Contrary to what seems to be popular belief: links still move the needle.

They don’t even have to be great links (I’m not saying they shouldn’t be), I’m just saying they don’t have to be.

But first a bit of background.

If you run through signal analysis from many of the trusted sources in SEO, you’ll notice a link-based theme:

MOZ’s 2015 ranking factors survey list of most influential factors on Google’s ranking algorithm:

MOZ-Links-Study
Source

Backlinko’s study of over 1 million Google search results:

Backlinko-Links-Study
Source 

SearchMetrics 2015 Google Ranking Factors Study:

SearchMetrics-RankingsFactorsSource 

All the studies make the same data-backed conclusion, he who ranks #1 tends to have more links when analyzed across large populations of keywords and websites.

Backlinks to your website are still the #1 driver of relevance and trust to Google.

Links Are All That Matter

moz-link-factors

Well, not exactly.

It’s still critical to have your on-page SEO built out properly; clean HTML, fast load times, relevant information architecture, semantic and topically relevant content, etc. – but links are still really important.

Looking at the data from the recent studies from MOZ, Backlinko, and SearchMetrics – the number of links, and more so number of linking root domains, is still the highest correlated signal to high organic rankings.

But it’s not as simple as just getting more links to move the needle on competitive keywords and crack page one, because…

Not All Links Are Created Equal

Not-All-Links-Are-EqualSource

Links from stronger (in terms of authority), more contextually relevant, and more trusted sites are going to make a bigger impact on moving your rankings – as well as new links from new domains.

And building links is hard, especially if you’re going about it in the most sustainable way possible; by building things worth linking to.

Earning your links doesn’t mean you’re going to get the links you want, those sweet DA40+ links all coming from unique top-level domains – but, it does mean you’ll be developing a natural and clean link profile.

In the age of Google’s scary zoo animal mafia, this is a good move.

However, what if you want to move the needle faster?

What if, you wanted to explore some of the sites that are ranking with manufactured links?

Looking at Links in the Wild

There are lots of legitimate, white-hat ways to continue to build links – and for the most comprehensive list of these strategies I would recommend checking out Point Blank’s giant resource list.

As for the less savory methods of engineering links, there’s more or less 2 methods for manufacturing:

  1. Building or buying links on private blog networks (PBN’s), or
  2. Going completely black-hat and injecting links into sites.

The issue with both of these beyond them being strictly against Google’s guidelines, is that they both still work in many capacities – which I’m going to show you.

*NOTE: All site names have been blurred out an I’ve made a strong effort to obfuscate all URL’s. This is not an attempt to out anyone – I’m not the judge or the jury, I’m simply using these sites as examples.

For starters, let’s look at examples of point #1;

Manufacturing Links on Owned or Controlled Websites

This first site is an Amazon affiliate site ranking for a nice chunk of commercial keywords:

Treadmills-Site_PBN-Example

here’s a look at some of their commercial rankings, as discussed in my post on blogging for money, look at the average CPC of these keywords:

Treadmills-Site_Commercial-Rankings
and furthermore, check out some of the Top 5 rankings they have for some pure money terms (commercial investigation and transactional keywords):

Treadmills-Site_Top5-Rankings
where this gets really interesting is when you start to look at the actual quality of the sites linking to them:

Linking Example Site #1

Link-Example-1

Linking Example Site #2

Link-Example-2

Linking Example Site #3

Link-Example-3
^Those are all pretty common PBN-style sites, and it even looks like some of previous PBN’s built out to rank this site have been deprecated (below); my guess is either because the money site got hit by Penguin and this was required housekeeping -OR- the site got de-indexed.

 

Link-Example-3_Deprecated
These sites are all contextually relevant, have some decent content (some of them) and are obviously moving the needle with rankings, to the tune of ~$100,000/month in commercial keyword value.

Now moving onto looking at links from method #2:

Manufacturing Links via Code Injection

Welcome to the dark part of the SEO world.

This is an area I’m personally completely against – it’s scummy, it’s messing with innocent people and businesses websites, and in many cases it’s illegal (as it should be).

I’m going to take you down the rabitthole of a VERY high domain authority website that makes it’s money from affiliate links. When I say high DA, I mean over 80 (yeah, really).

NOTE: just like before, I’m not going to out this site – if you’re a real SEO worth your salt and you want to find the site, I won’t need to.

With that said, what these people are doing to the site’s they’re exploiting for links is shitty, and I SERIOUSLY contemplated exposing this bullshit.

But, to repeat my earlier point; I’m no judge and jury, so it’s none of my business.

Here’s the site:

Treadmills-Site_PBN-Example2
What’s really interesting about their link profile is that they’re using a mix of PBN’s, many of which are affiliate sites themselves, and then in addition they’re using a large amount of injected links.

Here’s a sample of their PBN sites:

Link2-Example-1

and another one:

Link2-Example-2

Not too bad looking right?

They’re definitely better than the fitness ones I showed earlier, and way better than most; but still obviously engineered for the sake of links;

Link2-Example-4

Onto the Filthy Links

Link2-Example-3_Injected

^What you’re looking at there is a homepage link being maliciously injected into the site’s code, without any knowledge from the site’s owner.

Here’s another injected link but this time instead of hiding it with a <noscript> tag, their using in-line styles to “indent” the container by 9,999 pixels:

Link2-Example-3_Hidden

^In the example above I’ve zeroed out the “text-indent” being added via a style tag to the div – which is why you can clearly see the sentence and 2 links being injected into the homepage.

Here’s what it looks like without removing the “text-indent:”

Link2-Example-3_Hidden+CSS

in the words of Clark Griswold:

“Can’t see the line can you Russ?”

Sorry for my Christmas Vacation reference, I couldn’t help myself.

Moving right along, here’s another one of their links that’s being injected with the <noscript> tag:

Link2-Example-3_Injected2
and another one using in-line styles to hide the content and links:

Link2-Example-3_Hidden2
I could just keep going… their entire link profile of just over 12 million links is chocked full of this crap.

Remember

The domain authority of this site using all these shitty, spammy AF link tactics is over 80; EIGHTY!

Still think links aren’t important?

How Much of a Difference Can These Links Make?

You tell me:

PBN-Link-Velocity-to-Rankings

and just to clarify, let me mouseover that October 2015 rankings breakdown real quick…

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 3.22.08 PM

^Take a good look:

  • 233 top 3 rankings
  • Over 900 Page 1 rankings, and
  • Nearly 1,500 rankings on the first 2 pages of Google

What’s worse is this is a legitimate software company, well, at least their software seems legitimate.

But check out how crappy some of these PBN’s are:

Link3-Example-1

Pretty craptastic right? Here’s another:

Link3-Example-2

and another:

Link3-Example-3

and yet another:

Link3-Example-4

but…

they’re working, for now:

authority-graph_for PBN3

What Can You Do?

That’s a tough question.

You can put your nose to the audience and content research grindstone, hire some crazy expensive content production and/or marketing firm, and bust your ass to earn links.

Which is honestly a good idea, but a really expensive one.

Then there’s the old adage of; if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

The good news about this is it’s no longer an all or nothing game – you can engineer the success of earning link placements, and you can do so from large, established, and trusted publishers.

You just need the relationships, or at the very least, a path to the introductions.

Here’s where a little experience goes a long way, and

Looking for Real Links?

We’ve painstakingly built and refined a process for outreach that lands real, high authority links from publishers explicitly relevant to your website.

If you’d like to get more information on high authority, high trust, contextual links proven to increase rankings get in touch today (ask for Nick).

Nick Eubanks
Nick Eubanks

Nick is the Founder and CEO of From The Future. When he's not elbow deep in data, he's spending time with his wife, his dogs, or his cars.

COMMENTS (63)

Avatar
  • Avatar Glen says:

    Quality post mate, thank-you. Link, links, links!

  • Good article. Horrible clickbait title. Your title insinuates an accusation of “the conference circuit” that you neither define nor substantiate.

    I attend a great many of the top SEO conferences in the US, and I have never heard anyone at any of these conferences say “links don’t work.”

    • Thanks Mark. Actually, if I’m being clear that’s not the title (as you can see if you scroll up), it’s just a comment that is added into the Fb og tags for shares on Fb and then since LinkedIn pulls from og tags, there too.

      I actually try to avoid clickbait titles as they tend to piss people off and do more harm than good. Sorry for getting you stirred up.

    • Maybe we attend different conferences, but from my vantage point, the conference circuit is a joke. It’s filled with agency owners that are uncertain about the future of search and are desperate to sign long term business in an industry that is in flux and at risk (agencies are at risk, not SEO) The agency model is being challenged, so now SEOs that live off that model are starting to spout dribble about machine learning and RankBrain to appear to keep up with the times and win business.

      The only thing that matters is creating a great experience and promoting it – not the distractions the conference circuit and its figureheads would want you to believe. What was once filled with tangible advice and actionable strategy is now a circus of clowns, claiming they understand machine learning and AI – when most of them don’t even have a decent diploma from a respectable college. So, yeah, even if Nick didn’t say it — I will — the industry circuit is a complete distraction. Links, content and hard work above all else.

    • Mark, Whilst not a popular belief for most of the industry. I’ve seen plenty of top agencies in the UK, suggest links are “weak signals at best” and “focus on engagement metrics not links.”

      Which is quite staggering considering the size of some of their clients.

      • This has been my experience throughout most of the Northeast, though not so many SEO agencies, but more so among “digital” and “marketing” firms.

        • Avatar Kevin says:

          Hi Nick,

          I definitely agree. I have heard a number of individuals from “digital & marketing firms” speak about how links have been devalued and no longer matter as part of an SEO program.

          Maybe it’s a Philly thing…

          Great work btw.

  • Great article Nick! Looking forward to checking out the blueprint that you’re putting together.

    • Thanks Nathan, it’s going to be a good one; against my better judgement I’m going to be including specific signal mixes and real life examples.. hopefully no one torches the stuff I’m going to be sharing 😛

  • Great Post… Links work, and work well. The real problem is how difficult is get a good link.

    Having great content to share, getting links from relative sites and being smart and fun, is the way for seeing great results using link building strategies.

  • Good post, Nick.

    I would caveat the section where you incorporate the SEMRush graphs as it’s quite misleading. As it is, it’s basically you implying that the inbound links on that domain you were using made the jump from Sep to Oct. The reality is, everyone who uses SEMRush knows that the red line is when the software updated their index and included more keyword data, hence, the spike.

    Good pitch, too! 😉

    • Hey Ragil –

      Thanks for taking the time to jump in and comment, and I can see where you might see this as misleading, however in this case – this jump in rankings actually *does* correlate directly to when this site pushed out a major injected link blast, so this is not meant to use one data set to support another unrelated inference – this is a direct correlation.

      • Fair enough. I just thought, without looking at the link velocity graph to support the section where you’ve included the semrush graphs, the argument was weak as the graph was inconclusive and/or correlated with an external factor i.e. the semrush index update. Now you’ve included another graph, it’s much more plausible.

  • Interesting post Nick.

    Of course links still work. The more interesting question is whether some of the more dubious tactics described in your post are still a good idea. That fact that PBNs and injected links can still rank a site doesn’t mean that this is a smart way to run a business.

    Yes, it’s expensive and takes time to earn links through great content but using the methods you describe also doesn’t come without considerable costs and effort. While they may get your site ranking quicker, they do so with the considerable risk and the constant worry that this house of cards could crumble at any moment. That’s not a business that I would want to own or support.

    If the “Get Rich Quick” brigade actually looked at the amount of time, money and effort they have spent starting and re-starting businesses over the years, I bet they would find that building a sustainable, ethical brand requires no more effort and helps them sleep a lot better at night.

    • Danny – I actually completely agree that using thin/craptastic PBN’s and especially malicious link injections is thinking “small” and short-term.

      I hope it doesn’t come across that I’m insinuating that investing in content is not worth it, because that’s not my intention at all. My Ecommerce and lead-gen businesses rely heavily on content for creating relevance, trust, and driving the chance to acquire links.

      Appreciate your opinion though, so thank you.

      • The sad truth – there is still no better way for Google to rank websites except powerful links from reputable sources.

        Even worse, when someone can scale creation of PBN websites and publishing decent content on the cheap with backlinks to his main website he can rank in top 10 for months.

        Of course, if you know what you are doing but the bar is not high. It is very tempting to invest several thousand dollars when you know that you can make 10s of thousands.

        Great one Nick!

        Cheers
        Danny

        • Hey Danny – You’re spot on, and in many ways it leads me to echo the points of the “other Danny” (Richman) in that the “get rich quick” side of this industry can make plenty of money, but when it comes to the investment of time, energy, and then hard dollars on sites+links, etc. over and over again, in many forms a sustainable business could have been built all the while with the same investment.

          With that said, IME and IMHO there are ways to manufacture what I would call clean links… call it PR or whatever you want, but being cited as sources on major pubs is no different from links from say NY Times, Inc, HuffPo, Forbes, etc; and no one is going to scoff at those.

          Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      • No, I didn’t get that impression at all.

        I just thought it worth pointing out for anyone reading this that thought that building crappy links was still a good idea.

  • Avatar Sam says:

    Fascinating Nick,

    Back in 2011-2012 I used two popular PBN (a group of blogs where I could have an article containing a link to my site distributed), these were publically taken out by Matt Cutts, however during that time it was literally too easy for rank a site.

    After the fall, I realigned my thoughts and decided this move was probably for the better (honestly my content wasn’t the best) and then delved into the world of content marketing and Facebook ads.

    This took me two last year when I had a couple of sites still ranking for a few keywords and bringing me in a small profit via Amazon Assosciates, then one day whilst browsing my own site at work
    when I clicked on one of my internal links, I was taken to a porn site!

    What’s worse was that my site was aimed at a young demographic, I paid someone to clean up my site, which worked for a few weeks before the problem rose it’s ugly head again. This time I slowly realised my entire remaining portfolio of sites (all on the same host) were all infected.

    I ended up cutting my losses, whipping my hands clean and deleting all the sites, (largely because the infection had been sitting dormant for sometime so even my back-ups were infected and the cost of cleaning the issue wasn’t worth the profit per site).

    I later started a small WordPress site on a separate host and installed one of the popular security plugins, I was shocked to see the logs and view the almost daily attacks on this brand new site (lots of bots trying to brute force my login), I’ve since got so paranoid I switched to a static HTML site!

    I found out there are huge networks of infected sites which you can pay to have you link injected across (lots are Russian based so beyond the law of the EU/US), shocking really especially with the cat and mouse approach which still means many of these sites are still ranking.

    Anyway, great post!

    Sam

    P.S.

    Apologies to be rattling on! I’ve also come across lots of sites ranking for dodgy links in non-English speaking countries, I can only think Google is behind in tweaking their algorithms within these countries.

    • Sam – thank you so much for the note, it’s always great to hear other people’s experiences of actually putting in the time to build and rank their own sites, it separates you from (I’d say) 90% of the “SEO’s” out there that just read, write, and don’t actually do any building or testing.

  • Great Post Nick! Its funny as I was just talking to Mark Traphagen and Eric Enge on G+ about sites manipulating Google through injected links. As I was helping a friend analyze some niche competition, I found they are ranking solely on injected links that you can only find in the google cache. I won’t rat them out either, but as someone that helps people try to do things “properly”, it’s frustrating that Google is letting sites with such shady tactics lead the pack.

    • Thanks Aaron.

      Yup, likely using that pesky

      What *amazes* me is that these sites that are leaning heavy on crappy manufactured links are taking no steps to hide them…

  • Avatar Mike says:

    I totally agree with you Nick. Links rule and PBN’s will be around for some time to come. One thing that’s always bugged me, I know how to hide links on my own site and I know G frowns highly on this method. So why would they do it on another person’s site? Would that site be subject to a penalty (eventually)? And how in the world are they putting code on another site without hacking it/getting access to the backend? If they hacked the site, they could just as easily drop a link anywhere (think pixel) without hiding it and being subject to a penalty. Also agree this is b.s. and probably should be outed.

    • Thanks Mike.

      The site’s that are looking at potentially penalty are the one’s gaming the link graph to inject links back to their sites, not necessarily the one’s hosting the links – though PBN sites have been known to be de-indexed once identified by G.

      Oh they’re TOTALLY hacking the sites, likely brute-forcing logins until they crack them (standard authentication and security on the internet is a complete joke), and then dropping self-replicating scripts that sit either way off page (CSS) or in plain view but blocked from visual render with Javascript enabled.

      Pixel is not going to carry the same potential benefit as 1-2 text links surrounded by a few contextually relevant sentences.

  • Avatar Jaron says:

    Thanks for this. After a huge blog revamp to focus on a more specific topic this was a much needed post to show the importance that backlinks still have. Now I just have to get some lol

  • Avatar Masoud says:

    Great article Nick, but would you please use “more tag” in your blog’s homepage to divide content excerpt & full content? I really became overwhelmed and tired of scrolling to find other blog post titles.

    • Thanks Masoud – At some point I will, but right now I’m very much in the building phase and it’s better for my specific ranking goals for this site to display full post-text on the homepage.

  • Great post Nick.

    Those who cut corners will surely get found out in the end…….the frustration is that in the meantime they can continue to get impressive results. I had a question: We used to receive a lot of attempts to force our site’s login, and they seem to have stopped now – how do I check if they’ve injected links? Or done anything else shady? Thanks, Gus

    • Thanks Gus.

      Well, to be very honest about my opinion on that thought is; maybe – from what I’ve seen in many industries it’s not always guaranteed they are found out… and to your later point, they may net millions in the meantime by simply gaming the system.

      Best way to check for injected link spam is to proactively monitor your site/pages through Search Console. Use the “Fetch as Google,” functionality for your index page, this will then render the source code the same as Google sees it and you can review it to make sure there’s no rogue code or links in there.

  • Avatar Marcus says:

    Very nice article!

    Obviously poor PBN’s still work. Slightly less crappy from before due to the “just write about a relevant topic”.

    What is your angle on this strategy? Do you see them becoming a potential penalty for siteowners in the near future? And honestly, would you argue that the risk is higher or lower than the reward right now– given the possibility that Google very well might be scoping this strategy at the moment.

    • Thanks for commenting Marcus.

      My angle on “poor PBN’s” is it’s actually pretty stupid.. it’s so easy to spot them and the risks are high for businesses who rely heavily on Google/SEO to drive qualified traffic for their businesses. With that said, I think there are strategies to manufacture what I would still consider “clean” links using a few other strategies. I’ll be discussing these in more detail in my link building blueprint.

  • Sorry Nick, I have to disagree with you. Quality links matter. Search engine is maybe not 100% good but it will be some day. And we all want to build sites/companies which will stay alive doesn’t matter on algorithm changes.

  • […] rankings, but links can offer so much more value beyond SEO. Link count alone is misleading because not every link is created equal. Different links may serve different functions and contribute to the overall campaign in different […]

  • Avatar John says:

    I never believed anybody who said links are dead! Very informative and well written article!

  • Valuable information. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the most important thing to learn for best blogging experience. These are important tips. Thanks sharing this article.

  • Creating backlinks is still (in 2016) a very important part of SEO. They must not be that much in quantity, they just have to be good in quality.

  • Avatar antikade says:

    great infographic article ,nick! Link Building is always alive and make me happy 😉

  • Avatar Jonathan says:

    Great article nick, I do want to say one thing though, you have a typo in your article where you state the following: “where this gets really interesting is when you start to look at the actual quality of the sites “ranking” to them:”

    Correct me if i’m wrong, but don’t you mean “linking”?

  • […] have become such a widely used tactic, even white hat SEOs are admitting they actually rank and Google can do a very limited amount of things about […]

  • Thanks dude for taking the time and sharing this information 😉

    Link Building will always be the No.1 ranking factor for any type of SEO…

    I have never believed most of the bullshit coming from supposedly ‘SEO specialists’ regarding new techniques, especially ‘content marketing’ etc…

    I love the article from Cyrus Shepard (MOZ – My Single Best SEO Tip for Improved Web Traffic), especially the following quote:

    “Content is king. Bull hockey. The king doesn’t rule jack squat.” lol..

  • Thank you for the great post! 🙂 really insightful. I just want to add something though.

    What you see your competitors are doing is good! But that’s for them. You need to take that information (keywords they are best ranking for) and try and find a way how you can use these particular keywords more efficiently to try and outrank your competition. As we all know, link-building is not an easy task that show results overnight. As SEO Specialist, we need to constantly find ways to better our implementations and optimizations and try outdo ourselves.

    Patience & Professionalism is key!

  • Absolutely fantastic article. I have been revising back links recently and it very much seems what you say is correct.

    Getting good authority back links is a must for 2017 but ordinary links are great too!

  • […] written at length about how your content doesn’t matter and link building still works. And I’ve gone on and on about keyword research – but there’s more to […]

  • This is really good, I have quite often found links such as these dotted around some sites I have worked on. They have been implemented by development companies in this case.

  • Cool, thanks for writing this article. It provides some really good points as to why SEO is useful for businesses.

  • Hey Nick ,
    thanks for sharing this great article. Its really informative and useful , you described every point so nicely. Getting backlinks is always important for SEO. Keep sharing like this.Will be looking forward to reading more from you. Find similar on http://crbtech.in/SEO/

  • Avatar MikeMik says:

    Wondering if anyone read to bottom of your post, where you offer Links for Sale/Rent as you call it..

    Wondering if entire aim of article was to verify, then market your “black hat” services…?

    Only posting, cause no one else said anything in comments..

    Later, it makes me wonder about neutrality of your article…

    You posted:
    “Over the last few years I’ve been investing heavily into relationships with website owners, publishers, journalists, and even buying high authority websites of my own – to create an inventory of links.

    These are links I use to rank my own sites and to help other people struggling to crack page one – best of all, as of June 2016 there’s enough that I have started to open up some spots for rental.”

    • For one, this post was originally on a personal blog of mine so I appreciate you highlighting this so I can edit it, as it has no tangibility on the agency site.

      Second I’d like to address what you call “black hat,” because from where I’m sitting blackhat signifies malicious, and without will manipulation for your benefit — take the examples of forced link injection in this post as a scenario of true blackhat. Building links in any form is against Google’s guidelines, so I would (personally) call link building in any form gray hat, but that’s semantics. What I think is more important is for folks in the IM community to understand that black hat is NOT an IM term… yes it’s used in this context often, but it’s from the cybersecurity world. Google doesn’t say what is or isn’t “black hat” they only have their guidelines, which doesn’t make them illegal by any stretch of the imagination. True black hat is very much illegal.. just putting that out there.

  • Great articles, thanks for the monster overview. In fact guest-blogging or article-exchange is some kind of low-level PIN.

    Actually, it is time to get some serious new search engine. Without all those “personalized results” and all that unpredictable crap. Google sucks in many niches because they simply cannot recognize e.g. scientific pro site from the heely-feely blog. They are spreading like cancer, continually removing unpaid results and competition from SERP. And providing more and more ads and more spying on users. Not good… The problem of Google is that they are search engine and biggest ad seller in the same time. We obviously see the winning part.

  • This is an informative post , i have analyzed that making links suddenly with high velocity decreases rankings and put the website in sandbox..

  • Avatar Ken Morgan says:

    So nice to read interesting post. I’ve been in SEO industry as link building for 3yrs now and until now I’m having hard time to determine which strategy that will work well until my friend suggested to me using ProperPBN so with this I realized that whatever strategy you’re going to use as long as you use it wisely you can gain link juice for your site and it will rank!

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