Do you need to create backlinks to rank your site with SEO?

Surprisingly, this question is still being debated, even though we know without a doubt that backlinks are a major component of Google’s ranking algorithm.

Google was built on backlinks. While other search engines simply analyzed the on-page content of the websites they ranked, Google took a different approach and built a search engine algorithm that considered backlinks.

Backlinks can be thought of as “votes” for a site. Other site owners validate your site when they link to you. This is similar to citations in professional fields. The credibility and influence of a scientific paper are often determined by the number of other authors that cite the paper.

While Google’s algorithm has evolved over the years, backlinks are still a major ranking factor. Period. End of story.

This post will not build a case for the influence of backlinks on a site’s ranking. This has been proven time and time again. The sky is blue and backlinks are a ranking factor. Simple as that.

This post will focus on why some people still build content websites with philosophies like “content is king” and “build it and they will come.”

First off, I think a lot of the opponents of link building are either trolling or selling something. Trolls often take this stance to stir up conflict which increases engagement. Course creators often pitch the “no backlinks” narrative because backlinking is the most difficult part of SEO. It’s a lot easier to teach someone how to create great content than it is to teach them how to build links.

That said, some people genuinely believe that building links is not an essential part of SEO. I will break this fallacy down into three analogies and address each one.

  1. The politician running unopposed says you don’t need to campaign to win
  2. The famous musician says you just need to put out great music
  3. The blind fire juggler says word-of-mouth happens naturally
  4. The mall kiosk owner says you don’t need marketing to generate sales

All of these are fallacies that represent outlier cases, not the norm.

The Politician Running Unopposed (No Competition)

unopposed politician low competition

One reason why many people assume you don’t need backlinks is that they are in industries with minimal competition.

It’s like an unopposed political candidate telling you running for office is easy (you don’t even need to campaign!).

For low competition keywords, it IS possible to rank without backlinks. For example, if you are trying to rank for the keyword “best dog blankets for golden retrievers in Alaska,” you may not need a single backlink to rank your article. If you are trying to rank for the keyword “best dog food,” you absolutely will need backlinks.

This begs the question – why not target low competition keywords exclusively?

Let’s go back to our political analogy. If you are running unopposed, the position you are running for is probably not all that desirable.

The same goes for keywords. Low competition keywords tend to have low volume and lower profitability. Volume and profit potential attract competition. Sure, there are some exceptions, but keywords that have low competition, high volume, and high-profit potential will generally attract more competitors over time.

The Famous Musician (Strong Brand)

The Famous Musician (Strong Brand)

You meet Taylor Swift at a concert backstage and work up the courage to ask her, “how do I make it in the music industry?”

She replies, “just make great music.”

You grin and say thank you, but you feel cheated (as you should). You know it’s not that simple.

Ask Healthline, WSJ, or Bloomberg what their backlinking strategy is. While they may have an answer, they’re probably not the companies spamming your inbox for guest posts and link insertions, nor are they responding to 20 HARO pitches in the hopes of getting one response. They don’t need to.

Bigger publishers with strong brands and naturally strong backlink profiles CAN just create great content. Link building may not be at the top of their list of priorities, but they are certainly benefiting from backlinks.

Focusing solely on “great content” is a luxury granted to big publishers.

You are not a big publisher. You are not Healthline and you are definitely not WSJ. In fact, you are probably competing with them.

The Blind Fire Juggler (Natural Virality)

The Blind Fire Juggler (Natural Virality)

Some opponents of link building do not dispute that backlinks are a ranking factor; they simply claim that link building is a waste of time. This group believes that links are the product of great content. Build it and they (links) will come…

You can definitely cite many websites where this is the case. There is a lot of content that is so compelling that you just have to share it. There is a lot of research that is so insightful that you just have to link to it.

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That’s not the case for every site.

Different niches have different levels of “sharability” and “citability.”

Watch a video of a blind fire juggler and you’re likely to share it. Watch a video of a roofing project, and you’re likely to keep that one to yourself.

If you’re in a niche where content is shared and cited (linked to) frequently, you may be able to obtain backlinks naturally. In other niches, this is absolutely not the case. For example, it can be difficult to get links naturally for:

  • Reviews
  • Commercial Content
  • Bland Content
  • Sensitive Content

Even in cases where content is linkable (i.e. “how to get more vitamin C in your diet”), are people going to link to YOU? Most sites worth receiving a link from are looking for the most credible sources (see “The Famous Musician” section above).

Healthline and WebMD are likely to get the citation before your health site.

WSJ, Bloomberg, or CNBC are likely to get the link before your finance blog.

The Mall Kiosk Owner (The Outlier)

The Mall Kiosk Owner (The Outlier)

Mall kiosk owners probably won’t be able to help you with your marketing strategy.

As a mall kiosk owner, you pay a premium for a prominent, high-traffic location where customers are spoonfed to you daily.

Ask them some softball marketing questions and they’ll give you the wrong answers (without actually being wrong).

  • Do you need a business website? What would I do with it?
  • Are you running any online ads? Online whats?
  • What is your social media strategy? Are you talking about the Facebooks?

This isn’t to say that mall kiosk owners are bad businesspeople. They are not. They are just in a very different line of business.

Mall kiosk owners CAN follow the “build it and they will come” business philosophy. Malls are full of foot traffic (at least they used to be) and kiosks are placed prominently in high-traffic locations. If you have a good product, it will sell.

So, how does this relate to link-building?

Mall kiosk marketing strategies (or lack thereof) don’t work for online businesses. If you apply a mall kiosk marketing strategy to an online business, you will fail.

The point – what works in one domain doesn’t necessarily work in another.

The same is true for link-building strategies. What works for one website will not necessarily work for another.

When a marketer preaches that “content is king” and “I haven’t built a single link”, you don’t know if they fall into one of the three categories discussed above (low competition, strong brand, or natural virality). Heck, they could be flat-out lying. Have you seen their income statements?

Sites that thrive without links are exceptions to the rule.

Attempt to beat the odds at your own risk.