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June 30, 2020

Do Backlinks Still Matter in 2020? | Why Backlinks Are Overhyped

In SEO, we’re told the name of the game is backlinks. Google says backlinks still impact their rankings, and the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) has sites with many backlinks on top. Ergo you can stop reading this blog post, and we should all begin link-building, right?

Maybe. But, perhaps not.

It can take hours to manually build a single backlink. In that same amount of time, I could write a brand new blog post for a low competition keyword. A post I know will get traffic. Will the link-juice I generate from building a backlink produce more traffic than that new post?

is link building better than producing new content

To figure this out, we need to cover 3 things in this article.

  1. How far will an individual backlink move you up the SERP?
  2. Exactly how much traffic will you gain by moving up the SERP?
  3. If a backlink will move you up the SERP, will the traffic gain be worth the opportunity cost?

Part 1) Case Study: How Far Will Backlinks Move You Up The SERP?

Proving backlinks work or don’t work is next to impossible because Google’s a black box. The only tools we have at our disposal are what Google tells us and analyzing the search engine results page.

So let’s check out the SERP! But, before we get to that, we have to mention an obvious flaw in all backlink studies.

Which Came First, The Backlink or The Ranking?

The #1 way that backlinks are earned is by a blogger Googling something and then haphazardly linking to it. Don’t deny it, that’s how you give out 99% of your links (and how I attribute most links as well).

This presents us with a bit of a conundrum. The top 10 results should always have the most backlinks because people give out backlinks to the top 10 results in Google. This is why backlink “correlation studies” are stupid. Which came first, the ranking, or the backlink?

Correlation doesn't even imply causation

My Methodology For This Backlink Case Study

Ignore low competition queries. If the phrase you’re targeting has Quora ranked #1, you can easily outrank that page without any backlinks. It’d be a waste of time to build a backlink to a query like this. You’ll win it either way.

who cares about backlinks for low competition results

Analyze a high competition query. What we primarily care about is how backlinks affect mid to high competition queries. If the prevailing wisdom about backlinks is correct, I’d expect a clear correlation between backlinks and your Google ranking. This is for two reasons.

  1. Backlinks should cause your ranking to improve.
  2. You acquire backlinks by ranking high.

So let’s analyze a query! “How to start a blog.” is a high-traffic query that’s easy to monetize with affiliate links in a high competition niche. This makes it one of the most competitive queries on earth.

I had to purchase ahrefs to run this experiment as Google killed off the Link: command in 2017. I listed the top 50 results. Each result lists the number of referring domains to both the page and the site as a whole.

Rank Site Title Word Count Do-Follow Links to Page Do-Follow Links to Domain
1firstsiteguide.comHow to Start a Blog (in 2020): The Free Beginner’s Guide8,207 words7007080
2bloggingbasics101.comHow To Start a Blog in 2020 – Easy to Follow Guide for …2,114 words9034,522
3neilpatel.comHow to Start a Blog That Generates $3817 a Month – Neil Patel4,977 words897348,589
4ryrob.comHow to Start a Blog in 2020 (and Make Money): Ultimate …12,119 words6193,844
5quicksprout.comHow to Start a Blog That Makes Money (Lessons Learned)5,216 words43622,867
6theblogstarter.comHow to Start a Blog in 2020 – Easy Guide to Create a Blog for …3,570 words1,3971,397
7amylynnandrews.comHow to Start a Blog (to Make Money) – The Simple Guide2,640 words2512,248
8justagirlandherblog.comHow to Start a Blog in 10 Easy Steps: The Definitive Guide for …8,680 words1194,364
9websitesetup.orgHow to Start a Blog (2020) – Easy Guide to Creating Your Own …3,102 words4596,249
10codeinwp.com45 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting a Blog That Gets …12,359 words653,333
11adamenfroy.com11 Easy Steps to Start a Blog to Make Money in 2020 (for Free)15,415 words1772,448
12themeisle.com9 Best Free Blogging Sites in 2020 (Create a Blog for Free)2,144 words791,735
13createandgo.comHow to Start a Blog in 2020 – Best Guide for Beginners (7 Easy …6,327 words147656
14wordpress.comCreate a Blog with WordPress.com700 words43877,004
15doyouevenblog.comHow to Start A Blog: A Simple Guide for 202011,680 words41407
16eliteblogacademy.comHow to Start a Blog in 5 Easy Steps | How to Start a Blog in 20204,044 words1617
17thewritelife.comHow to Start a Blog: A Simple, Step-by-Step Guide for Writers2,622 words483,887
18theminimalists.comHow to Start a Successful Blog in 2020 | The Minimalists7,216 words42210,602
19wpbeginner.com30 “Expert Tips” that I Wish I Knew Before Starting a Blog4,185 words3819,369
20bloggingwizard.comHow To Start A Blog In 2020: Everything You Need To Start …5,219 words423,442
21smartblogger.comStart a Blog (& Make Money) in 2020: Free Beginner’s Guide20,127 words4976,493
22blog.hubspot.comHow to Write a Blog Post: A Step-by-Step Guide [+ Free Blog …4,441 words146189,764
23startamomblog.comHow to Start a Blog and Make Money in 2020 *UPDATED …12,814 words551,001
24shoutmeloud.comHow To Start A Blog in 2020 [Blogging Guide For Beginner’s ]3,613 words12211,598
25blogtyrant.comHow to Start a Blog and Make Money – The Definitive Guide …6,412 words452,727
26makeawebsitehub.comHow to Start a Blog in 2020 – Free Easy to Follow Guide for …3,728 words6267,442
27matthewwoodward.co.ukHow To Start A Blog THE RIGHT WAY In 20201,885 words813,568
28gatheringdreams.comHow To Start A Blog in 2020 And Make Money – Gathering …24,910 words17856
29hostinger.comHow to Start a Blog – The Comprehensive Guidebook6,080 words2833,227
30imarkinteractive.comHow to Start a WordPress Blog – From Start to Blogging!8,966 words10212
31thebloggingbhudda.comHow to Start a Blog (on the Side) in 2019 – Blog Smarter, Make …4,124 words248248
32breakthetwitch.comHow To Start A Blog In 2020 (And Why You Should) | Break …2,178 words1403
33support.google.comCreate a blog – Blogger Help – Google Support1491,864bajillion
34startbloggingonline.comHow to Start a Blog in 2020: Free Blog Creation Guide6,715 words2,2512,251
35ventureharbour.comHow to Start a Blog (A Beginner’s Step-by-Step Guide)5,092 words82,664
36blogonyourown.comHow to Start a WordPress Blog in 2020 [6 Simple Steps]7,638 words151,198
37straycurls.comStart a Blog from Scratch that Makes Money in 2020 – Stray Curls9,673 words2177
38forbes.comHow To Start A Blog That Earns A Real Income – Forbes3,265 words149bajillion
39thesheapproach.comHow To Start A Blog In 2020 – The She Approach3,411 words3223
40wikihow.com4 Ways to Start a Blog – wikiHow1,735 words431bajillion
41passiveincomemd.comHow to Start a Blog (A Step By Step Guide) – Passive Income MD1,063 words9498
42impossiblehq.comHow To Start A Blog in 2020 | IMPOSSIBLE ® – Impossible HQ5,211 words721,964
43thesimpledollar.comHow to Start a Blog: A Tutorial – The Simple Dollar3,920 words2022,349
44collegeinfogeek.comThe Complete, Step-By-Step Guide to Creating a Successful …8,382 words253,186
45financialsamurai.comHow To Start A Profitable Blog: Insights Into Building Your …2,230 words425,694
46onblastblog.comHow to Start a Blog in 2020 [Step-by-Step] | Create a Blog in …5,394 words2,3712,371
47blogpixie.comHow To Start A Blog in 2020 – Blogging Beginners – Start A …2,350 words41,449
48makingsenseofcents.comHow To Start a Blog – The Ultimate Guide To Starting a Blog …1,627 words333,626
49digitalmarketinginstitute.comHow to Start a Blog in 5 Simple Steps | Online Digital …1,438 words17,554
50freshsparks.comHow to Start a Successful Blog For Your Business in 20203,050 words45761

These results don’t match our hypothesis in that they’re not ordered by the number of backlinks. Click-through-rate, relevance, and article quality all appear to play a more prominent role than we anticipated.

This tiny example isn’t enough evidence to say backlinks don’t matter. But, I want to point out some significant outliers to drive home the priority given to other ranking factors.

Outlier 1) Why Doesn’t the #1 Result Have By-Far the Most Backlinks?

I’d expect the #1 result to have the most backlinks because it is the #1 result. I’d also expect the #1 result to have the most backlinks because being #1 is how you acquire backlinks.

#1 result ranks high

Except, it doesn’t have the most backlinks. 7 of the top 50 results have more page backlinks, and 14 of the top 50 have more domain backlinks. What is going on here?

This isn’t a particularly fast website. It’s tough to say what it is about this website that’s causing it to rank #1 beyond “Good user experience.”

Outlier 2) Why Is Hubspot on Page 3?

Hubspot is one of the biggest blogs about blogs in existence. Their sitemap.xml says they have over 16,000 blog posts. The page they wrote has 1,461 backlinks, the domain 89,000 backlinks. And yet Hubspot ranks 22nd, what gives?

hubspot ranks low example

Hubspot’s article is more about how to write various types of blog posts than starting a blog from scratch. Other sites appear to be winning because they’re more relevant to the query.

Outlier 3) Why is Elite Blog Academy Ranked so high?

Elite Blog Academy has 1 measly backlink to their page. ONE! Their entire website only has 617 backlinks, and yet they rank 16th! How on earth is this site outranking Hubspot (or any site for that matter) if backlinks are the primary ranking factor?

It’s not a bad article, but there are many behind it in the SERP I think are just as good or better. So what’s going on here? My best guess is that How to Start a Blog in 5 Easy Steps | How to Start a Blog in 2020 is a significantly better title than the results behind it. Click-through-rate may matter more than backlinks do.

Part 2) How Valuable is Moving Up The SERP?

It’s not clear that backlinks will cause you to rank #1 for high competition queries. I’ll buy that backlinks help. But, you’re looking at a small rankings boost as opposed to a massive shift.

The question becomes, how much extra traffic will you get from a minor rankings boost? Let’s cover the click-through-rate for various positions in the SERP, and you can debate whether this is worth it.

According to Moz, the click-through-rate of Google desktop traffic is as follows. I highly suggest reading their article if you’re curious about their methodology. I’m simplifying it, mobile traffic is different, and the SERP has changed a lot since 2014.

Rank Click-Through-Rate Extra Traffic vs. Previous Rank Clicks From 10k Keyword Searches
#1 31.24% 123% 3,124 clicks
#2 14.04% 43% 1,404 clicks
#3 9.85% 41% 985 clicks
#4 6.97% 27% 697 clicks
#5 5.50% 47% 550 clicks
#6-#10 3.73% 1,765% 373 clicks
Page 2 (combined) 3.99% 149% 399 clicks
Page 3+ (combined) 1.60% NA 160 clicks

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say Moz’s click-through-rates are accurate. You can see there’s an enormous advantage to moving to page 1. And then there’s also an enormous advantage for each spot you move up the top 5.

Even better news, this effect is only for one keyword. The way Google works is that the more popular your post is, the more LSI keywords you rank for.

For example, I wrote a post about how to embed a private YouTube video on your website. The graphic below represents the number of keywords that got clicks each of the 4 months that followed the post (I did zero link-building).

keyword growth over time

As you can see, it’s not just that you get more clicks as you move up the SERP. You also start getting ranked for more and more keywords that you’ve never even thought of before.

So there is a pretty clear advantage to moving up the SERP. It’s a little bit unclear how far up the SERP a ton of backlinks actually move you. Let’s get into part 3, is building links worth the time it takes to build them?

Part 3) Is The Link-Juice Worth the Squeeze?

link juice worth squeeze

Pretend that you believed to rank top 10 for “How to start a blog” you needed to have the 10th most backlinks to your article. This would mean you’d have to build roughly 600 backlinks to your page (not your site, your page).

How long do you think that would take you? To do outreach until 600+ webmasters decided to link to your page?

If I was generous and assumed it took you 4 hours to manually build a link to your page. We’re talking about 2400 hours or 60 full-time work-weeks until you’ve accomplished this feat. And that’s not to rank #1, that’s to rank top 10.

Opportunity Cost

To run a successful business, one must understand opportunity cost. The simple way to describe this is if you spend 2,400 hours link-building or 2,400 hours creating content, which would provide more value to your business?

links vs content creation

I’m not saying links have 0 value. What I’m saying is I’d rather have 300 posts than 600 backlinks. And it’s not close.

Google is an ocean. Over 3 trillion searches are made every year on the platform. Don’t get obsessed with ranking for a single keyword. Instead of obsessing over the biggest fish, catch tons of small ones. After you do that, the big fish will start jumping in your boat.

Number of Google Searches per year over time.

Do Backlinks Depreciate with Time?

Another concern I had with backlinks was do they lose value with time?

According to John Mueller (see video below), links stay static as long as the relevance of the linking website doesn’t change. John mentions that if a news site links to you from its home page, it’ll lose link juice when that link moves to the archive.

Conclusion

Google has told us that links are still a part of their algorithm and will likely continue to be for some time.

But, I believe that links aren’t as valuable as they’re made out to be. I think that’s obvious when you objectively analyze the SERP as we did here today.

Why have we told ourselves links are more valuable than good content, great headlines, and user experience? Because people will pay a premium for links or link-building tools. Yet, they pay garbage for writers or copy editors. Good marketers have used this flaw in human cognition to sell you a bill of goods.

Please consider the opportunity cost before spending inordinate amounts of time link-building.

Thanks for reading! Think I’ve got links all wrong? Let me know why in the comments!

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2 Comments

SEO says:

I’m really impressed along with your writing talents as well as with the layout in your weblog. Is this a paid topic or did you customize it your self? Anyway stay up the nice high quality writing, it is rare to see a nice weblog like this one these days.

Shaun Poore says:

Thanks! I built the theme myself and it’s still in active development. When I finish it maybe I’ll sell it to others if there’s enough interest in it.

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