SEO has changed a lot in the last few years.
If you were doing marketing in the 2000s or 2010s, you remember how central SEO was to everything. Marketers discovered that there was attention available for anyone who invested a little effort to publish relevant content. Content marketing was aimed directly at taking your site to the top of the search engine results page (we know, we were there!)
SEO still matters, but it’s not the primary way most businesses get traffic anymore. Social media has become central to many marketing strategies. Short-form video platforms and AI are encroaching on Google’s territory — half of Gen Z already prefers TikTok to Google for search, and other demographics are catching on fast.
It’s time to re-evaluate the old tactics.
One major SEO technique that’s been around since the beginning is backlink building — getting links to your site from other sources. Google uses them as an indicator of how relevant and useful your website content is for a specific topic. Some hot-take artists are saying that “backlinks don’t matter” anymore because SEO isn’t the main pillar of content discovery.
That’s emphatically not true.
Backlinks still matter.
Why Backlinks Matter in 2023
Backlinks became popular as a way to game the Google algorithm and get to the top of the results page (SERP). But, they’re important for other reasons too.
Historically, backlinks were a measure of how trusted a site deserved to be — the more the better. That obviously had to get tightened up as marketers learned how it worked; Google has made significant changes to its algorithm over the years to cut out the spammiest link farms that just created a flood of spam backlinks. Even still, for a long time, the general rule was that the site with more backlinks would rank higher as long as some of the linking sites were at least halfway reputable.
Backlinks are still a useful tool if you want to raise your profile on Google, but the traffic generation landscape is different today. Because most businesses now know SEO best practices, people trying to game the Google algorithm won’t see the same explosive returns — and it’s harder than ever to get to the top of the results page.
That is, if your audience is even starting their journey with Google in the first place. These days, Amazon, TikTok and AI are all cutting in on Google’s territory, and backlinks look less appealing at first glance.
“At first glance” is important.
The real change isn’t that backlinks don’t matter. It’s that the volume of those links doesn’t matter on its own. Modern backlink-building strategies encompass much more than just feeding the algorithm.
More than a Link
Backlinks are no longer about gaming the algorithm. They’re about authority. They can’t be “just a link” — that’s not enough anymore. Instead, a backlink has to stem from a legitimate source, and who is linking to you matters more than it ever has.
The mistake many businesses made with their backlink strategy was prioritizing immediate results. Sure, in the short term, farming up backlinks or doing PR-driven articles on a sketchy foreign site can add to the link count and build relevance via the algorithm. But in the long term, every middleman (Google, TikTok, AI, whatever) cares about serving people what they want.
Short-sighted marketers chase the metric. Visionary marketers chase what the metric is trying to measure. Backlinks are designed to measure the quality of your content — the more people link to you, the more credible you are, and the more likely people find your content useful. That’s why Google started using them in the first place.
Quality backlinks used to mean “is this from a trusted source, regardless of relevance?” The question both algorithms and humans are asking now is “is this meaningful and useful for the audience?”
Anyone who publishes a link to your site is tying their reputation to yours. Strive to be authentic to your audience, because backlink building is no longer just an SEO endeavor. Backlinks are a token of trust, along with social shares and clipped or quoted content. If people who like you or support you talk about your content, you’ll be shared with new audiences. Backlinks and other forms of trust are ways those people lend their authority to you. Meaningful and useful content will build your reputation, and it will gain those tokens of trust by virtue of its quality and your reputation for serving your audience’s needs.
Reputation, Not Backlinks
There are two major ways to build your online reputation (and your backlinks with it).
Create Crossover Opportunities with Other Audiences
Showcasing your skill, knowledge and abilities to other audiences is key to building your reputation. That means embracing collaboration.
Podcast interviews or collaborations on your own channel or someone else’s are a great way to reach out to other audiences. I know; I’ve done it myself with basketball media (see this example):
📋 Breaking Down the NBA Extension Extravaganza w/ @birdrightsnba
FULL BREAKDOWN/TIMESTAMPS⬇️ pic.twitter.com/L9o63kQWQp
— Hardwood Knocks (@HardwoodKnocks) October 24, 2023
Guest posting and cross-posting are still useful in the right contexts. Reach out to businesses that have audiences that cross over with yours and regularly post content. See if there are mutually beneficial content opportunities.
Look at live appearances as well. These can be in person or digital (for an example of digital, check out our Q&As). In-person events, happy hours, lunch and learns, and lectures can all help you find new audiences and build your reputation within your target audience.
Done well, these efforts may have greater direct benefits than “just” a new backlink.
Create Useful Content
Spencer Haws of Niche Pursuits inadvertently ignited a firestorm recently when he said “Google is slowly killing blogging.”
Google is slowly killing blogging.
Blogging used to be about providing off the cuff updates, sharing unique perspectives, and interacting with blog comments!
Now Google has forced bloggers to make everything SEO optimized, long form, and tightly focused around a single keyword.…
— Spencer Haws (@nichepursuits) October 24, 2023
The tweet did numbers — so much so that Google actually replied to Haws specifically. And they had a key point for marketers to follow:
“Unhelpful content is content that’s generally written *for search engine rankings* and not for a human audience … if you wrote ‘20 fun things you can do today’ because your *primary purpose* in doing so that you wanted to *rank well* for ‘fun things’ rather than this being something you’d typically write about, that can be a sign you’re producing unhelpful content. It wasn’t something you wrote for you. It wasn’t something you wrote for your audience. It was something you wrote for search ranking purposes — and that often can align with unhelpful content.”
Don’t just remix the same thing everyone is already saying. Bring something useful and unique to the table, for both the algorithm and your audience and be intentional with your content. That’s what builds your reputation, and directly or indirectly drives backlinks.
Here are some ideas for useful content:
- First-party reports. Think tanks, agencies and consultants do this a lot. Mine your clients for information with surveys and other information-gathering tools, then collate that data into a web page or downloadable PDF.
- Data aggregation. Many marketing firms collate statistics about specific industries each year — email, video, social media. Those statistics are all out there and free, but aggregating them in one place saves time and effort for your audience.
- Contrarian opinions. Believe something that goes contrary to received wisdom? Back it up with data and publish it.
- Personal perspective. Have firsthand knowledge of a subject? Turn it into a blog, video or podcast.
Whatever you put out into the world, if you want to build a reputation, you need to make it useful for your audience. Backlinks will follow.
The Backlink Is Dead. Long Live the Backlink
The old way we used to think about backlinks is just flat wrong today. Focusing on building backlinks in volume to trick Google’s algorithm is a sucker’s game.
The new way to think about backlink building is to focus on reputation building. Reach out to new audiences and create useful content, whether or not it brings you backlinks directly. And if you feel like you need a hand, we’re here to help. Just drop us a line, anytime.
Rainmaker Digital Services