Why to plan for them in 2024


Links have been an integral part of SEO since Google’s early days. However, recent comments from Google’s Gary Illyes have led some to believe that links are losing relevance.

While links may not be the single most important ranking factor, they are far from dead and should still be part of a comprehensive SEO strategy.

This article covers seven signs that links still matter in SEO and makes the case that quality backlinks remain important. 

Where did we get the idea that links are dead? Illyes, one of the most notable names in the industry, recently called out the prevalent overemphasis on link building. 

“I think they are important, but I think people overestimate the importance of links. I don’t agree it’s in the top three [of ranking signals]. It hasn’t been for some time.” 

Illyes would go on to say that it’s possible to rank well without links. However, the case study he cites to prove this theory appears to be circumstantial at best. Illyes references a website ranking well on Google without any links (internal or external). 

In this case, the content on the website was apparently so well done that it consistently held the number one ranking in Google. While impressive, this seems to be a rare occurrence and doesn’t provide substantial enough evidence that links are losing their impact.

There have been a lot of headlines across the web questioning the validity of links and hypothesizing that links are dead or dying. But each of these opinions comes with a wealth of opposition, making this a widely debated topic in the industry.

However, many SEOs still believe in the power of a quality link. It seems nearly impossible for a ranking signal that literally “stitches” the web together to disappear – especially when you factor in that links mattered before Google incorporated as a company.

While the overall narrative says links are losing value, it’s important to consider what’s in front of us. Google experiments, Google documentation, Semrush studies, and more all show signs they aren’t going anywhere.

Google’s public Search Generative Eperience (SGE) documentation (which is something I recommend you read) states: 

“SGE places even more emphasis on producing informative responses that are corroborated by reliable sources.”

Why would SGE need to corroborate its AI-generated answers with other sources? In their documentation, Google acknowledges many known issues with their AI-powered search results:

  • Hallucination: Like all LLM-based experiences, Google’s SGE may misrepresent facts and inaccurately identify insights.
  • Misinterpretation during corroboration: SGE may misinterpret language that changes the meaning of the output. 
  • Bias: The datasets that SGE is trained on can exhibit narrow representations of people or negative associations, leading to SGE producing biased results. 
  • Opinionated content implying persona: SGE’s output is supposed to reflect a neutral, objective tone, but there are instances in which the output reflects opinions on the web, giving the impression of the model displaying a persona. 
  • Duplication or contradiction with existing Search features: Outputs of SGE might be in contradiction with other SERP information, such as a featured snippet result.

With this, they’d want to leverage trusted, reliable sources to help combat these issues. This helps ensure they’re promoting helpful answers from authoritative sites that get that nod of approval from other reputable sources. 

Right now, SGE’s still an opt-in experiment. But as this technology continues to roll out and eventually becomes the default SERP experience, you’ll be glad you took the time to understand how it works and the importance links play.

2. Google’s ‘Mentioned in’ SERP feature

 Google’s 'Mentioned in' SERP feature Google’s 'Mentioned in' SERP feature

Google’s “Mentioned in” feature for the query “Timex.”

The Manual piece linking to TimexThe Manual piece linking to Timex
Snapshot of a piece on The Manual, which mentions and links to Timex.com.

The first of many signs that links aren’t dead is Google’s recent testing of a new “Mentioned in” SERP feature.

This feature, which I’ve seen mainly for branded searches, gives examples of publications where a brand has been mentioned and/or linked from. In August, Barry Schwartz also noted Google testing this for non-brand queries.

Highlighting mentions across the web is a quick way for users to assess a source’s credibility. In some cases, where the publications are well-known and authoritative, they also connect back to Google’s E-E-A-T focus, providing instant evidence of expertise within a specific vertical or subject area. 

In many of the “Mentioned in” examples I’ve seen, the publications highlighted are linking to the site. While I’ve yet to see this new feature become the default experience, it indicates that Google sees value in brand mentions (often accompanying a backlink) from a search experience perspective.

The most direct sign I can give you that links are not dead comes from internal trends I see at my agency.

We spend a lot of time planning SEO strategies for brands in competitive verticals. With larger-than-ever expectations on ROI, we don’t have time to waste on tactics that don’t pay off.

Our clients continue to invest significantly in digital PR and backlinking campaigns as part of their earned media strategy, with 87% of our earned media clients aligning with us that links are not dead.

Our SEO team is tasked each month with assessing and demonstrating the impact of backlinks. While the overall impact varies by client and vertical, we’ve seen only positive results from backlinking campaigns centered around high-quality, link-worthy content.

Additionally, sometimes, our clients have trouble implementing content and other aspects of our strategy due to a lack of engineering resources, code freezes, or other internal issues. 

It’s inconvenient when this happens, but we have seen that if our clients have trouble implementing on-site changes, we can still achieve ranking results for them with off-site backlinking strategies. 

While we always recommend pairing link acquisition with work from the other major pillars of SEO to maximize results, backlinks have proven to be a good way to build momentum while overcoming implementation hurdles.

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Semrush 2024 ranking studySemrush 2024 ranking study
Semrush 2024 study finds 40% of the top 20 ranking factors are backlink-related

Let’s take a moment to hear from a giant in our industry. Semrush publishes its ranking signal report every year. Their 2024 report summarizes: 

“Earning backlinks remains important in an SEO program. Earning backlinks from unique domains is still important, both at page and domain level. You may not always need a big number of links, but they can  help you build your topical authority over time and drive traffic to your pages.”

The 2024 Ranking Signal Report shows eight of the top 20 ranking signals related to backlinks.

Correlation isn’t causation, but this report is worth keeping in mind as you figure out where you fall in the link debate.

Another breadcrumb leading us to believe links aren’t dead is an alternative analysis of Illyes’s commentary over the past year.

Many in the industry see “I think they are important, but I think people overestimate the importance of links. I don’t agree it’s in the top three” and latch firmly onto the parts where Illyes mentions they’re not a top three factor, and that people overestimate their importance. 

But that gives little value to two critical things:

  • Illyes states, “I think they are important.” Not only at Pubcon Pro in September but also earlier last year at February’s Pubcon, where he says, “Links are important, but not as important as people think.” I understand the “not as important as people think” being a critical part of what he’s communicating. But I think it’s foolish to discount the fact that he’s repeatedly telling us they’re important.
  • In the context of their importance, Illyes gives us a hint at their overall weighting by saying they’re not a top three factor. It’s not illogical to deduce that “not in the top 3” indicates they’re still quite high. If they were not in the top 10, top 20, or even top 100 factors, I think we’d be hearing that from Ilyes instead of “not in the top three.” 

Our industry has learned a lot from Google’s documentation and from analyzing changes they make to their documentation over time.

Take, for example, Google’s recent removal of “written by people” in their support documentation, which showcases that content written by AI, not just “by people,” is acceptable.

Google’s wording, documentation, and content teach us a lot. Google directly calls out the importance of links in their “How Google Search works” documentation:

“One of several factors we use to help determine this is understanding if other prominent websites link or refer to the content. This has often proven to be a good sign that the information is well trusted.”  

We can anticipate that if Google makes notable strides away from leveraging backlinks to crawl and understand the web, they’ll start making tweaks to their documentation accordingly.

If links aren’t important in the overall search landscape, why does Google work so hard to combat fake or spammy backlinks?

We’re all familiar with Google algorithm updates. These days, they seem never-ending.

Google noted 4,500 “improvements” in 2020, and in years past, Google’s own Danny Sullivan has confirmed 3,200 changes to its search system.

Many of these changes to Google’s algorithm are to defend against spammy links and protect the value of natural, high-quality links across the web.

If links are dying, why put time, energy, and resources behind protecting the legitimacy of links?

Backlinking as a strategy

Now that we’ve covered that links are alive and well, here are a few ways you can make content link-friendly for your SEO strategy:

  • Create original, helpful, and authoritative content people want to link to. Assess trends and conduct keyword research to figure out what content your audience needs and be thoughtful about providing content experiences that align to your audience and beat what’s already out there.
  • Leverage unique and proprietary data. Individual data you own is the best way to cut through the noise and content saturation. Conduct surveys, analyze your owned data, or present public data in a new way that provides more insight, better digestibility, or a different perspective. 
  • Lean into what’s currently newsworthy or trendy. Following current trends in the news or pop culture will help your content gain attention on a local, national, or regional level.

Dig deeper: Modern link building starter guide

Let the resurrection begin

Links and backlinking strategies are anything but dead. We’re seeing it first-hand at my agency, and giants within the industry like Semrush agree. 

Sure, the overarching narrative seems to be that we shouldn’t worry about links much anymore, but many of our award-winning campaigns have included backlinking.

Until we see more concrete data showing they’re dying, we’ll keep moving onward and upward in our journey to get our clients linked and mentioned from relevant and reputable sources across the web. 

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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