The End of the Era of SEO Links. What Lies Ahead

Jun 19, 2024

13

min read

The overall opinion on link building among digital marketing experts and business executives has always been split. People either consider it one of the best ways to increase your SEO performance or think it is a scammy practice.

So, what’s the truth here? Should you keep this practice in your digital marketing stack or get rid of it? Well, it’s not as straightforward as it seems.

So, let’s dig into this topic together and understand whether link building is something worth your time and effort or if you should get rid of it ASAP. Specifically, let’s look at the long term future of this practice and see if it’s here to stay or the era of link building is over.

Understanding The Different Perspectives On Link Building

Before we understand the future of this practice, let’s first discuss the reasons digital marketers love or hate it. 

Why SEO Experts Love Link Building

It has become common knowledge in the industry that link building significantly impacts SEO performance. In fact, the number and quality of links consistently rank among the top ranking factors in various studies. For example, Brian Dean ranks links among the top 3 factors, while the most recent study from Internet Marketing Ninjas assigns them extreme priority, stating that achieving a top 10 ranking is impossible without a solid backlink profile.

Another reason why links maintain their positions is simply because, in certain situations, they can quickly boost a page's rankings. I've personally witnessed how a few quality links can elevate a page from the second page straight to the first position. Of course, this strategy doesn't yield the same results across all niches and sites. Yet, it's irresistible for marketers to sell it as a surefire way to success for any business. And understandably, why wouldn't businesses take advantage of links if they can truly work magic? 

However, the problem with links, like with anything, is that they come with numerous limitations that everyone tends to forget.

Why The Industry Hates Link Building

Well, it is not the fact of adding backlinks to your website that the industry despises. Instead, it’s about the way many digital marketing teams obtain these links.

The best practice would dictate creating high-quality content that other outlets will use as a source and link back to you. However, many websites end up buying links and placing them on low-quality irrelevant blogs whose sole purpose is to sell links.

This practice has created a strong feeling of distrust toward marketing agencies that offer link building as a service.

With the perspectives on this practice clear, let’s look at another important factor defining the future of link building - its relevance.

Based on my experience marketing digital products, I claim that link building is not a silver bullet, and you need to use it in conjunction with other SEO and marketing strategies if you want to succeed.

Specifically.

Link building cannot replace proper brand recognition

Let me share a couple of examples with you to prove my point.

Big Brands Dominate The SERP Results

Let’s conduct a quick analysis of SERPs from both present and past to see why. We will look at the SERPs of the search term "what is SEO," in 2015 and 2024.

Big Brands Dominate The SERP Results

Only a handful of sites, such as Moz, Search Engine Land, and Google, have maintained their positions in the last ten years. The majority of the sites that ranked in 2015 are no longer present.

If we look closer at the comparison, we will see that in 2015, there were at least three relatively small businesses ranking within the top 10 results. In 2024, on the other hand, we only see well-known brands with substantial authority.

Top ranking sites for what is seo search

These brands don't rely on SEO-focused links for their online presence. Instead, they prioritize building meaningful relationships within their industry, which naturally leads to link acquisition. 

The bottom line? Having significant brand recognition is a very strong ranking factor when it comes to ranking performance. No matter how many links you gather, you cannot outrank the competitors with a well-established brand. 

Websites With Mediocre Brand Identity Lose Organic Traffic Rapidly

I firmly believe that being a brand is the most influential ranking factor. Websites that prioritize the SEO channel over other marketing initiatives will continue to lose visibility in SERPs. The victors will be those who dedicate substantial efforts to building their brand entity through diverse marketing initiatives.

To better explain my perspective, let’s look at two travel blogs that have run intensive link building campaigns in 2023. Here's the first example:

 link building campaigns

As we can see, their link building campaign has relatively quickly increased organic traffic from ~40k to almost 50k in less than 6 months. However, as the graphic shows, their success was short-lived as the website quickly started losing traffic afterward and stands at mere 5k today.

We can see similar results on the organic traffic chart of our second website too:

organic traffic chart

Again, a short-term bump followed by a significant drop.

What was the reason behind these drops? Both websites had weak brand recognition and did not really run any campaign that specifically aimed and increased their authority in the industry. Instead, they relied on simply increasing the number of backlinks and newly published content pieces.

To sum up, adding backlinks along with creating content for the sake of SEO is a losing strategy. Link building should serve a higher-level marketing goal for your website, such as improving brand awareness.

What Kind of Links Do You Need to go after?

Generally, I think that we must return to basics and reevaluate our perspective on links. It's important to view links not merely as SEO assets but as genuine recommendations. Once we make this mindset shift, we'll naturally avoid links from subpar sites.

Kevin Indig

That's exactly the type of mindset shift we need to make. We need to think about what links help for

a) discoverability (help Google find your site and pages on your site, can be lower quality)

b) entity association (must come from the right sides that are from recognized entities to help Google understand your role for a topic)

c) authority (must be of very high quality, probably very rare, expensive and hard to get).

Kevin Indig

That's exactly the type of mindset shift we need to make. We need to think about what links help for

a) discoverability (help Google find your site and pages on your site, can be lower quality)

b) entity association (must come from the right sides that are from recognized entities to help Google understand your role for a topic)

c) authority (must be of very high quality, probably very rare, expensive and hard to get).

Kevin Indig

That's exactly the type of mindset shift we need to make. We need to think about what links help for

a) discoverability (help Google find your site and pages on your site, can be lower quality)

b) entity association (must come from the right sides that are from recognized entities to help Google understand your role for a topic)

c) authority (must be of very high quality, probably very rare, expensive and hard to get).

Instead of solely prioritizing links for their short-term traffic potential, we should focus on those that enhance our brand presence. You usually find such links on websites that Google acknowledges as established brands. The easiest method to identify such sites is by searching for a term related to your industry and looking at the brands in top results.

The second major mindset shift that we need to have is deprioritizing DR and organic traffic of the outlets from where we get links.

Aleyda Solis

SEO consultant and founder of Orainti.

The mindset should be: What is a link? What prompts you to link something? A link is an endorsement you make to guide your audience to something you find useful, relevant, or attractive, which you believe will add value. It's easier to refer to established brands because they typically offer more reliable and comprehensive resources or information, thanks to their greater resources. Moreover, you trust that they will better satisfy or engage your audience due to their brand recognition.

Aleyda Solis

SEO consultant and founder of Orainti.

The mindset should be: What is a link? What prompts you to link something? A link is an endorsement you make to guide your audience to something you find useful, relevant, or attractive, which you believe will add value. It's easier to refer to established brands because they typically offer more reliable and comprehensive resources or information, thanks to their greater resources. Moreover, you trust that they will better satisfy or engage your audience due to their brand recognition.

Aleyda Solis

SEO consultant and founder of Orainti.

The mindset should be: What is a link? What prompts you to link something? A link is an endorsement you make to guide your audience to something you find useful, relevant, or attractive, which you believe will add value. It's easier to refer to established brands because they typically offer more reliable and comprehensive resources or information, thanks to their greater resources. Moreover, you trust that they will better satisfy or engage your audience due to their brand recognition.

For years, the SEO industry has considered domain rating and organic traffic as the most crucial metrics for evaluating potential link prospects. While DR and organic traffic are valuable, they can be misleading, often leading us to focus solely on SEO-driven links. During my speech at Friends of Search, I highlighted an excellent example from Kevin Indig's personal site, which boasts a decent DR but minimal organic traffic:

Tool

If you shift away from evaluating link opportunities solely based on DR and organic traffic, you'll realize the significant advantage of securing a link from Kevin's site, given his well-established brand entity.

Kevin Indig google search results

Aleyda Solis

SEO consultant and founder of Orainti

The key question to determine winning link prospecting opportunities is: where would you like your brand to receive coverage? From whom would you prefer your brand or yourself to receive referrals? These links typically hold the highest relevance and quality, endorsed by industry leaders or references. They not only pass link popularity value but also refer an engaged audience and build trust.

Aleyda Solis

SEO consultant and founder of Orainti

The key question to determine winning link prospecting opportunities is: where would you like your brand to receive coverage? From whom would you prefer your brand or yourself to receive referrals? These links typically hold the highest relevance and quality, endorsed by industry leaders or references. They not only pass link popularity value but also refer an engaged audience and build trust.

Aleyda Solis

SEO consultant and founder of Orainti

The key question to determine winning link prospecting opportunities is: where would you like your brand to receive coverage? From whom would you prefer your brand or yourself to receive referrals? These links typically hold the highest relevance and quality, endorsed by industry leaders or references. They not only pass link popularity value but also refer an engaged audience and build trust.

So, you should begin your link prospecting journey by examining the amount of branded traffic each site receives. Sites lacking branded traffic should be excluded from your link building campaigns, as they cannot enhance your brand's authority on the web.

You can use Semrush for this as it provides insights into the percentage of branded vs non-branded traffic any site receives, along with access to historical trends in branded traffic changes.

SEO tool

Even without Semrush, you can easily check Google Trends to see if a particular brand name receives any traffic.

Google Trends

To sum up, it is the authority and brand identity of the website taking your backlink that matters, not the DR and the sheer number of links.

Aleyda Solis

SEO consultant and founder of Orainti

An excellent example highlighting the significance of both authority and brand entity is https://learningseo.io/. Despite having only 20K backlinks from 1.2K linking domains, it manages to outperform some of the largest and most established brands in the SEO space for keywords like "learn SEO," all thanks to its delivery of some of the most valuable resources in the industry.

Aleyda Solis

SEO consultant and founder of Orainti

An excellent example highlighting the significance of both authority and brand entity is https://learningseo.io/. Despite having only 20K backlinks from 1.2K linking domains, it manages to outperform some of the largest and most established brands in the SEO space for keywords like "learn SEO," all thanks to its delivery of some of the most valuable resources in the industry.

Aleyda Solis

SEO consultant and founder of Orainti

An excellent example highlighting the significance of both authority and brand entity is https://learningseo.io/. Despite having only 20K backlinks from 1.2K linking domains, it manages to outperform some of the largest and most established brands in the SEO space for keywords like "learn SEO," all thanks to its delivery of some of the most valuable resources in the industry.

What Lies Ahead?

It’s always hard to predict what the future holds for such an evolving discipline as SEO. While I was writing this post, Google’s AI-summarized search results appeared in SERPs. This development suggests that a significant portion of searches will now be answered directly in SERPs, and websites that used to generate traffic may no longer capture users.

I might fall short with my predictions, but here's what we can expect to happen with link building in the near future

Links still matter but only the ones that can shape your brand entity

Only those who can acquire the right links will rank well in SERPs; relying solely on SEO links won't sustain rankings for long. The modern approach to link building requires us to shift our focus away from SEO initiatives and prioritize improving overall brand awareness.

Our main focus should be on streamlining the process of obtaining organic links from reputable brands in the niche. This can be achieved through running co-marketing campaigns and positioning your brand in front of the right audience. Ironically, it turns out that social media platforms, which have been excluded from ranking factors for ages, play a significant role in the likelihood of acquiring links. 

Aleyda Solis

SEO consultant and founder of Orainti

Thanks to  focusing on delivering the content  that solves an actual challenge to your audience, you’ll be definitely endorsed by top brands as they're too valuable for their audience. For example, my personal site is being linked by Google from https://developers.google.com/search/docs/crawling-indexing/site-move-with-url-changes and https://developers.google.com/search/docs/specialty/international/localized-versions due to the tools and resources I featured there.

Aleyda Solis

SEO consultant and founder of Orainti

Thanks to  focusing on delivering the content  that solves an actual challenge to your audience, you’ll be definitely endorsed by top brands as they're too valuable for their audience. For example, my personal site is being linked by Google from https://developers.google.com/search/docs/crawling-indexing/site-move-with-url-changes and https://developers.google.com/search/docs/specialty/international/localized-versions due to the tools and resources I featured there.

Aleyda Solis

SEO consultant and founder of Orainti

Thanks to  focusing on delivering the content  that solves an actual challenge to your audience, you’ll be definitely endorsed by top brands as they're too valuable for their audience. For example, my personal site is being linked by Google from https://developers.google.com/search/docs/crawling-indexing/site-move-with-url-changes and https://developers.google.com/search/docs/specialty/international/localized-versions due to the tools and resources I featured there.

Sites capable of generating links from reputable sites on autopilot will enjoy a significant competitive advantage and continue to grow their brand and SEO presence. 

Links can no longer “buy” top-ranking spots in highly competitive niches

In highly competitive SEO niches, we won't see significant changes in SERPs. While 5-10 years ago, we might have been able to manipulate SERPs by using the strategy of acquiring additional links, that approach no longer works. In the majority of niches, reaching the first page is nearly impossible due to the exceptional authority of the sites currently occupying those positions.

Google prefers trusted brands, making it challenging for newcomers to outrank established players, even with high-quality links. This means that in some niches, even the best links won’t help you outrank the competition unless your brand's overall footprint is as significant as others.

The right link building mindset requires being less focused on SEO and more on marketing

Everything starts with the right mindset. The SEO mindset has too many limitations and tends to prioritize quick wins rather than considering the bigger picture. While you can easily rewrite content, change the structure of your site, and adjust internal linking strategies, there’s nothing you can do with links that do not complement your brand identity. Such links will always be present in your backlink profile, even if you've already disavowed them. 

It's essential to stop viewing link building solely as a part of SEO and instead make it an integral part of your brand management department. Once you integrate link building into the marketing mix, you'll immediately begin acquiring a consistent flow of the right links. 

Regardless of the quality of links it contains, SEO link building is all about one-off campaigns. While these campaigns may provide temporary advantages, sustained investment is crucial. When link building ceases, especially for weak brands, the consequences become evident.

Viola Eva

Viola Eva

SEO consultant and founder at Flow

The right backlinks are natural-looking, from a variety of sources and match your overall brand and messaging. You want to alignment across the entire internet such as

  • Web properties that you can completely control such as your website.

  • Social properties that you can update such as your LinkedIn company page, Crunchbase profile or Youtube channel.

  • Third-party review sites where you can control the description and category (not necessarily the user-generated content of the actual reviews).

  • Digital PR and media appearances to make sure you are part of the conversation where it happens, incl. news.

Forums and user-generated content such as Reddit now have partnerships with Google and OpenAI to train their models on Reddit content.

Reddit content, Open AI
Viola Eva

Viola Eva

SEO consultant and founder at Flow

The right backlinks are natural-looking, from a variety of sources and match your overall brand and messaging. You want to alignment across the entire internet such as

  • Web properties that you can completely control such as your website.

  • Social properties that you can update such as your LinkedIn company page, Crunchbase profile or Youtube channel.

  • Third-party review sites where you can control the description and category (not necessarily the user-generated content of the actual reviews).

  • Digital PR and media appearances to make sure you are part of the conversation where it happens, incl. news.

Forums and user-generated content such as Reddit now have partnerships with Google and OpenAI to train their models on Reddit content.

Reddit content, Open AI
Viola Eva

Viola Eva

SEO consultant and founder at Flow

The right backlinks are natural-looking, from a variety of sources and match your overall brand and messaging. You want to alignment across the entire internet such as

  • Web properties that you can completely control such as your website.

  • Social properties that you can update such as your LinkedIn company page, Crunchbase profile or Youtube channel.

  • Third-party review sites where you can control the description and category (not necessarily the user-generated content of the actual reviews).

  • Digital PR and media appearances to make sure you are part of the conversation where it happens, incl. news.

Forums and user-generated content such as Reddit now have partnerships with Google and OpenAI to train their models on Reddit content.

Reddit content, Open AI

Final thought to leave you with

After over a decade of building links, I no longer believe in any quick wins that link building might promise. These wins often result in temporary traffic spikes, as shown in the screenshot below:

Link Bulding quick wins

Link building, without a solid marketing foundation, is yet another futile activity that might aid in capturing some traffic (not necessarily the best one!).

However, when link building is integrated into your marketing mix, it can flourish like peonies in my garden, yielding truly remarkable results. 

Lastly, if you prioritize building strong awareness over everything else, you're no longer just a link builder; you're a brand builder.

Alexandra Tachalova

Article by

Alexandra Tachalova

Alexandra is a frequent speaker and the founder of the relationship-based link-building agency Digital Olympus. She also organizes an SEO conference in Europe. Besides that, she regularly contributes to leading digital marketing blogs, including Moz, SEJ, Salesforce, SMExaminer, and many others.

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