If you follow SEO news like us, you may have heard a headline grabbing statement from Gary Illyes, an analyst from Google’s search team:
“I think they are important, but I think people overestimate the importance of links. I don’t agree it’s in the top three. It hasn’t been for some time.” – Gary Illyes
This has caused quite a bit of chatter amongst those in the SEO community, and there have been some pretty hard opinions on both sides of the aisle.
So, as someone who has spent quite a bit of time on backlinks, I wanted to share some of my own personal thoughts on what this news means, where links are going, and what other SEOs should make of this news.
1. If links aren’t in the top 3, what is?
Unfortunately, Illys did not elaborate on other SEO ranking factors he would place above links. And for good reason – Google has always been guarded about the specifics of their algorithms, which is why any specific and non-general details about how Google’s algorithms work coming from the mouth of Google always causes a stir in the SEO world.
So, are links #4 now? What replaced links? What else is definitely in the top 3?
#1 has to be content (Content is King, DUH!!)
That said, I think just about all SEOs can agree that on-page content is the #1 most important SEO ranking factor. Without it, how could you possibly rank? Quoting Gary Illys again:
“Without content, it literally is not possible to rank. If you don’t have words on the page, you’re not going to rank for it.”
That makes perfect sense – Users Googling something are looking for content similar to their query. If the content is not related, Google will not serve it to the user.
However, what does “content” mean exactly? Is it the on-page text you see while reading a webpage? Does it include headers, meta data, alt tags, and every other element found in a webpage’s HTML?
Are these considered ranking factors?
Are other ranking factors ones that we as SEOs frankly take for granted but are incredibly important “ranking factors”? A few that come to mind include:
- Frequent server outages
- No SSL certificate
- Elements blocking Googlebot: Pages blocked by robots.txt file, no-index tags, nofollow internal links, etc.
- Non-Mobile friendly site
- Detected security issues
Bottom line – any of these issues can cause a site to completely stop showing up in Google results – no matter how good your on-page content seems to be. So I’d say they are a pretty important ranking signal. But these items do not get much attention because sites rarely have problems with them. Are any of these in Illyes’ top 3 list? Who knows…
2. What kind of search are we talking here?
You’re going to get very different search results for “guitars” vs. “guitar classes”.
For the first search “guitars”, (besides a slew of ads) you will likely see national sellers of guitars, resources about guitars or resources for guitar players.
On the other hand (guitar classes) will almost certainly return local guitar class providers based on your location, and ads – of course.
The factors that go into local SEO and non-local SEO are quite different. Citation building, NAP consistency, reviews, and other local factors become some of the most important factors SEOs must optimize for a local business.
There are obviously overlapping SEO factors like site speed and technical SEO, but you would not format on-page content for a guitar school’s home page the same way that you would for an article covering the history of the guitar.
Point is – there is a ton of nuance that goes into determining top SEO ranking factors. This is why “it depends” is often a response SEOs give when asked a simple question like “what’s more important – creating more internal links or having a sitemap?”. How big is your website? How many internal links do you currently have? Is Google not crawling important pages on your website? What are your “high priority pages” and how many do you have? Also, why not do both??
3. Links quickly become THE differentiating ranking factor
Want to get some fresh SEO ideas for your website? Google a highly competitive keyword and take a look at who is ranking and why.
I searched for “best vacuum cleaners” and here’s who I’m seeing today:
All of these pages are hitting the nail on the head with important SEO factors:
- Excellent on-page content structure
- Use of comparison charts, tables, graphs – non-text content that is helpful and provides a better user experience
- Original and unique opinions: providing good recommendations for “best vacuum cleaners”
- Targeted and eye-catching title tags
- Use of author bios and strong EEAT factors
- Great technical SEO
Oh – and one other thing. According to Ahrefs, ALL OF THESE SITES HAVE RIDICULOUSLY HIGH DRs!!!
nymag.com is the weakling with a DR of 85. All other sites have DRs of 90 or higher. I looked at stats for the top 100 results – the average DR was 78.6 with a median of 86!
There were a few outliers and head scratchers, like this article that has a DR 6 and the content is not particularly relevant to the query: https://everettvacuum.com/blog/7-preventative-maintenance-tips-your-vacuum-will-appreciate
Regardless, if someone wanted to rank in the top 10 for this keyword, I would tell them that it does not matter how “helpful” your content is, how fast your page loads, or how many years of vacuum expertise you put in your author bio. Your website will not rank in the top 10 for “best vacuum cleaners” if it has a DR lower than 80.
Links Have Never Been the #1 Ranking Factor
Even in the early days of SEO when grey and black hat link building techniques were rampant, they were never the SEO factors you started changing. It’s always been
- Having a functioning website that users can access and bots can crawl
- Creating a website structure and content that reflects how your target audience searches. You never turn your attention towards link building until you check those two items off the to-do list.
No one can predict the future, least of all SEOs
I don’t think anyone can confidently say how strong of a ranking signal links will be in 2025 or beyond. However, I have a few thoughts on the matter:
Google would probably like to rely less heavily on links, but it’s easier said than done
I think Google understands the issues with relying on backlinks as a strong SEO ranking factor. Links = value. This has created a marketplace for buying and selling links, which Google has tried to root out on several occasions with limited success. If links can be bought and sold to the highest bidder, then they’re not as great measures of relevancy or quality.
At the same time, Google’s job is to crawl and index billions of pages. Links can be crawled and measured at scale and, very importantly, cheaply. Google may have the capability to crawl, read, and analyze details of an author bio. But what kind of investment would Google need to create to implement that as a significant ranking factor? How expensive would it be to crawl and store all that data? And would it deliver better search results vs. relying on links?
For that reason, if author bios were to become a significant ranking signal, I believe that Google would place higher emphasis on pages that simply have a author bio vs. pages that don’t. At the end of the day, Google is a business that exists to make money – not provide a public service.
Links are still a reliable ranking metric for Google
Yes, there are issues with links that Google would like to iron out. But distinguished itself and Google built PageRank with links as a primary ranking signal. Even though links can be bought and sold, websites that have big link building budgets likely also spend quite a bit of time and money creating high quality content. Also, Googlebot still uses links to find new content on the internet and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.
How users interact with content will be important
How you interact with their SERP and what you do once you land on a webpage is a good proxy for the quality and relevancy of content. It’s a big part of RankBrain, which has been a ranking factor for quite some time. Google may classify RankBrain as a ranking factor, but the reality is that it’s a reflection of the quality of your on-page website content, which we’ve already established is the most important ranking signal. How do you improve RankBrain factors? Improve the quality of your content and website experience.
Basically – if users exhibit behavior of poor quality content while interacting with your site, such as pogo-sticking, Google will take note and your site will suffer. This is something Google can measure at scale cheaply, so I think it is here to stay.
Let’s hear it from some other SEOs!