Gavin Hirst - Monday 11th November 2019

The power of links – is link building still an important SEO activity?

Link building has always been a fairly contentious issue within the SEO world. From the days of dubious backlinking and link farms right through to today, where the impact of link building still seems to divide opinion.

The big question we want to try and answer is: how valuable is link building today and should you still be doing it?

To answer this, we’re going to call on some of the great work that has been carried out across our sector over the last 12 months as well as presenting our own thoughts.

Two of the leading lights when it comes to researching ranking factors are Moz and SparkToro. The research carried out by both of these guys really helps us to understand more about the ranking factors that SEOs consider to be the most important.

How important are links to SEOs?

The first place to start with this is to gain an understanding of how important professionals within the field of SEO think that links are today.

SparkToro conducted a survey in August 2019 of 1,584 professionals within the field of SEO, asking them to share their opinions on the relative use and merit of various inputs in Google’s ranking systems.

Within the survey, 26 ranking factors were presented and these were then rated on a scale of 0-10 in terms of importance.

From the results (which are shown in full in the table below), it is clear to see that professionals within the SEO sector still feel that links are an important ranking factor (#2 on the list behind content). It was also interesting to see that for the first time, content came above links when it comes to the factors that SEOs think are most important when it comes to ranking well in Google.

SparkToro Ranking Factors 2019

Our thoughts

For some time now, we have put more emphasis on the content we are creating rather than the links we are building (although it could be argued that the strategies go hand in hand – create better content and get more links to that content). Google has made huge advances in its ability to understand content and how that content satisfies the user intent so it is no surprise to see content coming out on top.

We also recognise the importance of links here at Digital Hothouse and a healthy proportion of our monthly client hours are dedicated to link outreach and building relationships with the relevant sectors that our clients are based. If we look at the breakdown in terms of the results of this survey, it’s probably fair to say that our monthly client hours (typically, but dependant on the sector we work in) are split out something like this:

  • Content and on-page – 60%
  • Link outreach – 20%
  • Technical – 20%

Obviously there are factors that impact on this – how long we have been working with a client, the foundations already in place on a client’s website, the sector we are working in etc, however if we took a client we have been working with for 12+ months, then this would be the typical breakdown of their monthly hours.

Within the content and on-page, there is perhaps some element of link work – we write content for guest posts as well as for our own client’s sites so perhaps the split is closer to 55%/25%.

Will links be as important in 2020?

From the excellent work carried out by SparkToro, we can see that SEOs certainly feel that links are still an important ranking factor but how will this look moving forward. In another excellent piece of work carried out by Eric Enge and his team at Perficient Digital (formerly Stone Temple), they carried out their now annual ‘Links as a ranking factor’ study and came back with some insightful results.

One of the big things they were able to do this year (the fourth year of the study) was to expand the data set from an original 6k queries in May 2016 to 27k queries in August 2018. This was helped by Moz’s Link Explorer which has significantly expanded the size of their index, enabling a much bigger sample this time around.

For those of a scientific mind, the Perficient study presents some fantastic statistical insights using the Spearman Correlation and Quadratic Mean (the methodology is really great at explaining these!).

The study is highly detailed and you can check out the full post and results here, however, the top-level results show that “our aggregated view shows a very powerful correlation between links and ranking position.” The study goes on to say that, “in this simplistic mock-up of the Google algorithm, it’s pretty clear that links are very important.”

Perficient Digital Aggregate Ranking Correlation

Our thoughts

It’s hard at this stage to see a time in the future when links won’t be important. Google has made huge strides over the past 7-8 years in tackling link spam. The introduction of the Penguin algorithm and subsequent updates of that algorithm has seen Google clamp down on spammy links to a point where it’s unusual to see sites directly punished with a manual penalty if they have those sorts of links pointing to their site – Penguin 4.0 simply recognises that type of link and ignores it.

There are still of course manual penalties for sites that persist with bad linking practices and this is a good indication that Google still uses links as one of the primary ranking factors.

When we are creating content for our own site or for our clients, we think very carefully about the sites we link out to. That’s because when we link away from our own site, we still want our users to have a positive experience. Linking to low-quality sites, sites that load slowly or sites that don’t match with the content we have on our own site and the expectation of the content found at the link delivers a terrible user experience.

The team at Perficient captured this perfectly, “A (non-advertisement) link on your site is an indication that you think the link has enough value to your visitors and will do enough to enhance your relationship with those visitors, that you’re willing to have people leave your site.”


Sending people away from your own website is not a decision to be taken lightly – you have worked hard to attract that person to your website – what if this is the very first interaction they have had with your company and the first thing you do is send them somewhere else? Linking out is not a decision to be taken lightly and that’s why we think that linking will still be one of the top 2-3 ranking factors as we head into 2020 and beyond.

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