Links remain a major ranking factor for SEO

By Aaron Rudman-Hawkins
October 11, 2019

So, on 10th September 2019 Google released a blog update advising that, after 15 years, they were evolving the use of the “nofollow” attribute for websites and adding two new tags for publishers to utilise.

Now, in this post I am going to take a closer look what’s been introduced and why. But before I do, I want to take a step back and point out something that struck me immediately when I read the update.

Do links still matter for SEO?

There has been an on-going debate for years as to whether links still matter when it comes to SEO.

Some argue that links are no longer a major ranking factor, and that a business shouldn’t worry about trying to actively acquire links while others argue links are extremely important and should be a core focus of any SEO campaign.

Here at the Evergreen Agency, we air on the side of links being important but only when relevant, related and of top quality. We approach every link and ask ourselves – would we want that link if Google didn’t exist? I.e. We want it not for the “SEO value”, but more for the potential referral traffic, and for the brand awareness/niche relevance.

If you can say yes, I want that link, as it’d be great – regardless of Google – then the likelihood is it’s a great link and Google will value it as much as you do.

Yes, links do still matter…

Now an interesting takeaway from the recent Google press release is that, after 15+ years, Google is still looking at ways to better improve it’s understanding of links.

Would Google still be tinkering with how to better understand links in 2019 if they weren’t a significant ranking factor? Absolutely not in my opinion.

So, what was this update about?

Google is introducing two new link attributes for links. To fully understand what this is and why it’s important you need to understand what we have had over the past 15+ years so let me explain…

A bit of Google history

Google uses “links” from one website to another as a way of crawling and therefore ‘understanding’ the vast amount of content on the internet.

Now links are only one of 200+ ranking factors that Google have stated they use. BUT links remain very important, as they essentially help Google better understand the internet.

Now by default, Google will “follow” every link it finds – think of it as hopping from one website to another via these links.

Problems arose in the early 2000s where people were abusing the system in a variety of ways (I won’t get into this now, but spamming was born). Advertising was also becoming more mainstream online.

Google had a problem; it needed to better understand which links were legitimate, and which existed for advertising or other purposes.

Introducing Nofollow

In the early-2000s Google released its “nofollow” link attribute. To keep it simple it was a way for website owners, news publications, bloggers etc to add a tiny bit of code that would allow users to click links from one website to another but prevent Google (and other search engines) from following that link and therefore assigning any knock-on SEO benefit.

For years it has been understood that if a link isn’t legitimate, if it is for advertising, if it is content threads on a blog/forum then they should be nofollow. This is so Google knows to affectively ignore those links while focusing on the relevant/quality links that don’t have this tag.

This has worked well for years and as the internet has evolved, the use of nofollow has become increasingly prevalent and here is why…

Google takes links from one website to another as an indicator of relevance and quality. Put simply, every website linking to another site is a thumbs up to Google. It is site A saying to Google that site B is a good resource.

The problem this created was that authoritative sites were reluctant to link out to other sites as they didn’t want Google to necessarily give any ‘credit’ to these websites, which would improve their SEO.

Let me give you an example to better explain what I mean…

Let’s take the Daily Mail for example – they introduced a policy when was this?  whereby all their links out to other websites by default are “nofollow”.

What this has meant is that users click the links and don’t see anything out of the ordinary, but as far as Google is concerned, it knows to ‘not follow’ those links, and therefore not pass on any ‘credit’ for those links, which would affect the SEO ranking of that particular website.

Still with me? Hopefully not getting too technical!

Evolving “nofollow”

Google has introduced two new tags:


These may seem scary and technical but don’t worry, we always explain the most technical jargon in plain English for you, so here goes…

Any link from one website to another that is included for the primary purpose of advertising, be that sponsored, paid for, or in any situation where compensation has been given, should be linked to using the rel=”sponsored” attribute.

When I say linked to, it just means that, as part of the link itself, this little piece of code should be added as part of it.

Who would implement this kind of thing, you might be wondering? Well, for the most part it will be developers and you, as the business owner don’t need to worry about this. It’s more important for the big authority sites than the individual business service and eCommerce websites.

However, it is important to be aware so you don’t look on blankly if someone says “I’ll add the link as sponsored”. At least you will know what they are talking about now.

Does it have any implications for you? In the short term, not specifically, however there is a wider knock on affect to be aware of once the internet starts to implement and abide to these new ‘rules’.

If you are a business whose only links to your website are ones from advertising and sponsored content, and all of these links start being tagged as “sponsored”, it shows to Google that you don’t have many natural, earned links. These are the links Google mostly wants to see.

Long story short – you want a mix of links to your website, so focus on making your website a resource and of value to Google, rather than just a shop window to sell your products/services.

If you do this, you will attract a natural profile of links.  At this point, the whole idea of “sponsored” links will be of little interest to you as you’ll have a wealth of fantastic, natural links.

So, what about rel=”ugc”…

Well, firstly ‘ugc’ stands for User Generated Content, and this link attribute is intended for comments and forums. This is probably the least most important of the recent changes, as it’s just in order to help Google better understand these ‘links’ – they are the least valuable in the eyes of the search engine.

How does all of this affect you and your business?

As with most Google updates, the direct and immediate impact on your business is minimal. However, it should be noted that, in a wider context, the update shows how links are still an important factor to Google despite some of the noise from the wider industry that suggests links don’t matter.

Links 100% do matter to Google and remain a major ranking factor, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

To us here at The Evergreen Agency, it reiterates that businesses of all sizes need to ensure they are attracting natural links from quality websites that are not bought or sponsored and equally are not just comment or forum links.

So, how do you earn those quality links?

It can be narrowed down to these basic points:

  • Be a resource and of value to Google
  • Share your expertise and experience
  • Try to use your website to help people  

Check out our free SEO video training course (specifically Module 3 -Content Marketing) to learn specifics on how you can do this.

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