Cutts said not using links as a signal resulted in result-ranking accuracy that "looks much much worse" than what Google users see today. It seems safe to assume, then, that Google's use of links as a ranking signal will remain part of the algorithm for the foreseeable future.
So what should search marketers do? The safest strategy is to "build the links you'd want to your site even if Google didn't exist," said Vertical Measures' Strong, who paraphrased noted link strategist Eric Ward.
In other words, if Google stops using links as a ranking signal, sites with lots of links from other high-quality, high-traffic sites will still get traffic directed to their content because of those links.
Should You Pursue Links Today?
"I don't actively seek links at all anymore," said Samuel Scott, director of digital marketing and SEO for The Cline Group. "If you do things the right way, the links will come. And because you aren't doing anything to get links, you won't have to worry about being penalized for them later."
"Links should be the result of what you do, not the goal," said Eric Enge, CEO of digital marketing agency Stone Temple Consulting.
SEO experts agree that earning links is, and always has been, the safest way to acquire them. When another site links to yours voluntarily, without the promise of a link exchange, payment or other dubious payoff, you've "earned" that link.
For example, if an online news site publishes an article with a mention of your company and a link to your site, that's an earned link — the best kind you can get. Google is likely to see that link as a vote for your site's authority and trustworthiness.
The more earned links you acquire from websites that Google trusts, the more trustworthy the site appears to Google. Trust and authority are among the search engine's most important signals used to rank Web content.
How to Earn Links
Earning links isn't always easy. Here are some strategies from SMX conference speakers.
Give websites a compelling reason to link to you.Content marketing continues to be an important focus these days, because compelling and useful content often earns valuable links, said Mark Munroe, director of SEO for real estate site Trulia. You "ask" for links by creating a site, content and features that will "organically generate links," he added.
It's OK to ask for links — if you do it the right way. It can still be worthwhile to request a link to your site, according to Strong. When you make your request, though, don't come right out and ask for a link. Instead, ask if the site might provide a mention of your site and provide the URL you want as the link.
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