Let’s play a game. Open a new tab and enter the search queries «top google ranking factors» and «are backlinks important for SEO.» Now, you’re looking at the SERPs flooded with articles that extol backlinks as the second-most crucial factor for securing high positions.
What’s your takeaway? To rank your site in the top 10, you have to build links. The more, the better.
And yet, we’ve seen dozens of sites pouring over $ 100,000 into link building, acquiring high-DR backlinks but not improving in rankings.
Perhaps, SEO pros should stop worshiping links and reconsider their link building strategies?
Take a deep dive into how over-reliance on backlinks hurts your business and what to do about it.
5 Reasons Why Over-Reliance on Link Building is Harmful
A landing page is ready. A blog post is written. And now you’re cooking up a link building strategy to rank your new content in the SERPs. You’ve already analyzed the current SERPs, and you’re sure you’ll smash it with 10 high-quality links.
But then reality sets in — the page doesn’t grow in rankings.
Much like my horse Barbie once didn’t want to stand up and leave her stable to practice with me.
The takeaway: Your expectations and high hopes can be easily smashed by the reality check.
So, let’s explore 5 reasons to stop worshiping backlinks.
Reason #1: Be ready for the reality check.
Here’s a story from one of our clients where links didn’t provide much help. This should encourage you to meticulously examine every page to which you plan to build links.
We built 286 backlinks with a $ 150,000 budget in total, but the return on investment didn’t come. In fact, we witnessed nearly zero changes in organic traffic.
This happened despite the fact that the domain rating skyrocketed to the DR of 75.
So, where are the bumps in the road?
The short answer is in the domain’s content and its on-page SEO. See, the site had been gaining some visibility in the SERPs and receiving some organic traffic as a response to link building.
However, Google rolled out several core algorithm and spam updates that outright killed the site’s rankings and organic traffic accordingly.
Unfortunately, the team was reactive in response to the updates and set hopes on link building rather than improving content quality and fine-tuning on-page SEO. The result: organic traffic continues to plummet.
The takeaway of the story: Take a holistic view of SEO performance. Don’t rely solely on backlinks. They won’t fix the situation if factors like UX, technical SEO, etc., are falling apart.
Whilst there is evidence to show that links are still an incredibly important ranking factor, link building alone will not help you stand out in the SERPs.
In my mind link building should be used to support other SEO and content efforts, giving well optimised pages and blogs a little boost rather than being relied on to to carry them.
When building links you should ensure you are choosing pages that are well optimised and have good internal linking to other pages or product so that any link equity can be passed through the site. — Tilly Haines — Digital Marketing Executive at Yuup.
Reason #2: Link building often requires professional assistance.
79.7% of SEO pros find link building a vital part of their SEO strategies, while 52.3% say link building is the most challenging part.
- Link building requires a great deal of laborious work, like prospecting, vetting, and email personalization.
- You must build relationships with content marketers, bloggers, and journalists to gain trust.
- You never know if you will get a backlink.
Therefore, 71% of SEO specialists outsource their link building efforts because they cannot sufficiently cover the link gap all in-house. This translates into the following — you should leave aside the idea of pumping up your website with backlinks as a key growth factor.
If you still feel like testing it, prepare to invest a substantial amount of money.
Here are some minimal benchmarks.
In-house link building
The estimated average total pay for a link builder is $ 62,299 per year in the United States, according to Glassdoor. The actual salary for a Middle or Senior Link Building Specialist, from our experience, tends to fall within the $ 75,000 — $ 100,000 range, depending on the country and industry (for instance, FinTech typically offers higher compensation).
Next, consider the backlink volume a single link building specialist can deliver per month. Again, based on our 6-year experience in providing link building services and networking, one person can acquire 10−20 high-quality links per month.
A Senior Link Builder may land 20−30 links per month, leveraging their already established relationships with editorial teams, journalists, and bloggers.
And also, calculate and add up costs associated with link building setup — SEO and outreach tools and content writing, and, not to be overlooked, the cost of maintaining employees.
Tally up all the figures and project if that’s enough to close the link gap and see a positive ROI.
It’s likely not, especially if you operate in a competitive niche.
Then, you decide to hire a savvy team for link building.
Outsource link building
The average rate for a link building agency is $ 3,000 — $ 5,000 USD per month, delivering 10−15 quality backlinks. So, do your math to assess whether it’s worth putting all your eggs in one basket.
Lastly, consider that Google algorithms constantly evolve; backlinks alone won’t guarantee high rankings.
Reason #3: Links need constant fixing
Link building is an ongoing process. First, you acquire backlinks. Next, you monitor their status (redirected, replaced, anchor text changes, lost, etc.). While you always can and have to reach out to webmasters to update a broken/replaced link, you will never restore all lost backlinks.
Consider it when budgeting link building and estimating the number of backlinks you want to build to a page.
Thus, constant backlinks fixing is another reason why you should refrain from worship backlinks to boost SEO performance.
Reason #4: Link building is not a smooth road.
Well-delivered in-depth content paired with on-page SEO and moderate competition in the SERPs is ideal for tangible results out of link building. Leave out one crucial aspect as on-page SEO or poor UX, and you’re sure to see little to no growth in your site’s visibility, regardless of the number of backlinks.
Yet, you might stumble upon some cases on LinkedIn or on the web where webmasters have loaded certain pages with tons of backlinks, resulting in a rapid rise to the top-10 rankings. What follows?
Those who attempted to manipulate the SERPs experienced an equally swift drop in rankings within a month or a week.
So, once again, SEO isn’t all about backlinks.
Strange to hear that from a link building agency like Digital Olympus, isn’t it?
Reason #5: You may not need links at all.
Here are five red flags for you to beware of when building links:
- Your content doesn’t have a competitive edge.
- You’re targeting the wrong search intent.
- The page type you’re building links to isn’t aligned with the desired outcome.
- A page has some impressions going but almost zero clicks. No stable visibility in the search.
- The competition for a search term is fierce. The link gap is nearly impossible to close.
If any of these bullets is about the page you want to build links to, we recommend you pause for a while and reconsider your link building strategy. For example, find pages that are a good investment for link building:
- Ranking in Google SERPs and getting a handful of stable clicks (see the screenshot below).
- Pages that have been recently published or rewritten are showing some positive signals.
- The ones that don’t need hundreds of links to outrank the current competition in the SERPs.
Find real case studies for red flags in our recent post, «How to Make Sure You’re Building Links to the Right Pages.»
It’s much cheaper to produce quality content or improve website parameters than to build meaningful links at a scale. If you rely on links to make up for mediocre content, you’re in for a serious and ineffective investment.
Also, if you’re in a competitive niche — you can’t rely on a single strategy. You need everything, including links, to be on point to get noticed. — George Todorov, Founder of Create & Grow.
2 Ranking Factors that Come Before Links
Let’s flip the coin and view it from the other side. If not backlinks, what should you prioritize to conquer the SERPs?
Champ: Competitive content and well-delivered on-page SEO
What can you derive from this screenshot? The number of referring domains highly correlates with organic traffic growth. Unlike in the case discussed in Reason #1, this client has top-notch content that meets E-E-A-T requirements, comes with solid on-page SEO optimization, and matches the current SERPs.
To take off organic traffic from 7K to 38K+, it only took 60 high-quality links to build with a budget under $ 30,000.
Disclaimer: The page had already received some traffic and had referring domains before Digital Olympus helped with landing high-DR backlinks (DR 60−70+) that prompted page content visibility and promoted passive backlinks.
For this client, we only built 10 powerful backlinks, and it was enough for Google to push the page into the top-10. As a result, impressions and total clicks have doubled.
However, it wouldn’t have been the case had the client targeted the wrong keywords, or if there had been issues with page speed, E-E-A-T, and content quality.
Runner-up: A well-known product or service
Which Links are Necessary and When?
«Build backlinks you’re not ashamed to share across your social media profiles.» is the motto of Digital Olympus. We believe this is the key component of successful link building campaigns that improve rankings and your site’s visibility.
In the language of SEO, this translates into four main characteristics of SEO-meaningful links:
- Strictly from legit businesses that belong to your niche (no media outlets, PBNs, and similar sites).
- With decent organic traffic (from 2K) and DR (40+).
- Placing links on pages that are relevant to your target pages.
- The content where the backlink is placed must be superior.
When do you need those links?
Here are four factors that indicate your website/certain pages are a good fit for link building:
- You publish 5+ content pieces per month. It’s vital for link building because your blog content is how you grow your website authority. Also, it’s easier and more sensible to acquire backlinks for content pieces and then redirect link equity to certain pages through internal linking.
- You get some impressions and clicks but only across some pages.
- You target some competitive search terms, so you want to strengthen your position in the SERP or increase the chances of appearing on the 1st search engine results page.
- You know that your competitors outrank you since they have better authority and more SEO-meaningful links.
For example, you want to rank for a keyword with moderate keyword difficulty but decent competition in the top-10.
Of course, you need backlinks to compete in the SERPs and secure high rankings, but it shouldn’t be your main strategy. Sometimes, a simple content update will advance your page, while backlinks may not move the needle.
Look for more signs of why your page is underperforming. Resolve the issues and then place some backlinks.
Looking for help with link building and choosing the right strategy? Schedule a call with our team to analyze your project.