One user recently wrote to Google's Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts asking if there is a test-version of Google that runs without analyzing backlink data...and, if so, how do the results stand up to live Google search?
This is an interesting and worthwhile question: There have been so many new digital signals and developments online since Google took the search world by storm in the late 1990's with the famous 'Page Rank' algorithm. Instead of using hand-indexed processes or content analysis like other popular search engines (including Yahoo, Infoseek and Altavista), Google used a proprietary process of analyzing backlinks and counting them as citations. The main idea is simple--more citations mean more authority, and more authoritative sources deserve higher placement in search.
However, the 1990's version of the Internet didn't host the plethora of social media platforms, news aggregators and other websites that generate their own unique digital signals (such as a 'share' or a 'like') that may also provide signals of authority. The 1990's Google also didn't have the infamous "Panda" algorithm that can reliably and quickly separate good content from bad content.
These new signals and technologies bear the question: What would search results look like without backlink data? Well, apparently the search giant is running an experimental version of Google search without links ... and it's ugly.
According to Cutts, "The quality looks much, much worse ... [Backlinks] for the most part are still a really, really big win in terms of quality search results."
Cutts later added, "For now, backlink relevance still really helps in terms of making sure that we return the best, most relevant, most topical set of search results." For more on Cutts' perspective on Google without backlink relevance and the continued importance of links, take some time to view this recent video.
Effectively expand your strategy
While links still provide big wins for winning in search results, digital marketers should continue to focus on generating other signals as well.
For example, 100 links from the wrong places will never be discussed in social media or, possibly, even clicked. In contrast, 20 links from the right places will generate hundreds, if not thousands, of shares, likes, comments, clicks and other 'soft' signals that work in sync with backlinks to verify authority to a search engine algorithm.
In terms of earning more high quality links for your website, focus on developing highly sharable content that addresses the needs of your target audience. However, don't fall for the 'if you build it, they will come' methodology of earning high quality citations. Great content goes undiscovered every day, so your organization really needs to get some boots on the ground to get the word out. Otherwise, your content will be invisible.
Links still matter, they are more difficult to earn than ever, but the opportunity has also never been bigger.