This is the question that my friend and I have been discussing since last year, which I believe is also the question of many.
While it’s true that marketers don’t need to rely on link building alone to rank on Google, external links is still a big ranking factor, even in cases where webpages rank without links pointing at them.
“You mean external links aren’t valuable anymore?”, some of you might say.
Well, no, that’s not exactly what I meant.
I know it’s confusing.
Allow me to explain.
External link as a ranking factor
In a ranking correlation study conducted by Moz, which is further explained by Cyrus Shepard in his post, Can you Rank in Google Without Links, the top 50 Google search results for 15, 000 keywords were examined.
They found that all websites ranking for competitive search phrases have at least a single external link pointing at them, in fact none of the no-external-links websites ranked. However, there are also instances where individual pages ranked even without external links pointing at them.
To prove this study, I conducted my own research and analysis. For this, I used Canva’s Design School blog.
Since Canva is a quality site, and recently published a blog post which I assumed doesn’t have an external link yet, I was convinced that it’s the perfect website to use.
Using Ahrefs Site Explorer, I checked the backlink profile of Canva’s blog, “50 Most Beautiful Vintage Magazine Covers Ever Designed”.
As expected, since they just published it, it has no external links yet. But when I searched for “vintage magazine covers” and “vintage magazine cover ideas” keywords, surprisingly, this blog post is ranking.
Now, it’s not because external link is out of the picture, in fact, it’s still one of the biggest ranking factors.
Like I’ve mentioned before, Canva is a quality website, when I studied the main site’s backlink profile, I got a …
Yes, a whopping 135, 000 backlinks and 14, 000 referring domains.
The Design School page alone has:
This means that as long as your website (your main site – let’s say your homepage) has external links, individual pages (even without external links) from your site can still rank. This is also proven and very visible on online news sites like CNN, Yahoo News and The New York Times – many times that whenever they publish a new page, which don’t have external links yet, they are still ranking well. And it’s because these sites are quality and have tons of backlinks.
How to rank with less links?
While it’s going to be hard to rank sites without links, there are ways to rank without too much link building efforts.
1. Prioritize quality. Rather than spending time looking for tons of websites where you can get backlinks, why not focus on the quality ones instead?
It’s quite challenging. But building relationships with a few quality websites is better than thousands of irrelevant websites, and in the long-run, you’ll see that it actually saves time.
2. Target more obscure phrases. It’s hard to rank for competitive keywords, especially when you don’t have much quality backlinks, but ranking for long-tail and lower competition keywords is a lot more realistic.
However, since these keywords have lower competition, expect that these have lower number of searches, and in many cases, none.
3. Focus on improving user-experience. Google gives emphasis on user-experience, and highlights the importance of click-through rate, time on-site and dwell time metrics. It’s best to shift majority of your focus on developing great products, services and content.
The future of external links according to Google
Last December 2013, Yandex announced that the search engine will be a “link-free” algorithm, and although this only applies to commercial queries and only works in the Moscow area, marketers couldn’t stop asking, “Will Google apply this, too?”
Here’s part of Matt Cutt’s answer:
“We don’t have a version like that, that is exposed to the public, but we have run experiments like that internally, and the quality looks much worse. It turns out that backlinks, even though there’s some noise and certainly a lot of spam, for the most part are still a really big win in terms of quality of search results. So we’ve played around with the idea of turning off backlink relevance and, at least for now, backlink relevance still really helps in terms of making sure that we return the best, most relevant, most topical search results.”
This shows that external link is and perhaps will still be one of the many elements of Google’s and other search engine’s ranking factors.
We’re way too far from a “link-free” algorithm!