Do Backlinks Even Matter Anymore?
There's an old joke that goes something like "99% of lawyers give the other 1% a bad name." You chuckle, but you know it's true. And that's not all - it's become something of a running gag in the SEO industry too. For years, SEOs have been beating the backlinks drum and small business owners have been marched off an optimized cliff. After Panda, a lot of the old backlink strategies just up and died. Article directories withered away into obscurity, and link networks were (and continue to be) crushed by Google.
Anchor Text Isn't That Important
SEO firms (and their clients) got a major wake-up call when Google dropped this bombshell on its Inside Search Blog in 2011:
Better page titles in search results by de-duplicating boilerplate anchors: We look at a number of signals when generating a page’s title. One signal is the anchor text in links pointing to the page. We found that boilerplate links with duplicated anchor text are not as relevant, so we are putting less emphasis on these. The result is more relevant titles that are specific to the page’s content.
It actually took a while for webmasters to catch on to this, and some people are still using anchor text like it's going out of style (which, oddly, it has). It makes sense that anchor text shouldn't be highly valued if you think about it. Google doesn't want people to manipulate its search results. It's non-intuitive to constantly and consistently link out to another site using specific long-tail keyword phrases (and it looks unnatural if a lot of sites are pointing to the same site using the same anchor text).
Citations: The New Backlink
Citations have been something that Google has looked at for a while now. However, co-citations really took off when Google started devaluing anchor text. A Co-citation is basically a plain-text citation (a "mention") on a site.
For example, if your site is about auto insurance, and you have syndicated articles on other sites that mention your site as an authority on auto insurance, guess what? Google will eventually pick up on this and start ranking you for keywords related to auto insurance.
A real-world example of this happening is ConsumerReports.com. That site ranks for a very competative phrase ("cell phone ratings"). The funny thing is that their page isn't really optimized for the terms "cell phone" or "ratings." At one point, you couldn't even find the terms on those ranked pages. ThomasNet.com is ranked for the keyword "manufacturing directory" even though, when it was originally ranked for that keyword, it didn't even mention that keyword phrase anywhere on the site.
Merit-Driven Backlinks: They Never Went Out of Style
While anchor text has gotten the shaft, there's one kind of backlink that's always worked: the plain old URL link. Yes, a link to your website (www.yoursite.com) can get you ranked for pretty competitive keywords if you've done a good job with the content on-site and have a professional design.
Eric Ward has made this type of link famous throughout the years, arguing that webmasters should seek links regardless of the impact it has on search rankings. In other words, build links like Google didn't exist. This approach basically treats links as though they were business cards or a form of direct advertising. Does it work? Eric says so, and he's helped many businesses succeed with that strategy (i.e. Amazon.com, Discovery Channel, PBS, etc.)
Backlinks Are Dead. Long Live Backlinks.
If you're seeking backlinks in the hopes of improving your standing in the SERPs, you're chasing after a dream - and a bad one at that. Back here in reality, you need what you've always needed: a good value proposition for your site and the corresponding content that entices people to do business with you. Backlinks are just one way to advertise what you offer. Nothing more. Nothing less.