Why user behaviour could have replaced links as a top ranking factor

Google has recently revised its SEO guide for beginners, which has caused a stir in the SEO industry, particularly because of the significantly reduced mention of link building. This raises the question: Is Google trying to mislead newcomers? I offer an alternative view:

Google revolutionised search by using links as indicators of quality. Websites that were linked to from high-quality pages were given a better ranking. This approach, known as PageRank, was once groundbreaking and laid the foundation for Google’s success.

However, the Internet has changed drastically since Google was founded in 1998. The number of Internet users has increased, but the number of people actively creating content has decreased. Private websites, blogs, fan pages and forums have become less important to the benefit of large social networks that are outside the reach of Google’s web crawlers. In addition, newly created websites today often have a commercial purpose, which further reduces the quality of link recommendations.

Today, Google is in a different position than it was in 1998. With over 90% market share in the West and control over important end-user infrastructure such as Android and the Chrome browser, Google possesses new ways of evaluating the quality of websites: user behaviour. The openness and transparency with which users interact with Google offer valuable insights, as was also made clear in hearings by US competition authorities.

If Google mentions (external) link building significantly less in recent years than before, this may also have to do with the fact that it is no longer as relevant for Google rankings as it was 10 years ago. The fact that links remain a ranking signal is probably undisputed – however, from my perspective, their relevance is currently overestimated (especially in the English-speaking world).

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