With all the changes Google has made over the years with SEO, are backlinks still as important as they used to be? Can you really rank on the first page of Google without a single backlink at all? Let’s find out.
It’s 2019 here and SEO has changed a lot from the past. There was a time when you could rank on the first page of Google by just stuffing in keywords you wanted to rank for and wrote a 500 words article on it.
Before I go further, let’s understand the fundamentals first.
What are backlinks?
Backlinks are incoming external links from other web pages or sites. Linking to pages can majorly be done in three ways:
- By anchoring matching keyword
- By anchoring related keyword
- Skeleton linking – directly put the link without anchor text
How backlinks help SEO
Before I explain you the concept, you should first know that there are two kinds of backlinks i.e. do-follow and no-follow links
Do-follow links – Are those kinds of links that pass “link juice” or domain authority (DA).
No-follow links – Are those kinds of links that do the opposite and search engines don’t take into consideration when ranking a page.
When a webpage links to any of your articles or your website’s homepage, it passes “link juice”. This link juice helps with the ranking of the article, and also improves the domain authority.
What I discovered
Over the past few years, there have been multiple major Google updates like Google Panda update which aimed at de-valuing sites with shady/poor quality backlinks.
Google is now focusing more high-quality contents and on-page SEO has become important more than ever before.
The stats showed that there is a high correlation between sites ranking on the first page of Google and high domain authority.
However, backlinks are just a ranking factor among 200 other factors. And what I discovered over the past few months while working with my clients really changed my belief on backlinks.
In my recent research, I have discovered that a site without a single “do-follow” or a site with just a handful of backlinks (like a few) can really rank on the first page of Google literally for any keywords difficulty. (generally low to medium).
In this article, I have brought up two examples with an in-depth analysis of each.
Let’s analyze the first result.
***Note: For all the analysis here, I have used global Google.co.th with Bangkok as a location. The results may differ from location to location depends on where you are located.
Rank on the first page of Google, with just a single no-follow backlink
The URL address is https://serviceweight.com. This is a Thailand based truck weight scale business website. The company mainly sells truck weight scales and other related products like load cells and truck equipment. Believe me, this particular business does exist.
The site is able to rank for 244 keywords organically. Let’s see some of the main keywords this site is able to rank for – I used Ubersuggest, free SEO tool by Neil Patel.
As you can see, all of them are in the top ten, which is the first page of Google.
***By the time of writing this article, the site is now showing up on page 2 on some of the keywords, however, the site is still on the first page on many of the related keywords with a different position.
The main keyword here is “เครื่องชั่งรถบรรทุก“. You can find other related keywords in Google suggestions and related search section.
Current SERP result from serprobot.com on main and related keywords
Now, coming to the backlink profile – I used Ubersuggest and free Ahref backlink checker tool.
As you can see, only one no-follow link from a directory site.
An analysis from Ahref does confirm – only one no-follow backlink.
What about the competitors? Are there already strong sites with higher domain authority competing with this site? Let’s see this using the Moz bar tool.
These are some of the sites on the first page on one of the keywords. As you can see the site is ranking on the fourth position, along with other higher domain authority sites. (The black bar, with DA word written, is the domain authority).
Another surprising result is there is another low domain authority site on the first page as well.
So what could possibly be the reason why this site ranks so well…
Let’s analyze the on-page factor
Screenshot from homepage – Nothing fancy, just a typical homepage, with a well-organized menu and sections.
Screenshots from one of the page which ranks on the first page of Google
Turns out to be quite acceptable, isn’t it? Not so difficult to read text with a great table, videos and lots of images.
Let’s see what an online SEO audit tool says – I used Ubersuggest free audit tool
Well, quite surprising here though. Multiple pages are having a low word count and URLs are too long. These two factors are what many SEO experts claimed to be among the top ranking factors.
Other than that, nothing serious. But the site still lacks many of the basic on-page SEO, which I think if done properly, can significantly boost up the ranking.
Out of 10, I would give 6.5 in terms of on-page optimization, mainly due to site structure and multimedia contents. What is the rating would you guys give? Let me know in the comment section below.
- Page speed – analyzed using Gtmetrix
Not quite impressive here though.
2. Mobile friendliness – tested by mobile friendliness tool by Google
Alright, so this condition has passed. No doubt.
In my opinion, I conclude that this site is able to rank for such keywords because it has high click-through rates (CTR) and different types of contents (tables, images, videos, and text).
As I was working with my client, He told me that this site used to have a successful Google AdWords campaign, which received high CTR. Now, how CTR affects SEO ranking, you can check out this article here.
Even though the site doesn’t perform well in both on-page and technical tests, it’s still able to rank quite well.
So I’m quite certain that CTR plays a huge role here, along with the mixed type of content on the site.
Let’s analyze the second result.
Rank on the first page of Google for a particular keyword, out-ranking almost all high DA sites
The URL address is https://seobasics.net. This is a blogging site all about SEO tips, tricks, and knowledge – Just a typical SEO blog
The site is able to rank for 563 keywords organically. Let’s see some of the main keywords this site is able to rank for – I used Ubersuggest, free SEO tool by Neil Patel.
Nothing surprising here. Most of the ranking is on either second or third page and the keywords that the site is able to rank for are nothing phenomenon.
Let’s check the backlink profile – I used Ubersuggest and free Ahref backlink checker tool.
Ok, so the site has 88 backlinks, with only 5 do-follow backlinks. That’s not much at all. Let’s confirm this with Ahrefs.
Alright, here quite different. The result is different. But overall, still not much of backlinks. Most of the links I see are either from Chinese sites or forums – That is reflected in the Ahrefs’s domain rating score.
But here’s what interesting. Though this site is not ranking for any of the keywords shown above on the first page, it’s able to rank for the phrase “Local business SEO” – Which has 880 search volume per month, sitting comfortably alongside other high DA sites.
See the result here – I used the Moz bar tool to display DA of the sites
As you can see, the site is only second to Ahref’s article, with a DA of 76, ranking on the top spot.
On-page factor analysis
Let’s first see a couple of screenshots from the site.
Impressive. The article makes use of multiple subheadings to improve the readability of the content. The paragraphs are not too long and there are a couple of internal links and outbound links along with images – 9 out of 10 here from me.
As usual, I’m going to show you the on-page analysis of the particular page. I used a free SEO online page audit tool – https://seositecheckup.com.
- Page speed – I used Gtmetrix
Though the page speed score is not a phenomenon, the page did pretty well in load time. So in my opinion – Not bad.
2. Mobile friendliness
As usual, most of the sites nowadays are already mobile responsive. Is your site still not optimized for mobile? Let me know in the comment.
However…there is one more thing I discovered.
The site did have great engagement rates across multiple social platforms, with a total of 201.
Compared to other sites ranking lower, the site did pretty well in this aspect. Though social media is not a direct ranking factor, there is a study which confirmed that there is a connection between the two. You can check this out here.
In my opinion, this site is able to rank high for a particular keyword probably due to good on-page optimization and social engagement. The content quality is also not bad after I went through it.
Click through rates (CTR) may play a role here as well but I don’t know about that.
In a nutshell
That’s all for the in-depth analysis of the two sites, which really shows that backlinks are not as important as before when it comes to ranking.
In 2019, the number of backlinks is not as important as quality as it used to be. A “quality link” here means a link that is from a non-spammy, relevant and high domain authority site to your page.
10 quality backlinks to a web page can help you rank better than thousand of irrelevant links. Poor, spammy links can also do you more harm than good.
Besides from backlinks, there are other factors, which if leverage well, can really push your ranking up high.
Though in the end, backlinks can become a deciding factor in a certain situation, they have lost importance as compared to the past.
Since now Google is focusing on putting user-first when ranking contents, CTR and engagement has become a huge factor, as this shows how important content is in users’ perspective.
Hope this changes your perspective about backlinks.
If you have any questions, you can leave them in the comment section. I’m also curious to know how many of you are active in building backlinks.
I’m just an ordinary guy with passion for web development and online marketing. Let’s stay connected!