How Important Are Back Links Today According To Google

It’s been some time since backlinks stormed to prominence as one of the most important SERP ranking factors.  In fact, it was all the way back in the late 90s that early-day SEO discovered the potential weight carried by backlinks, subsequently becoming a staple in the search optimisation strategies of pretty much every online business.

Unfortunately, there’s growing evidence to suggest that those who have invested disproportionately in backlinks as of late could have been barking up the wrong tree. Not in the sense that links have lost all value entirely, the more in the sense that Google apparently needs comparatively few links to make its decisions.

This would contrast starkly with the overwhelming majority of what’s been said and indeed proven regarding the power of links historically.  Traditionally, sites boasting endless arrays of inbound and outbound links of the highest quality have been seen as relevant, authoritative, and worthy of higher rankings. Today, this might not be the case.

Reading Between the Lines

The whole debate was once again thrown into the spotlight following a recent tech event in Bulgaria, where an attendee quoted Google’s Gary Illyes as stating the following:

“We need very few links to rank pages… Over the years we’ve made links less important.”

Whether or not this was and is a potential cause for concern was further confused by the subsequent statement issued by Illyes himself:

“I shouldn’t have said that… I definitely shouldn’t have said that”

Clear as mud, so where does this leave the SEO wondering if and to what extent links still matter?

A Factor, But Not an Important One

Google has never been the type to go into any real detail on such matters, or provide clarity where needed. The whole link debacle is no exception to the rule, so as usual it’s a case of looking for clues and reading between the lines.

One big hint came in the form of an alteration to Google’s own published documentation regarding their spam policies, which was altered as their March 2024 Core Algorithm Update was being rolled out.

Prior to this, the text included the following sentence:

“Google uses links as an important factor in determining the relevancy of web pages.”

Take a look at the same section of text now and you’ll note a slight difference:

“Google uses links as a factor in determining the relevancy of web pages.”

The word ‘important’ having been removed from the equation, seemingly suggesting that they’re no longer a big deal.

Plus, while Google’s John Mueller didn’t specifically state that there’s no value to be gained from links, he did state back in April that it’s really not something to go to town on:

“There are more important things for websites nowadays, and over-focusing on links will often result in you wasting your time doing things that don’t make your website better overall.”

As for why, it’s a simple case of Google’s core algorithm having become so sophisticated that it really doesn’t need to base its decisions on links. Natural language understanding and AI are allowing Google to make more quality and context-focused decisions, putting less focus on the ‘binary’ factors like link quantities.

So while quality links in sensible numbers can still help you out (and can also enhance the user experience), it seems the days of climbing the rankings based on abundant quality links only are gone.