Incoming links, or backlinks, still matter for SEO. But they are becoming less important for Google. We know the latter to be true since Googlers have reiterated this for years.
In November, Duy Nguyen from Google’s search quality team expressed the same, while explaining why link building campaigns are a waste of time and money and indicating where to allocate your SEO spend instead:
“…you probably should not waste your money in spamming links. That money is much needed in creating a great website with great user experience and helpful content.”
However, I don’t think spending 100% of your SEO budget on UX and content alone is enough to drive organic search results. Just going after links won’t cut it in most markets either.
What you need is a balanced SEO budget. Achieving that balance is not always easy.
To determine the best possible SEO budget, you must put a premium on tasks that move the needle. Read on to learn how.
The ‘good old days’ of backlinks are (not yet) over
When I started practicing SEO in 2004, many empty sites ranked on Google. I soon discovered there were shady practitioners behind those projects.
“SEO spammers” have been using all kinds of tricks to build links to their otherwise useless sites. (In my opinion, you either do SEO or do spam. You can’t negatively optimize by definition. You either break or fix things.)
The only use of such “over-optimized” sites, as Google later diplomatically called them, was to make money for their owners – often SEOs themselves who would create them for affiliate revenue and passive income.
At the end of 2022, Google announced another link spam update dealing with:
- (Exact) match anchor text links.
- Irrelevant links.
- Foreign language links.
- Other unnatural links.
Google states that spammy links “are neutralized and any credit passed by these unnatural links are lost.”
Thank God the days of common link spam are over!
To be clear, backlinks are still a ranking factor. But because of Google’s “robust ranking signals,” they can detect and remove sites with unnatural link profiles from the SERPs and “rank the most relevant and useful results for all queries” instead.
Google also updated the E-A-T concept in December to ensure that authors with proper first-hand “experience” end up higher in SERPs, hence the new acronym E-E-A-T.
Keep a significant chunk of the budget for linkable assets and outreach that will lead to links down the road.
Ideally, your content will be so exceptional that it will attract links naturally. You might be better off with a bigger content marketing spend than allocating dollars on link building.
Building links to empty sites or those with shallow content will be a waste of money. On the contrary, quality content may earn links automatically.
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UX as a Google ranking signal
User experience (UX) as a ranking factor is nothing new. When Google introduced UX ranking signals to its ranking algorithm years ago, it was a paradigm shift.
Before that, the ugliest websites with dismal interfaces ranked high with simple HTML pages. Nowadays, human quality raters and AI algorithms can spot which sites perform well with users and which are simply built to rank.
You have no choice. Actual visitors can no longer be ignored. Outdated SEO tactics won’t suffice. Everything will not magically fall into place just because you have website traffic.
Building findable and usable websites starts with writing descriptive and compelling titles and meta descriptions. There are numerous aspects of UX you have to take into account to meet searchers’ – and Google’s – expectations:
- Findability: Content users can’t find on-site is less likely to get crawled and indexed. Link important pages on top, not invisibly in the footer.
- Load times: It started a minor ranking signal and still hasn’t been taken into account by many sites despite being a major part of Google’s Core Web Vitals. I’ve seen website speed make or break sites. Consider reducing third-party scripts and image file sizes. (You can use WebP for large images.)
- Look and feel: A page that is overloaded with ads above the fold and has usability issues due to a cluttered interface will perform poorly on Google. Let your content breathe. Improve your text formatting and add as few website elements as possible.
- Readability: Do you use tiny, unreadable fonts and almost no white space throughout your content section? You’re not alone. Many sites still suck at readability. Google knows this and will not display them on top of search results anymore. Make your fonts bigger. Add white space. Stress important parts.
- Value proposition: What is your site about and what exactly does it offer its visitors? It’s still somewhat of a secret for many sites. The “x made simple” slogan is better than nothing, but ideally, your unique selling proposition is stated clearly and succinctly. Otherwise, Google may not know what your site is about, especially if it’s just about “viral content.”
These are just the UX best practices. Once you have those covered and the next budget is available, you can invest more.
One area that most sites still neglect is meeting the needs of people with disabilities, who make up about one in four people in the U.S.
Accessibility affects non-disabled individuals as well. Here are some less obvious examples:
- People with poor eyesight but are below the “vision impairment” status.
- Otherwise healthy individuals with recurring headaches or migraines who can’t focus or stare into glaring screens for a long period of time.
- Parents who are multitasking (e.g., a parent only having one arm available due to holding their baby.)
Complying with WCAG and ARIA standards for website accessibility also simplifies the crawling and indexing process.
Why? Google is still the proverbial “blind five-year-old” to a large extent. The bots read the code and do not see the websites as humans do.
Content’s ever-growing importance
This should be obvious for people who have followed the evolution of the web and Google search in particular. More than ever, Google prefers content that is:
- High quality.
With content’s significance, can’t we just slash the SEO department and replace the geeks with writers and photographers?
Well, not so fast.
To an extent, editorial links (those given by actual writers, editors and publishers) influence the ranking of a webpage on Google search results.
Content still has to attract links or it will be largely invisible. There is too much mediocre and low-quality content out there. Most competitive queries have dozens or hundreds of sites fighting for attention by offering similar content. The only way to find out which one of those articles is truly helpful is by looking at who recommends them throughout the web.
Sure, when investing in SEO, content is a must. But avoid spending money on cookie-cutter, regurgitated content merely written for Google bots to digest. That era is nearly over.
With the helpful content system in place, Google not only takes content quality into account. They’re looking to reward helpful content for human beings in search of answers, solutions and inspiration.
In the past, I often heard the line “let’s add some SEO content in the footer for Google.”
This so-called “SEO content” strategy should not be a part of your SEO budget for 2023. That’s like throwing dollar bills in the trash.
Alternatively, focus on linkable assets or, even better, link magnets. What’s the difference?
The first type is linkable but still rather requires PR or outreach, the second one is truly stellar content that attracts links like a magnet.
How to allocate your SEO funds in 2023 and beyond
With SEO being a multidisciplinary approach, you can’t just build links and forget the rest. You must set priorities for your website and online presence as a whole. (Think social media!)
The SEO budget is not just meant to be spent on technical SEO, like crawling and indexing. You have to make SEO a holistic endeavor or fail at it.
SEO encompasses more than search engines, it is also linked to social and content.
Avoid thinking in ‘strictly SEO’ terms
Whenever I suggest improving UX or writing content for SEO, a common client objection I hear is…
“Yeah, but that’s not SEO. I just want you for SEO services.”
Well, this “strictly SEO” approach is futile in 2023.
Embrace a holistic website optimization philosophy. SEO is not about “feeding the bots” but meeting searchers’ needs. Google gets closer to being a mirror of human expectations every year and I expect 2023 to be a giant leap in that direction. It has been in the making for many years and now the time is ripe.
In the best case, you don’t pay for an SEO audit upfront before doing hands-on work but get a holistic website or web presence audit (including social media accounts).
Assign SEO importance to actual tasks
Look at the list below. Do you think the following are needed for SEO?
- Information architecture
- User experience design
- Web development
- Content creation and distribution
- Public relations and outreach
If your answer is “no,” you still adhere to a “strictly SEO” mindset.
The tasks above have their place, even in traditional SEO strategies.
Internal architecture relates to internal linking which can influence a site’s crawling and indexing.
Well-done user experience design ensures findability, readability, fast load times, and a welcoming look and feel that is easy on the eyes.
Divide the budget by departments
Do you have a company with several departments (i.e., technology, content, marketing, sales, etc.)? Or are you outsourcing various tasks to freelancers?
Even if you’re doing everything on your own (which is not advisable), you should allocate your “time” resources appropriately.
As we have seen above, SEO tasks differ in nature. Some are technical, others are content-related or involve PR and outreach to journalists and influencers. Ultimately, SEO must drive results – specifically, revenue.
So given this example, could you simply divide the budget by quarters? It’s not that simple.
A well-established website with all the technical SEO basics does not require 25% of the SEO budget anymore. Once a foundation is set, you can focus on the actual building.
Is your site almost empty with no content besides self-promotional copy and product or service descriptions? Then invest heavily in the content department.
You might even have to set up one in the first place. Most companies will have employees responsible for technology, marketing and sales, but not all of them assign someone to content yet.
Let SEO people help ‘other’ teams
Most companies are not big enough to be able to afford a dedicated SEO team. If you’re lucky, you will have an SEO specialist in the marketing department. But many rely on external agencies or independent consultants instead of paying for an in-house SEO. I myself have been working as a “hands-on” freelance SEO and consultant for many years.
What I have learned is that SEO experts often get treated like aliens from outer space when confronted with an already-established business hierarchy.
Website audit advice often ends up being implemented half-heartedly, if not at all. Many things get lost or misunderstood in the process of dealing with many different stakeholders.
At times, freelance SEOs are treated at the lowest level in the hierarchy and SEO best practices as a mere afterthought. In some cases, they are not even in contact with those in charge of implementing the changes.
In reality, SEO experts are like angels spreading wealth throughout the different teams and should be treated with regard.
Assign a specific SEO budget, even if you don’t have an SEO on the team. Then let the SEO practitioner “spend it” on the other teams.
If your technical SEO foundation is sound, then assign the funds to the content and PR/outreach tasks.
Or, if your website content is excellent and has earned many incoming links but nobody can find you – your technical SEO might be the culprit.
Is your site dead slow, your content not in the index or barely readable? Then the tech team gets the bigger funds again. Just don’t view the SEO as someone who competes for funds, attention and status against other teams and their members.
SEO is not the lowest or the highest in the hierarchy. SEO experts help every other team in one way or the other.
Balance SEO spend based on results
Where to place your bet on SEO often depends on the current technology, content and relationships which all change over time.
Once you have established a solid content marketing plan, goals and KPIs, you can review the success of particular SEO efforts.
- Did the content work out for the ideal audiences? Did it attract links?
- Did the influencers spread the word about and link to you after the outreach?
- Did the infrastructure changes result in higher website speed and faster indexing?
Key performance indicators like that can always be measured and inform you what works and doesn’t.
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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