If Content is King, Are Backlinks the Ace?

content or backlinks in SEO?

What is your goal when a visitor lands on your website?

Probably the same as every other marketer–to convert the user. But to achieve this goal requires quality traffic– in other words, visitors that are interested in what you have to offer.

You acquire traffic from social media, paid search ads, and sponsored updates, but where should you focus your organic SEO efforts? This can be a tough question to answer, especially when Google makes frequent updates to which factors are most important (if you don’t feel like clicking that link, spoiler alert: there are over 200 of them).

Back in 1996, Bill Gates said: “Content is king”. But in recent years, that saying has taken on more meaning with folks in the marketing community.

Experts have been analyzing the effect other ranking factors (sometimes called signals) have on search engine ranking, with a particular focus on backlinks.  For those new to the SEO game, these are are links pointing from other sites to yours.

Obviously, it’s much easier to optimize the content on your site. You can control the tags, content length, and really just about everything. But if backlinks are gaining more relevance in pagerank, should you be focusing your efforts there instead?

Each year, Searchmetrics develops a study on Google’s Ranking Factors and Rank Correlations. The 2016 study is now available, and it presented some interesting findings for marketers, businesses, and search engine optimizers.

It analyzed the top 20 search results for 10,000 different keywords. That’s 200,000 websites, which is a more than adequate sample size.

So if you’re torn between building your backlinks and writing kickass content for your own site, here’s what the study has to say:

1. URLs with the highest content relevance are those in positions 3-6.

This tells us that content is still extremely important to rank on Google.

This comes as no surprise. In 2015, Google announced that they’d be switching to RankBrain, which aims to better understand the intent behind user’s searches to make results more relevant. The system matches results with vague, long, and sometimes ambiguous search terms.

For instance, if your customer searches for the word “oil furnace”, they will most likely get back results that contain the words “oil” and “furnace.” They’ll also most likely be next to each other. Same goes for “oil” and “heater” when searching for “oil heater.”

But search for “waste oil furnace” and you’ll see results containing web pages optimized for “heater” even without the word “furnace.”

This happened because:

1) Google know that “heater” and “furnace” are synonymous as they relate to “waste oil” and probably even “oil” by itself.

2) The most authoritative websites and pages for “heater” or “furnace” had either one or the other, but not both.

The new flexibility in RankBrain allows Google to match the most authoritative websites with search intent much easier. We call this Semantic Search. This also means you need to up your link game as well as simplify your content to mean what it should.

How to Create Content Optimized for RankBrain

Think of your customer intent first. Ensure your copy is targeted directly towards that specific audience. Dig into your target visitors behavior and uncover the types of terms they use and how they speak in conversations.

What are their challenges? What questions do they typically ask? Center your copy around these answers and be sure to include long-tail keywords.

2. Backlinks are still important…for now

There are plenty of marketers out there who would breathe a sigh of relief if they heard that linkbuilding had become obsolete.

Let’s face it, creating content for your own site is far simpler than backlinking. The time, effort and money required for an effective linkbuilding campaign can be too much for smaller businesses to handle.

Sadly, that news has not come yet. Backlinks are still a very important rankings signal, and link building is still an important part of an SEO campaign, particularly, if you rank lower than first-page results where it’s harder for Google to procure user signals like CTR and bounce rate.

How to Build Backlinks in 2017

There are a lot of questionable methods for building backlinks, and Google is getting better at recognizing spammy strategies. With that in mind, here are some strategies that you should integrate into your campaign:

  • Develop quality ‘shareable’ content. Shareable content is content that is topical, relevant, easy to read and digest, and (most importantly) actionable. If it seems like something you’d want to post on Facebook, maybe other people will want to as well.
  • Write guest posts.  Rumors of guest posting gone “black-hat” have been greatly exaggerated. While this strategy could one day fall out of favor with Google, it is still encouraged as much as it is effective today when done correctly. That means finding relevant, high quality sites (not link farms or content dumping sites) providing real, quality content, and developing an actual “relationship” with the publisher so they would want to link to you.
  • Create profiles on social media platforms. Even though most social media platforms use nofollow links, they’re still a great way to get your content seen by as many people as possible. And the more your content is seen, the more likely it is to be shared by sites that will provide a backlink. 
    • NOTE: While SEO and social signals such as “likes” and “tweets” seem to be correlated with higher ranking, there is no direct evidence that they are causal and used in the ranking algorithm.

Both content and backlinking are important to your overall SEO strategy as the relationship between to two of them continues to evolve.

Bottom line: Both content and backlinking are important to your overall SEO strategy as the relationship between to two of them continues to evolve. Neither will be dismissible in the foreseeable future. And if all of this sounds too complicated, you could always hire an expert to kickstart your content and backlinking strategies. But whatever you decide to do, just make sure you’re driving quality traffic to your site and focusing on what matters: offering value.

About Andrea Moxham

Creative, driven marketing and communications leader with a proven track record in strategy and implementation. Entrepreneurial spirit and experience with inbound marketing, social media, digital marketing, and public relations.