Holistic SEO: it’s much more than just links

EDIT: three days after I wrote this blog article, John Mueller from Google was in a Google Webmasters hangout where he explicitly said (to answer the question “Is link building in any way good?”):

That’s a good question, in general I’d try to avoid that, so that you are really sure that your content stands on its own… We do use links as part of our algorithm, but we use lots and lots of other factors as well. So only focusing on links is probably going to cause more problems for your website than it actually helps

Before completely agreeing with this blanket statement however, the definition of “link building” in this context is likely building links with only the algorithm in mind.

— And now to the original article–

Any person who focuses obsessively on one or a few elements of Google’s algorithm is missing the point and doesn’t understand the big picture of SEO.

The evidence that this is the case lies in the Google algorithm itself; it is complex and nuanced. It takes inputs from a multitude of signals and constantly evolves. If the algorithm itself just focussed obsessively on one or a few signals (like we sometimes do) it would result in very poor quality search results.

One of the most common misconceptions about SEO is that it’s “all about links”. This is born from our understanding of the current use of links in the Google algorithm. In fact for many SEO agencies you approach they will only “build links” and do nearly nothing else.

Yes, links are a significant part of Google’s algorithm. But although links are important, they are not everything.

Wait first! — In case you haven’t got the importance of the “user”…

Some SEOs are still almost entirely focused on the Google algorithm, and not on the user. Don’t worry, evolution will take care of these people.

So before I launch into a spiel actually talking about the Google algorithm itself, I am obliged to contextualise; we understand the algorithm, we study it, we love it, but we first and foremost obsess about user experience, and second about helping search engines to perceive our value.

Links: powerful little buggers, but really only ~40% of the algorithm

This is an image of ranking factors as they were perceived by a large group of SEO professionals in 2013.

The two big chunks of area on the right (blue and red) are both related to links — page level and domain level. I want to point out two things:

  1. 40% is a lot of the algorithm
  2. 40% is not 100% of the algorithm

In fact this corroborates something we already know quite clearly; Links are important, but they are not everything.

The difference between Gold, Silver and Bronze

Imagine you’re an athlete who wants to compete in the 100 meter sprint in the upcoming Olympics. You’re totally preoccupied with winning.

You study the factors that go into getting the top spot. You study the people who tend to win the sprints more often than not. Your conclusion: it seems that almost all of the people who win have great running shoes.

So you go off, buy the most expensive and high quality pair of running shoes you can find, compete in the Olympics, and lose terribly.

Because it’s just not that simple.

There are so many factors that go into being #1. The person practices super-diligently, eats well, sleeps well, carefully purchases exactly the shoes they need, and so on. In fact, some of them even rinse their cottage cheese — 

Dave Scott was an athlete who won six Ironman triathlons. In the study good to great by Jim Collins they discovered that he would even rinse his cottage cheese to get rid of any excess fat before eating it. Whether that action actually helped him win is unclear, but what is clear is that he was fanatically disciplined and fanatically focused on attention to every detail.

Being on top of SEO is about that element; rinsing the cottage cheese. It’s about disciplined, careful and diligent execution of as many of the small elements as possible. And it’s only in the true combination that you are a winner; great backlinks and great content and a great product offering and great user experience and a great community and great outreach and a great brand and and and — the list goes on.

Expertise is in knowing what works, what is needed and why

Now I’m going to turn 180 degrees and say it’s likely that some of the SEO campaigns you encounter do actually need a focus on backlinks. (or rather, “outreach to influencers” — a more modern way of expressing that) — perhaps that is exactly where they are lacking.

But what I sincerely hope doesn’t happen is “antibiotic link building” — you know how some doctors hear you out, (but don’t really) and just prescribe you antibiotics. Why? Because they are a sledgehammer approach and work often. (And now we have the potential of an upcoming antibiotic crisis.)

Well — SEO friends, we have had, and may continue to have, a “backlink crisis” — (Penguin is good evidence of that)

Because all Google really cares about is relevance and quality, and I’d venture that if they could determine those things directly without the use of backlinks, they would. And with all of the development they now have into deep learning and Google brain, one day they might just.

A refreshing contrast is true SEO expertise; True expertise is in analysing a campaign, figuring out what it needs and what it doesn’t, and knowing why.

Now go! Be a winner!

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1 Response

  1. Robert says:

    Great article Shawn! I always enjoy your SEO articles 🙂

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