In 2016, Andrey Lipattsev, a Google search quality senior strategist, said links pointing at your site were one of the top three Google Search ranking factors (along with content and RankBrain).
In 2023, that is no longer the case, according to Gary Illyes, an analyst on the Google Search team, speaking at Pubcon Pro in Austin last week.
Why we care. To be clear, links still matter. Illyes said as much. Nobody is saying otherwise. But it’s also important to understand that the Google Search of today is not the same as it was in 2014 or the early 2000s when PageRank was everything and every link was a “vote.” Technology has advanced and machine learning (e.g., BERT, MUM), natural language understanding and other relevance signals now have more importance in Google’s algorithm.
What Illyes said. Illyes was asked whether links are still among the three most important Google Search ranking factors. He does not.
- “I think they are important, but I think people overestimate the importance of links. I don’t agree it’s in the top three. It hasn’t been for some time.”
Illyes also said, “it is possible to rank without links.” Although it very much sounded like an edge case, he mentioned one case in which a website had zero links (internal or external) but had such fantastic content that it was ranking number one consistently. Google was only able to discover it via the website’s sitemap.
Illyes delivered a similar message earlier this year during a keynote at a Pubcon event in February, noting you can do fine in many verticals without links:
- “Links are important, but not as important as people think.”
Not the first to downgrade links. Duy Nguyen from Google’s search quality team also said links have a less significant impact for ranking in November during a Google SEO Office Hours:
- “First, backlinks as a signal has a lot less significant impact compared to when Google Search first started out many years ago. We have robust ranking signals, hundreds of them, to make sure that we are able to rank the most relevant and useful results for all queries.”
In a Search Off the Record podcast episode, Google’s John Mueller said he believes that links will be not as important of a ranking factor for Google:
“Well, it’s something where I imagine, over time, the weight on the links. At some point, will drop off a little bit as we can’t figure out a little bit better how the content fits in within the context of the whole web. And to some extent, links will always be something that we care about because we have to find pages somehow. It’s like how do you find a page on the web without some reference to it?
“But my guess is over time, it won’t be such a big factor as sometimes it is today. I think already, that’s something that’s been changing quite a bit.”
Mueller also said in 2020:
- “Links are definitely not the most important SEO factor.”
And in 2014, Matt Cutts, then a distinguished engineer at Google, said backlinks would become less important:
“I think backlinks still have many, many years left in them. But inevitably, what we’re trying to do is figure out how an expert user would say, this particular page matched their information needs. And sometimes backlinks matter for that. It’s helpful to find out what the reputation of the site or a page is. But, for the most part, people care about the quality of the content on that particular page. So I think over time, backlinks will become a little less important.”
Liar, liar? Whenever a Google representative makes a statement like this, many SEOs say it is typical Google disinformation or flat-out lying. Nobody will ever agree on this – it is SEO, after all.
But again, Illyes didn’t say links are not important at all. He just said that it is not in the “top three.” (Illyes disagrees that there even is a “top three” because every site will have something different as the top two or three ranking factors.)