Think Links Don’t Matter for SEO? Google Says They Matter More Than Ever

Tye Odom, my co-author for this article and the SEO manager for Randall-ReilIy explains: “I hear it all the time, whether it’s from an entry level link developer or SEO practitioner all the way up to VP’s of marketing at major corporation. So many of them think Google’s Penguin algorithm meant links are no longer valuable and needed in order to rank well, but the reality is the exact opposite. Penguin was designed to STOP giving credit to poor quality, mass produced links, paid links, and overused guests posts that made up the majority of a site’s backlinks.
For sites that earn credible links, either from journalists via editorial mentions or being linked to from credible industry specific sites, Google values links more than ever, as long as they are the kinds of links that indicate a person valued the content they were linking to. Google wants your site to be able to earn high-quality links, not mass-created links that have no human vetting behind them.
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Links Google Values

The most strategic and accurate way to determine the types of links Google values is to study Googles history of algorithm changes. Google has a long history of famous algorithm updates, search index changes and refreshes
Below are links to some of the most important resources for search marketers:


Source: List courtesy of SearchEngineLand

That’s quite a list, and it’s only a partial list. As mentioned earlier, Google wants your site to earn high-quality links to your site’s content assets.
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What is an Earned Link?

Here’s a column I originally wrote 15 years ago and recently updated. Its title is “What Makes A Site Link Worthy”, and it will help you understand what Google wants.
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What is the Google Penguin Update?

Of all the above algorithm changes Google has made, one in particular was aimed directly at links. And it was aimed at low quality unearned links. Marketers who were (and some foolishly still are) creating links this way are doomed, whether they realize it yet or not.
That Google update was called Penguin.
Google first launched the Penguin Update in the first half of 2012. The primary purpose of the Penguin algorithm was to identify sites that had developed inbound links pointing to their sites that Google’s Guidelines deemed to be manipulative or outright link spam.
“The primary purpose of the Penguin algorithm was to identify links that Google’s Guidelines deemed to be manipulative or link spam.”
Google took special aim at sites that were paying other sites to place links back to their sites. This tactic would go so far as to making sure the clickable portion of those links contained specific keywords. In this way the site owner (or agency or SEO firm) hoped to rank highly for those keywords. In simpler term, these links were nothing more that paid links designed to boost Google rank, not help end users find useful content.
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Manipulative Links

There are so many different types of manipulative links it would be hard to list them all, but here are a few.
Please note that many of the types of links below can be also used in perfectly legitimate ways, if you understand how and why.
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1. Paid Links

Fine to use for driving traffic, but Google asks that you use the “nofollow” tag.
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2. Affiliate Links

Affiliate links are never supposed to be used for improved search rank.
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3. Comment Links

A perfectly legitimate method for engaging in conversation, if that is the true goal.
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4. Guestbook Links

Also a perfectly legitimate method for engaging in conversation, if that is the true goal.
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5. Image Based Links

Some people will try to use image links to fool Google, but this no longer works and was never worth the potential for Google penalties.
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6. Link Networks

A collection of sites usually owned by the same person, or by people who all agree to be part of the network, for the primary purpose of fooling Google via link placement throughout the network of sites. Many sites have been penalized or removed from Google’s index for using this tactic.
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7. Reciprocal Links

A misunderstood linking strategy, reciprocal links can be either incredibly powerful and 100% legitimate to Google’s algorithms … or be complete spam. This is best understood by example. Imagine if an Austin, Texas based landscaping company was exchanging links back and forth with a Plumbing company in Vermont? That doesn’t make much sense, does it? But now imagine if that same Austin based landscaping company exchanged links (and leads) with another Austin based company that built outdoor living spaces (kitchens, firepits, covered patios). Now the reciprocal link exchange makes sense, both from a business perspective as well as an algorithmic perspective, and believe it or not, Google can detect such legitimate reciprocal links and give you credit for them.
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8. Site-Wide Links

Site-wides can make sense when the same company owns many different brands, like Procter & Gamble, which owns 50+ websites. On every page of every site they own you’ll find a link back to the main Procter & Gamble corporate site. This is logical and not manipulative, although it can be very frustrating to smaller sites that do not have the same marketing muscle as a company the size of P&G.
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9. Widget Links

When you see a small badge or button (aka widget, usually found on the bottom of a page), it can help your search rank if you’re able to get that widget on enough other sites. Unfortunately, some marketers take advantage of this with “widget spam”. Here’s a very helpful article that explains Google’s stance on the use of widgets.
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10. Guest Post Links

There is technically nothing wrong with writing an article or post for another site. In fact, this very article you are reading right now could be described as a “Guest post”. But this is where the concept of “intent” comes into play, and it’s crucial to understanding how to properly use Guest Posts as a marketing strategy.
It’s quite simple if you ask yourself this question before choosing to write a guest post: “Would I write this guest post for another site if there were no such thing as Google?”
Your answer will tell you if you are guilty of violating this Google guideline. In my case, I would be writing this column even if Google had ever existed, because I’m writing it to help readers on this site, not to help my site rank higher. My site is 22 years old with thousands of links from other sites. It would be foolish of me to pursue a broad Guest Post linking strategy. I’m writing this post to help people, not to appeal to algorithms.
And that needs to be your motivation as well.
The irony of this approach is when you write to help people, you end up leaving behind the exact kinds of high quality links Google wanted to find in the first place.
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11. Article Directories

Once upon a time there were hundreds of article directories where anyone could write a couple hundred words, embed a bunch of links back to their sites, and actually see an improvement in their rank. Those days are over. It won’t work.
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12. Forums and Message Boards

Again, a perfectly legitimate method for engaging in conversation, if that is the true goal.
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13. Web Directories

Web directories are another greatly misunderstood linking strategy that can make perfect sense for your site, or be perceived as link spam. Again, here’s an example. If you sell trucking gear (e.g., emergency gear, navigation, dash cams, GPS, logbooks, etc.), then it would make perfect sense for your company to seek links or listings from small human-curated trucking specific web directories and guides, like
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14. Social Bookmarks

Most people have heard of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and each one allows you to create a profile and link back to your main website. But did you know there are hundreds of social media networks? Probably not. But there are, and many web marketers and agencies will try to take advantage of this by creating hundreds of profiles on those social networks, all for the sake of getting links back to their main site. They have no intent or desire to actually participate in or use the social network; they just want the link. And Google is well aware of this and started penalizing it years ago. Now such links are just ignored, but it can seem like a penalty if those were the only types of links you had, and they have stopped helping your site rank well.
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15. Hidden Links

As silly as it may sound, once upon a time people would fill a pages white background with links that were formatted to match the same color white, making them invisible to the person looking at the site, but visible to search engine bots/crawlers. This was a long time ago in a land far, far away . . . Suffice it to say, it does not work.
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More Good Links

Don’t despair. If you’ve been going about your linking strategies the wrong way, you still have time to make things right. That’s what Randall-Reilly and I are here to do, help you. There are many ways to create and earn credible links to your site and content.
Two easy examples are:

  1. If your site can earn links as a result of public relations outreach about real company activities and achievements.
  2. Links that indicate evidence of viable business relationships and partnerships.

These types of links resonate with Google in a positive way and will help your site’s rankings and click traffic.
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Link Jail or Link Ph.D?

Here’s a great way to think about the collective links that are pointing at your site.
The links that point at your site tell a story. Google is smart enough now to read that story, and it can read like a college transcript of which you are very proud, or it can read like a rap-sheet and mug-shot you wish would go away.
Unfortunately, SEO agencies, link development companies, and even major public relations firms all bought into the idea that more links equaled better rankings, regardless of the quality of those links or where they appeared. Many still think that way, and can get your site into trouble that can be very difficult to get out of. It is best NOT to take those chances in the first place.
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Contact us to schedule your SEO consultation.


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About the Authors

[one_fifth]Eric Ward[/one_fifth][four_fifth_last]Eric Ward has been helping companies develop and execute content linking strategies since 1994. He works with clients in the trucking and transportation industry and has also worked with WarnerBros, The Discovery Channel, National Geographic,, and Eric also offers linking strategy consulting, training, workshops, and M/A counsel. His site is at[/four_fifth_last]
[one_fifth]Tye Odom[/one_fifth][four_fifth_last]Tye Odom has been working in SEO for more than seven years. He works on Randall-Reilly’s internal brands, and offers SEO consulting and training to Randall-Reilly’s clients.[/four_fifth_last]