Not a week goes by without an SEO "expert" casting doubt on the future of links and link building. Some go as far as to claim that link building and links are dead/dying. Recently, John Mueller of Google ventured into the link punditry territory. His comments on link building "doing more harm than good" were partly taken out of context causing a stir in the SEO community. The whole debacle illustrates the confused state of the SEO industry. Are links still potent ranking factors? Will they continue to be?
Some of the confusion is justified. Matt Cutts told us last year that Google has "run experiments internally", ranking sites without using backlinks as a ranking factor. Although he stressed that the results were not satisfactory, some rightfully point out that the capability is there and a 'no-backlink' algorithm might come into reality in the near future.
Furthermore, there is the fact that Google is gradually giving more and more weight to other signals in the algorithm. As Bill Slawski of SEO by the Sea detailed, Google is quantifying relevancy and topic authority of sites using entity mentions as well as independent backlinks among a myriad of other signals. Slawski was opining on what is thought to be the Google Panda patent. Others had a more dramatic interpretation of the now famous patent. Forbes featured an article boldly asserting that "brand mentions are the new link building." Mere mentions of a brand, the article argues, are signals of authority for search engines.
I side with Bill Slawski here. I see that those dull lines of html code are essential for a successful SEO campaign. Google and other search engines put faith into relevancy of backlinks and stories they tell about the authority and quality of a web page. The algorithm has been changing and there will be more ranking factors adopted, old ones redefined/re-weighted diluting the potency of backlinks. However, we should not kid ourselves. Backlinks are one of the most accessible signals that the algorithm processes, and are here to stay as an important factor for the foreseeable future. Given that the old spam-fuelled link building techniques are useless and the algorithms are more demanding, we need to approach the issue of links differently.
Let's call it link earning. Links are earned by organizing exciting events and creating attractive content that allow online influencers to interact with digital assets. When one targets the right crowd and brandishes the right content; buzz, participation and links pour in naturally. High quality content and 1-on-1 human interaction establish digital footprint that goes beyond a single line of html code. Entity building through link earning is the way to go for the SEO community.