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Thanks to Patrick Stox, who attended the recent Search Marketing Conference in Bulgaria, we now know some updated, important information for SEO.

patrick stox tweet

Posted to his Twitter (X) on April 19th 2024, Product Advisor, Technical SEO, and Brand Ambassador at Ahrefs, Patrick Sto, revealed:

“We need very few links to rank pages… Over the years, we’ve made links less important”, which was commented on by Google’s Gary Illyes. 

Is this more evidence that links matter less than at any other time in SEO history?

The tweet, posted six days ago, has gathered 43.6K views and caused a stir, with SEOs scrambling and defending the importance of link building for SEO. But does the direct quote from Illyes confirm that publishers should focus on other factors and ignore links altogether?

gary illyes twitter response

Illyes replied to Stox’s tweet, confirming his statement.

However, the statement can be confusing seeing how Google’s system was initially built on backlinks.

Our interpretation is that links are not unimportant; it’s more about their quality, and Google has gotten better at identifying which ones are not very good. As more AI content spreads online, quality links are critical, as they’re the basic form of finding content across the web.

It’s just that backlinks might not be the main signal they focus on now, as opposed to before.

The background of links for ranking

In 1990, links were discovered to be a good signal for search engines to validate a website’s authority.

From this, Google discovered that anchor text could be used to provide semantic signals that told them what the webpage was about. 

Jon M. Kleinberg’s 1998 research paper Authoritative Sources in a Hyperlinked Environment found too many web pages on Google and no objective way to filter search results for quality to rank web pages higher for certain relevant terms.

Here, Kleinberg discovered that links were being used as an objective filter for authoritativeness. 

The brains behind it all

Larry Page and Sergey Brin discovered that it was possible to harness the power of anchor text to determine humans’ subjective opinions. They essentially crowdsourced the opinions of millions of websites expressed through the link structure between each page. 

But now, is this different?

When Google first used links for ranking purposes, the initial state of anchor text was non-spammy. In 2004/2005, Google used statistical analysis to detect manipulated data, with powered-by links website footers not passing anchor text value over and then in 2006, any link close to the words advertising stopped passing link value, as well as links from directories. 

Then, in 2012, with the new link algorithm Penguin, millions of websites using guest posting lost their rankings. In 2019, there was an update as the link signal became so bad that Google decided to use nofollow links for ranking purposes. 

Links mattering less was also confirmed in 2023

Gary Illyes confirmed in 2023 at OubCon Austin that links were not among the top 3 ranking factors. In the March 2024 Core Algorithm Update, Google updated its spam policy documentation, downplaying links’ importance for ranking purposes. 

Google went from saying, “Google uses links as an important factor in determining the relevancy of web pages”, to saying, “Google uses links as a factor in determining the relevancy of web pages.” 

This is further backed up by Google’s John Mueller, who advised that focusing on more helpful SEO activities other than links is better:

“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 improve your website overall.”

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