think that a lot of them are very natural, organic, and they're not earned links.

Dejan: My answer to that is I think the SEOs are doing a very good job then if that's your conclusion.

Ranking the 3 Pillars of SEO in Order of Importance

Jacob: One of my questions that I had for you guys was if you had to put the three pillars of SEO in order, what order would you put it in, being onsite, offsite, and content? What order would you put it in, David? If you had to.

David: I would put it in the order of content, offsite, and technical (onsite). My example for that is news agencies around the world. They don't give a crap about their onsite. They don't do anything to optimize. They create good content that everybody wants to read, they get lots of links, and guess what? They rank for so many terms, right? 

You do a search term for anything in the news, it's always a news agency that's coming up first, whether it's news.com, CNN, whoever it is. But they don't do anything technically. 

Harry: Dejan, do you have any thoughts on that? How would you place them?

Dejan: If it's a fresh business that you've just opened up, it's still in the sandbox, I'd probably say content is the most important thing. If it's a big monster site and it's got a high authority score, 70 plus, and there's a lot of content on the site but it might be a legacy site, I'd classify technical as the most important thing. 

But if it's a site that's in a relatively competitive space, so an example is finance, then I'd consider the links the most important, then followed by content and technical. I just think it just depends on the various different niches, would depend on the answer there.

How Have Backlinks Evolved Over Time?

Harry: And Dejan, did you have any views, also posing the same question, did you have any views on how those backlinks have changed over time?

Dejan: Gone are the days where you could just go onto some sort of a forum and buy a backlink package and rank on the first page. You could do this 12, 13 years ago, you can't do that now. Backlinks have definitely changed, and the perception has changed. 

I think people know the difference between a forum post, an in-contextual link, a resource link, and a niche edit. And of course, what we're looking for as well are what kind of links they're valuing. It's always kind of been the same, but I think a lot more people understand it's those top tier, in-contextual links. Because a lot more people understand, they become a lot harder to get, just on the supply and demand part of it.

Harry: Yeah. It's very interesting, it is that supply and demand curve. But I do agree, I think the market is becoming a lot more educated. I think those days of receiving 50 PBN links in your report and being, "My agency's good, they're getting me lots of links," is well and truly dead. I think people are starting to be happy when they see one or two really highly relevant, textual links in a report. 

Daniela asks, What kind of content naturally gets a lot of backlinks? For example, goes viral. I'm going to merge that with one of Daniel's questions, which is, “what are the first five links that businesses should build?” 

Dejan: The type of content that's going viral at the moment, I mean, anything to do with the tragic coronavirus issue, especially statistics-based pieces in any niche. I think people would naturally link to statistics. What is a link to begin with, right? It's a reference. And statistics are natural reference points.

Top five backlinks to build: if you're just starting out, a good base if you're a local business would be niche-specific directories. If you're a wedding photographer, it would be wedding directories within your city or country, would probably be the very first thing you do, before you build out your content strategy and have more linkable assets to go out there.

Is it Worth Using Dedicated Link-Building Services?

Harry: Is it worth using services like The HOTH for backlinks? Different SEO experts have different opinions. And Iris says, "I want to learn more about the backlink quality of The HOTH. Anyone use this before?" 

David: I've never used The HOTH. However, I have used a company in the past called Fatjoe which is a similar brokered link building website. Having used them, my feeling is if you're willing to pay for the higher domain authority links, which can get quite expensive on those, it can be of some value, because I've seen some really good, high-quality links come through from that. 

But when you start looking at some of the lower end, it almost feels PBN. You'll see three links come through, and you're like, "These websites look like they were designed by the exact same person." My opinion is when you use them, you pay for what you get.

David: If you pay for the higher end, 30+, 40+ DR links, you actually will get pretty decent links. But at the same time, you go to an agency at that point, you can almost pay the same for your links, and you get a little bit more control over it because you work with somebody like Dejan or myself and you're like, "I want this niche, I want these kind of links," and you're paying maybe a little bit more, little bit more of a premium for them, but not that much more, and you're getting a lot more control over it. 

Harry: Yeah, interesting. Dejan, did you have any thoughts on that?

Dejan: If you're going to be doing link building, you want to do it properly. You want to do your research of what kind of links you want to build, and you want to build relationships with sites that actually matter. You're better off going and building a relationship with a DR 70, 80 site than you are getting a bunch of shoddy DR 20, 30s, and paying $150 US for them. That's the reality.

David: It's actually why when you pay for the higher authority ones you get a little more value from them, because if you start looking at the outgoing links from those 40 and 50s that they're selling, it's not 10:1, it's only 3:1, because everybody's buying the cheap ones, right?

Harry: Yeah, absolutely. And look, that's a good point. And also, the other point you made, David, around getting an agency to broker those links, can often be cheaper due to economy of scale, right? You're paying a premium to The HOTH, just like you would an agency, to do them. 

Is the Skyscraper technique Still Useful?

Jacob: The legend, Brian Dean himself, from Backlinko, he loves the skyscraper technique. And I'm just wondering if you guys think it's still relevant in 2020. David, if you want to kick off. What do you think? Do you think it's still relevant in 2020?

David: Yes and no. This actually comes back to the question I was asked in chat about how do you create content that gets backlinks, goes viral. I think the skyscraper technique is overused for just standard content...it's got to be super unique, it's got to be different.

If you can find a really unique, cool way to do something, I think the skyscraper technique still works. But if you're just out there consolidating the top six pages and making one massive article, I don't think that works as well anymore.

The modern-day person wants bite-sized content, but they want it to be super informative. Even five years ago, six years ago, people wanted to read huge pages on a topic. But now, they're traveling in the train, they have 20 minutes until they get to work.

Jacob: Dejan, I'm really keen to see what you think, if you think the skyscraper technique is still relevant in 2020 or not.

Dejan: It's definitely overused in the affiliate space, 100%, no questions about that. Is it relevant for Australian businesses? I say you can do it if you have a decent piece of content. The only problem is when you're doing those types of skyscraper pitches, I've noticed in Australia particularly, it's hard to get to the decision mover for a lot of the sites. Especially when you're trying to get a link maybe upgraded on a small business type site, it's hard for that email to go to the decision-maker or to the person that's actually making the website changes, hence why it can be difficult to do for Australian-based sites.

On the more global scale, for an affiliate site, the reason it's overused is because the affiliates are the decision-makers and they're the ones that implement the links. I've tested it, I have gotten some success, not a lot, personally. I think it does work, but maybe for certain verticals that I've tried it in, maybe it hasn't got the best results, and other strategies work a bit better.

Harry: Okay, so kind of similar views on the skyscraper technique. But what do you think, Dejan, about, David spoke about shortening content versus having long pieces of content like Brian Dean advocates and recommends. What are your thoughts on that?

Dejan: I mean, the way I normally see content length is I see what's working.  I'll go into the search and I'll see what the top three, top five, for a specific query, how many words do they have, how many words of content. Then I'll maybe add 10 to 15%. 

Am I going to go right off the bat and do a 5000-word article? Probably not, because let's be honest, most businesses don't have the internal resources. Maybe it's a budgetary issue. It's a lot more expensive to build out that piece of content, so the ROI might not be there from day one, whereas it might be for a 500 to 600-word piece. I think it just depends on the query that you're targeting. 

Acquiring Backlinks for Small vs Large Businesses

Harry: Let's talk about what differences, and what's your viewpoint, what's the difference you can see between acquiring backlinks for small and large businesses? Dejan, could you kick us off? What are the differences you see between those two different verticals?

Dejan: The obvious one, the second I see an email from a big business, they want big money for the link. Doing it for a brand name, for a big name you have a lot more opportunity, right? If a business has been mentioned and you're outreaching from that business, it's a lot easier to maybe get unlinked brand mentions, whereas for a small business, that opportunity doesn't exist because maybe that small business doesn't have really any brand mentions or big media mentions anywhere. 

Harry: And do you think, Dejan, that it's worthwhile, big brands still doing outreach or link acquisition?

Dejan: 100%. Brands have more sway. People know who they are, people are a lot more inclined to reply to an email from a big brand as well. We've noticed the email open and reply rates are a lot higher from big-name companies versus smaller or Gmails. 

Harry: Well David, what are your thoughts, then? Do you think it's still worth these big brands doing link acquisition, or do you think there's other things that are more important?

David: I think that it depends on the objective. If there's something that the big brand wants to push that they haven't pushed before, I think you have to have some sort of a link building campaign, whether that's a PR mention and link building campaign, or whether it's an actually targeted outreach to people to get them to link to it, to talk about it.

With small businesses, I think it's very similar. I worked with a national interstate removalist company here in Australia called Mooval. They had some really high success with doing a PR release. They did a big PR release, and it really pushed them up. They moved from ranking on the second page to ranking on the first page of Google for their search term. And it really shows the value that even as a small one or two-man shop, if you do some kind of a big media mention, it has value. 

The advantage the big businesses have is, as Dejan was saying, they have a bit of sway because they've got a name behind them. They can go to these guys and be like, "Here's Coke's, here's Nike, here's BMW's cool new thing," and everybody wants to talk about it, right?

Can You Get a Website Ranking without Links?

Jacob: We've still got lots of questions coming in, guys. I've got one here from Daniela Furtado. Do you guys have any cases, I'll start with you, David, of websites that have performed well without any link building, and they just focus on their content or UX? They weren't really link building-focused.

David: We go back to that example, Mooval, which is the interstate removalist company here in Australia. Before they ever did a lot of link building, they just focused on good content, restructured their website. And they went from not ranking to ranking at the top of page two, bottom of page one, and their traffic increased by 10x. Because that was just for their key term. 

When you started going to the more niche, they started to rank better. They actually 10x'd their traffic then. But that's not to say, that's at the point where you almost need to do that next step, which is link building because then they did it again when they link built. After doing it without link building, it did have good success. Then pairing it with the link building, they had great success.

Harry: Dejan, would you have done it the same way? Would you have put that focus on links, or do you think if you had have put that focus on links early, do you still think they would have seen that gain through that link acquisition?

Dejan: Definitely I think there's the case where content does matter, I'm not disputing that. But I think both should be done in unison. You probably should be building content, and through that content and traffic going to those pieces of content naturally does come links.

I do think you can get your content ranking for queries that are relatively uncompetitive, and especially if you can build a topic cluster around it. But it's not until link building comes in that you can really start ranking for competitive commercial queries, and that's really what I want to stress here.

Harry: David, what do you think? Do you have that same view, do you have a different view?

David: I would actually probably have to agree with him on this. The more niche the topic, the easier it is to do without links. If you want to rank for, I don't know, three-ply toilet paper sold on Windsor Road in Baulkam Hills, which has zero search volume a month, you can create a content piece, no links, one-page website, and probably rank for it, right? But if you wanted to rank for toilet paper right now, good luck, without doing a lot of media mentions, right? Because everybody's searching for it, and everybody's looking for it.

Harry: Let's say I just started out a finance company. I've decided things are tough at this time, I want to start lending out money to businesses, and I reckon I'm going to make some serious bank off it. If I said I want to rank number one for business finance Melbourne, wouldn't you then say that that's a highly competitive term and my biggest focus should be on link acquisition?

David: No. You need customers before you do any link acquisition. You need to make money, you need to prove that it works. I would actually do outbound marketing. I would find a way to say I'm a brand new business, I'm offering this really unique thing. 

I'm going to find a bunch of targets and I'm going to do outbound marketing and get a bunch of people onboard before I do anything else. Then I get those people onboard, and that's when I'm going to actually use them to build links. I'm going to go to them and say, "Hey, did you love the service? Leave a review. I would love it if you spread the word," be a bit viral, use the referrals. 

Eventually, what happens is you start to get almost natural, just some natural referrals. And now I've got the money coming in and I've proved my business case, now I start focusing on those other things. But I think for a brand new business in that highly competitive industry, outbound marketing is going to be where it's at.

Harry: Okay. Dejan, I've come to you now, and I've said David's told me to focus on outbound. I want to rank for this term as fast as I can. What are we going to do? Are we going to fix my website, are we going to do some content? Are we going to get some lean, mean link machines?

Dejan: Like anything SEO, first, we're going to say it depends. We're going to look at your technical, we're going to look at your content. We're going to look at your current link profile, we're going to see where wins can be made. 

We're going to look and we're going to see how many links your competitors are getting, first off. I would definitely say a focus, that is a commercial query, and I would daresay that links have to be involved in some sort of way.

I would then look at, okay, the top three have got XYZ amount of links, and there's XYZ amount of links coming through per month. Now, how many of those links are going from relevant sites? How many of those links are going to relevant pages to actually move the needle? 

Then I'd probably work out a formula, XYZ links are needed to rank for this query for month, and that's probably the aim of attack I'd do, and then I'd look for opportunities within the niche, and then I'd go backwards and start creating the content, or think of different strategies where we can attain the links. 

Are links required for that? I would dare say so without looking at the specifics, they are, especially in the current climate. So yeah, I definitely probably would start off with links, to be fair. They just would be required to rank anywhere of substance for that query.

Dejan: I think Dave's point's very interesting. The whole point of it I think is people to know your brand, people to get a brand mention. What happens with brand mention? Naturally, people link back. Once your business is being talked about, 100%. You want your business trending on Google Trends, 100% agree, and links can come from that, I do agree. 

Harry: And David, do you think, given enough time, do you think you would need to focus on link acquisition, or do you think they'll naturally come if you build a big enough outbound brand?

David: I think that they would naturally come. If I went out tomorrow and I offered a business finance service that said, you know, we're going to loan $10,000 minimum, but in the current crisis, we're going to do 0% interest for the first three months after you take the loan out, right? That's a massive boon for businesses. They're like, "Oh, cool. I can take money, and I can pay back just my principal for the first three months. I don't have to pay any interest." It's a huge saving. It's something that will hook people that are struggling.

What you can do with that is, now you've got a bunch of people on it, now people start to talk about it. You send it out, now you can do that PR release. You go out to the news agency and say, "This is what I'm doing. This is what I'm offering. I've already got this many people onboard, here's my testimonials." And the next thing you know, you've got people mentioning it in the news, and now people are talking about it, and now people are searching for it. And even if there was no links, I reckon that if you hit that virality and that trending, the Google Trends, you'll start ranking for it just because user intent.

That would be a really great way, right now, to rank very quickly. But long term, I think you have to start looking at some of those other things, and you have to think, "Okay, this will last me for the next six months while we're all isolated in our hubs. What am I going to do after that?" 

How can I start building ongoing links? How can I fix my technical? How can I create good content that keeps people coming back, that keeps my authority past this trend?

Harry: Thank you so much, David and Dejan for joining us. Thank you so much to everyone for the questions. I know we couldn't even cover, we probably covered a quarter of them. I tried to get one from each person at least. But there's heaps of stuff. Obviously backlinks, such a major thing. David, Dejan, where can people get ahold of you if they have more questions?

David: The best place is LinkedIn, for me.

Harry: Dejan?

Dejan: Me? LinkedIn. Dejan. @DejanAuthority at Twitter. Or hit me up on the Prosperity Media contact page website if you are wanting to have a chat.

Harry: Awesome.

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