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Google says links no longer a top priority for search rankings

In the ever-evolving landscape of SEO, one constant has been the significance of backlinks for Google search ranking. However, recent statements from Google executives indicate a shift in this paradigm. Gary Illyes, an analyst on the Google Search team, confirmed during Pubcon Pro in Austin that links are no longer among the top three Google Search ranking factors.

In 2016, Andrey Lipattsev, a senior strategist at Google, stated that links, alongside content and RankBrain, were the top three factors determining a website’s Google SERP ranking. Fast forward to 2023, and this is no longer the case. Illyes emphasised that while links still hold importance, their significance has diminished compared to the past. He pointed out that the Google Search algorithm has evolved significantly, incorporating advanced technologies such as machine learning, natural language understanding, and other relevance signals like BERT and MUM.

Does this revelation suggest a fundamental change in how SEO professionals should approach their strategies? Not necessarily fundamental. A typical SEO project will see an overall strategy broken into multiple work streams, such as content production, content pruning, on-page optimisation, technical SEO, internal links and external link building to name a few. Perhaps then a slight shift in priority should be considered when focusing on building links and SEOs should put a higher focus more on producing high-quality useful content. But ultimately, the initial SEO research will dictate the priority.

Illyes clarified his stance, stating, “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.” He even noted a rare scenario in which a website with exceptional content ranked number one without any external or internal links, relying solely on its sitemap for discovery.

This shift in emphasis away from backlinks is not new. Duy Nguyen from Google’s search quality team mentioned that backlinks had a diminishing impact on ranking compared to the early days of Google Search. John Mueller, another Google representative, echoed this sentiment in a Search Off the Record podcast episode, stating that over time, links would become less critical as the algorithm improved its understanding of web content.

Illyes’ statements align with Google’s ongoing efforts to prioritise quality content and deter manipulative SEO practices centered around generating links without delivering valuable content. Google’s primary goal has been to provide users with the most relevant and useful search results, and this includes minimising the importance of backlinks in favour of content quality.

Despite these expert opinions, it’s worth noting that whenever a Google representative makes a statement like this, it often sparks debate within the SEO community. Many SEO professionals view it as typical Google disinformation or even accuse Google of being less than truthful. This scepticism is not surprising given the ever-changing nature of SEO and the challenges faced by those in the field.

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