Based on my personal experience and data points, I believe it has become quite clear that Google is moving away from backlinks. This is, by no means, meant to be a ‘backlinks are dead’ type of post.
In fact, backlinks are still VERY MUCH alive. However, I believe Google is trying to move away from them faster than ever before.
Why Is This Happening?
In a perfect world, Google wouldn’t have to think of alternative ranking signals to look for. They would just use backlinks and everything would be fine and dandy. The problem is that backlinks are a very easy signal to game and have been for as far back as I can remember.
While Google has made several attempts and succeeded at making it harder to game links, it’s still a major problem, and there is and will always be individuals and companies willing to game links at scale.
Depending on the individual or company, this can be bad or worse. It’s important to note that most of Google’s algorithm updates that affect links and how they affect rankings have been aimed at stopping web spam.
In other words, the updates have targeted the most atrocious forms of link gaming. You know all those comments that you get on your blog each day.
The comments that are so stupid and ridiculous that you lose a small bit of hope in humanity. That is the type of link gaming I’m talking about. Google targets the types of link spam that have the greatest potential for causing problems in their search engine.
They’ve created various algorithms to target different types of links, such as profile and sidebar links. The algorithms have changed over time, and some types of links have been greatly devalued. It’s like a never-ending episode of the cartoon Tom and Jerry.
Google continues to target new forms of link spam, and when one type of link is devalued or penalized, another takes it place.
What Makes More Sense
Instead of playing the endless game of cat and mouse, don’t you think it would make more sense to move away from links as a ranking signal? By reducing the ranking weight of incoming links, Google can actually reduce the desire to spam links.
The best part for Google is that it’s probably easier to place less weight on incoming links than it is to continue giving links massive importance while fighting the never-ending battle with spammers.
Personally, I’ve noticed some paramount shifts just in the last couple of years. If you’ve been doing SEO for a long time, you’ll have noticed a trend. Google is placing more ranking weight on factors that aren’t as easily manipulated.
You could go to an auction site right now and purchase an expired domain. Within about one week, you could have that site (or 100s), up and running with a link pointing back to your money site.
While some people might have difficulty, it’s actually really easy to do once you’ve done it a few times. Imagine how easy it is to go and get such a link.
It’s far more difficult to fake other ranking factors, such as domain age and trust. It’s even harder to fake content age. I don’t see a lot of people talking about this.
I believe Google is placing a huge amount of weight on the age of content, so in other words, how long the content has been indexed in Google. If you go and write an article right now, you can’t fake something you can’t control.
Once Google indexes the content, the age starts from that moment. There is nothing you can do to force Google’s algorithms to believe the content is older than it really is.
A better way to think about it is that Google is placing more ranking weight on factors that only they can control. They’re also placing more weight on important relevancy signals, such as all of the on-page signals.
The bottom line here is that Google is gradually moving away from using external links as the most important ranking factor. I can’t say if they’ll ever be able to accomplish this.
If I had to guess, I would say a completely new form of search would overwrite the current one before they’re able to accomplish this goal.
The bottom line here is that they’re trying to move away from backlinks, and you can take advantage of this by putting more emphasis on your website’s on-page factors, such as titles, descriptions, URLs and keyword density.