From the very beginning of search engines, links were an important, and often the only, ranking factor. Today, for many SEO professionals, links are all that matter. For others, they are frowned upon and completely disregarded for being unethical and dated. As always, the truth is somewhere in between. Before exploring the relevancy of links in 2019, let’s dig into their 20 years of history.


History of ranking backlinks

Everything began on the 29th of January, 1998. Newly founded Google published the ‘PageRank Citation Ranking‘ with a very promising subtitle: ‘Bringing Order to the Web‘. Something quite ambitious, but if we fast forward 20 years, quite to the point.

The abstract is quite clear:


PageRank, a method for rating Web pages objectively and mechanically, effectively measuring the human interest and attention devoted to them’.


We all quickly realised that the little votes of trust passed from one website to another, via links, through human interaction and interest was noteworthy. For further specificity, the paper includes a mathematical definition:

Simple PR Mathematical Model

‘a page has high rank if the sum of the ranks of its backlinks is high. This covers both the case when a page has many backlinks and when a page has a few highly ranked backlinks’.


Even with the redundancy of Page Rank, this statement still rings true today. Twenty years later, the core ranking system remains the same. However, the quality assessment element has changed exponentially.


The History of Link building

It did not take long for people to realise the importance of links and the fact they could easily rank a website overnight. SEO got creative:


1999- 2003 The early years

Webmasters started exchanging links with their close networks. When that was not enough, they started asking for links from other webmasters via emails – and so, outreach was born. It got more and more difficult for people to manually ask for links, which is when the process started to become more automated as a result. SEO directories were the first automatic link building method. At the same time, blogging became extremely popular and people started using the comments section to post links. Webmasters started hiding links from plain sight by matching the fonts with the background colour of their websites.

And then it happened:

Two big Google updates targeting low-quality link tactics. The first one was to stop people that have website networks exchanging links and the second one was focusing on blog commenting and ‘hidden’ links. These updates showed that Google is deadly serious about its ranking system.


2004- 2009 Things are getting serious

Everyone now understood that links need to be justified and relevant. People begin to offer guest blog posts to get links and they offer reciprocal links and start paying for them as webmasters start to understand the power of links. Another technique introduced was link-baiting, where fake news articles were spread, just for the sake of acquiring links.

Once more, Google catches up with two more updates: The first one introduces ‘no follow’, which gives the option for webmasters to keep the navigational experience of an article but without having to vouch for every website they link to – making relevancy even more important. The second one targets link networks, paid links, and link farms. Some of the above are now checked manually, adding an extra layer against ‘link spam’.


2009- 2012 Time to set some ground rules

Building links for the sake of links is now out of the question. Only well-thought-out, in-text links are the way to go and that is exactly what SEOers do. There are some shady, more technical techniques used, such as ‘broken link building‘ and the more extensive use of Press Releases. Private networks are now introduced and used, PBNs are very similar to the link networks used at the dawn of link building but way more disguised.

Google strikes back harder than ever, with the Penguin update in 2012 impacting over 3% of English queries, Penguin is about not over optimising (especially with links) and is a huge reward for high-quality websites. Almost 20 more updates are rolled out the same year, with more than five being penguin variants focusing on quality.


2012- 2019 Content Marketing Era

During this period, social media platforms and networking are on the rise. Content is now shared via multiple channels and not just search. Marketers need to become SEOers and vice versa. People try to get links through interesting content that is well thought out, offers value and is shareable. The use of infographics, original research and images for link building purposes spikes. More in-depth technical content methods start to gain popularity, like the SkyScraper technique and brand link attribution.

All of the previous Google updates are still in effect and Penguin is still very much in place. Google also takes softer moves on low-quality link building, from sending messages directly to search console, to penalising only partial websites.


2019 – Present day, links in 2019

SEO is heavily based on observation. There are some rules for building links in 2019, but understanding the past is vital for foreseeing the future. There are some pillars of link building that have never been (and my prediction is they never will be) penalised. Those are quality and relevancy. Every time Google rolls out a new update that affects links, it is for one of these two factors. Link exchanges, PBNs, blog commenting etc, are very difficult methods to keep relevancy and quality high. What is left, is us, as SEOers working on producing high-quality content, based on original research and placing it on websites that would genuinely be interested in talking about it. We need to focus on quality over quantity, which industry insiders are constantly failing to do. After many years of bad practices across the industry, we have been left with a low-quality link building ‘internetic SEO landfill‘.


Here at 90 Digital, we pride ourselves on our link building methods. We are very happy that we have never had to adjust our link building strategies because of a Google update as we always focus on quality and relevancy. If you want to build links in 2019, find out more about our backlink management services.

Lefteris Eleftheriou

Lefteris Eleftheriou

With a background in technology, sales and the arts, Lefteris manages numerous Digital PR projects for our clients. He particularly enjoys working on campaigns in the real estate industry and experimenting with new ways of working.

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