Backlinks are one of the most high-risk, high-reward aspects of SEO. On one hand, you have the reward; a high ranking in Google that’s nearly impossible to dislodge. A site, once it has reached the stage of trusted authority, becomes a permanent fixture among the top results regardless of what changes around them. On the other hand, you have the risk; if you make one false move in building your backlinks, you can find your entire ranking site-wide dropped off the first page or worse. The worst part is, you don’t always know what constitutes a bad move. Google changes the goalposts regularly, so what might work today may be a spam technique next year.
With all that in mind, is it possible to build a site and rank well without putting any emphasis on backlinks? The answer is yes, but you’re going to have to work harder for it.
A Perfect World
In an ideal world, this is how it would go. Websites, both personal and business, will post content. That content will be indexed and sorted by some omnipotent entity, capable of parsing the content and reading the quality of that content, as well as perfectly reading the subjects it relates to. This entity would then serve up the objective best results for any query, among what is indexed. This any user would be able to find the best content to answer their question, knowing with absolute trust that what they see is the best resource there is.
Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world. Google does everything it can to become that omnipotent entity, and has created the Algorithm, a complex, almost AI-level computation that takes in hundreds of factors about a piece of content and ranks that content by them. This includes backlinks, and the content quality, and keywords, formatting, site load times, domain name and much more.
Google does not have absolute control or absolute trust. It must rely on its algorithm and work to refine that algorithm. On the other side of the field are the webmasters, who do what they can to reverse-engineer the algorithm and come up with a list of those factors and ways to optimize them. The result is content that looks in every way like the best authority, even if another better resource exists. Google is constantly fighting to find a way to improve clarity of content, while webmasters constantly fight to be the best in the easiest way possible.
Thankfully for anyone looking to rank well in this imperfect world, Google is coming closer than ever to its ideal. Many techniques that used to work to artificially inflate ranking no longer work. Meanwhile, the best path to being the best is to actually be the best resource. Other factors don’t quite matter.
Focus on Content
To rank highly in this imperfect world, you need to focus on your content. Backlinks aren’t necessary, any more than any other SEO factor beyond the basics of non-terrible hosting and a responsive server. The only parts of SEO you need to consider are those parts that lead to your site being discovered; beyond that, let your content do the talking.
• Do research and write valuable content. Content typically comes in two forms; the evergreen resource and the timely commentary. For evergreen resources, you need to do everything you can to compile every possible bit of useful, actionable advice. You need to write it in a clear and concise manner. The goal here is to answer as many related questions as possible in as little space as possible, so users always refer to you as a guide. For timely content, you need to watch trends and news for current events and comment on them. Your commentary should be insightful and interesting, published as quickly as possible. When in doubt, add more value and delay publication; Google puts a preference on value over time.
• Format your content appropriately. Keep paragraphs short and use frequent subheadings. Use bulleted or numbered lists when appropriate. Use bold formatting for key points, so readers can pick out value easily.
• Link internally to other pages. You may be avoiding the manual backlink, but you can certainly link to other related internal content. If you’ve written in detail about a subject related to the subject of your current post, link to that past article. There’s no reason to rehash what you’ve already said and every reason to promote your own content.
• Include a compelling title. A title is how users decide what your post is about. It’s important to hook them with the title. Unlike with novels, web readers judge posts by their covers.
• Don’t forget images and their meta data. The web is not a print medium, and it benefits greatly from imagery and pictures. Include relevant images that enhance your post. More importantly, optimize the alt text for these images to include more value.
• Encourage social engagement. If you aren’t building backlinks, you need to build an audience somehow, and the best way to do that is through social media. Social media allows you to build an additional factor you don’t get on your site; authority. You can establish yourself as an authority in your niche, and use that authority to promote more content over time. This builds as you have more valuable content, helping all of your content rank higher than it otherwise would.
One Factor Out of Many
In the end, backlinks are just one factor out of hundreds that go into creating the ranking of a given piece of content. The thing is, they are one of the most important factors. When we talk about ranking content without backlinks, what we really mean is ranking content without putting the time and energy into creating backlink opportunities.
It’s nearly impossible to rank a piece of content without any backlinks at all. That’s because users will, naturally, on their own, link to content they like. These are natural, organic backlinks and they promote your content with no risk to you. It’s only when you start going out and looking for ways to add backlinks that you run into the possibility of Google penalties.
In the perfect world, backlinks are only organic. There would be some form of verification or validation process for a backlink, confirming that yes, you do want to link to this site because it’s a good authority on the subject. The issue in our imperfect world comes from sites that earn backlinks by paying for them, or through reciprocal link exchanges, or through another form of bypass that gets rid of that assurance.
A Word of Caution
Backlinks should not necessarily be avoided. Google likes to trust sites, and only sites with a high degree of trust will rank easily and highly. One factor in trust is backlinks from other trusted sites. If your content fails to earn any of those, regardless of your effort spend in obtaining them, you’re going to have a hard time finding the success you want.