My friend Barry Schwartz recently wrote a post over on his site Search Engine Roundtable entitled “Google’s John Mueller: You Focus Too Much On Links” where he embedded this tweet from John Mueller on the Google Webmaster team:

Now, take this tweet with a grain of salt as it’s literally 123 characters. But, John has said this a few time as have many other Googlers.

I’m also friends with Barry on Facebook where he posted this link. I commented “I agree with John”, but I am pretty much the only one who commented that. Everyone else said some combination of:

  • I’ll agree with him if Google stops rewarding links like they do;
  • If he tells us to “create great content” one more time I’m going to flip out;
  • Well then they should stop rewarding links so much.

It’s a classic SEO thread.

I’ve said since about 2011 that I think SEOs think and talk about links too much, and because they do that our industry is not taken seriously and does not get the budgets that it deserves.

In fact, I recently removed “link building” as an option on Credo’s main project inquiry form because we found that people coming to us wanting “link building” want bad links for cheap.

I want to explain my quick answer of “I agree with John” further because I think we as an industry need to grow up and start taking SEO seriously as a business driver and not just something interesting that we do or “are obsessed with” (I hate that language. Obsession is a negative thing, always).

Links absolutely matter

Now before I get the link bois on Twitter all in a huff about this post, I want to make one thing completely clear:

Links absolutely matter for SEO and you will not rank without them.

There. I said it. Links matter. They’re important. You need them.

My issue, and John’s too, is that links are too often the only think SEOs talk about. In fact, the agency I used to work for had a conference series called LinkLove for a while! That, very much to their credit, has been folded into their SearchLove series now (which IMO is one of the best conferences out there in the search marketing space) and has been for a number of years because they recognized that SEO was broadening and changing.

I’d also be disingenuous to say that I don’t think about links at all. I very much think about them and consider them important to Credo’s success. And I’ve built quite a few over the last few years:

So I hope this settles the question of “Does John think links matter?” And if you tweet at me in anger saying I don’t value links, you can get out of my mentions because I’ll know you didn’t read this.

Now, on to more important things.

SEO ≠ links

SEO involves links, but links are not SEO.

SEO involves many many things:

  1. Technical SEO. Without your website able to be crawled by search engines, you won’t rank.
  2. Keyword research. Without understanding your market and what pages to have on your site, you will not rank.
  3. Content creation, both for conversion-oriented pages as well as editorial content created to rank, be read, and ultimately drive your business.
  4. Structured data implementation and entity association.
  5. Topical authority. Without content covering the topics you want to rank for, you won’t rank as well.
  6. Links. This has already been covered.

Now, I fully understand that there are different focus areas within SEO.

You have your “tech SEOs” and your “content marketers” and your “link builders”. You have your “News SEOs” and your “local SEOs”.

So why are links the thing that are talked about so heavily?

First, are they?

It’s easy to be in our myopic SEO bubble and think that something is talked about more than it actually is because it’s what our specific circles talk about.

So I looked at Google Trends for worldwide trends for “link building” and “content marketing” over the last 5 years, and was actually extremely heartened to see that content marketing has grown very well while link building has mostly stayed flat:

And perhaps unsurprisingly, link building is most popular overseas where it can be done for cheaper (because most businesses do not value links as highly as they should and thus won’t pay what they should):

I decided to take a little bit different of a data visualization approach and so I downloaded the country interests for each and found the difference in interest by country.

Those with negative values here have a higher interest in link building than content marketing:

Interestingly there are only 18 (out of 66 total) with equal or more interest in link building than content marketing:

Country Average of Diff
Argentina 0
Bangladesh -13
Bulgaria -1
China -3
Czechia -3
France -2
Hungary -4
India 0
Indonesia -1
Pakistan -5
Philippines -3
Poland -3
Romania 0
Serbia 0
Slovakia 0
Spain -2
St. Helena 0
Venezuela 0

So, I think we can actually say that while link building seems like it receives too much attention in the SEO world, it is actually less popular than I thought in most countries and most are way more interested in content marketing than link building!

Do links matter less now than before?

My other hypothesis is that many SEOs still talk about links more than they should because for a long time links were the predominant ranking factor. They’re still a huge one to be sure, but are they the predominant one?

I trust the Germans on this one, because they tend to take a very scientific and data-driven approach to ranking.

SearchMetrics’s most recent study even says this:

Unfortunately a lot of the old studies (which were surveys, not driven off data necessarily) are now redirected elsewhere or are gone offline.

But we have seen, over the years, a general trend of links staying a strong factor but other factors growing as well such as structured data, on-page SEO, and technical SEO with a renaissance.

Personalization

Let’s also not forget personalization growing as a factor and that search engines now do a much better job of determining topic relevance and thus ranking content that better satisfies a user’s type of query or their query based on what they’ve visited before and found useful or not (likely based on usage patterns).

More complicated SERPs

When you add in things like answer boxes, “People Ask Also” sections, ads and image ads as well as different mobile CTRs, it makes sense that links matter way less than they did before for a large variety of reasons:

Both images via Rand Fishkin’s post and Jumpshot.

I still agree with John Mueller

All this said (and maybe I am just stubborn) I do personally feel that SEOs concentrate too much on link building and other myopic topics, and that hurts our industry because it cheapens what we do.

Instead, what we need to be doing is talking about SEO and how it impacts business. We need to be selling business results, not links and blog posts.

I want to leave this post with an actionable takeaway, so here are the people I follow who I respect their thinking about SEO and building businesses:

It’s a small list, to be sure. There are many amazing SEOs out there who are very good at what they do and teaching their craft, but these are the ones I personally follow who consistently point us towards the business side.