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SEO in 2015 and Beyond: Backlinks Themselves a Thing of The Past?

Prepare to be perplexed. Put your thinking caps on, because you’re going to need it! This is something that none of the “SEO Gurus” are talking about, and this is information you won’t find inside some expensive $3,000 course. So save your money and prepare to learn, and be ready for the future of SEO.

What I’m about to discuss is something Google has been working towards for years now. We already know that Google is extremely sophisticated, but many people are underestimating the level of complexity and sophistication that Google possesses.

Some people are still under the impression that you need to submit your sites to search engines, even though that hasn’t been relevant for almost 15 years.

So lets dive in…

Google’s Problem with Backlinks

Before really getting into the “future of SEO” we need to understand the problem Google has. SEOs realize that as long as an algorithm is controlling the SERPs which will always be the case, there is a way to manipulate the rankings.

This isn’t a blackhat vs. white hat type of thing.

SEOs have a problem… No matter what “hat” you use when performing SEO, YOU are not a friend of Google. White hat, black hat, grey hat, it doesn’t matter. If you’re doing something to try to manipulate the search engines, then you’re technically breaking the rules. On page optimization with title tags and h1’s, yeah, it’s breaking the rules if you’re doing it for search instead of humans.

When it comes to building backlinks… how many of you really wake up in the morning thinking, man… I want to build some backlinks today because there’s nothing funner than that? Probably no one. However, we all know backlinks are important.

Google has always used backlinks to judge popularity of a site’s content and even though PR has not updated publicly since 2013, it is still used internally.

We’ve seen the rise and fall of forum profile links. Web 2.0 properties used just for linking purposes. PBN’s, blog comments, contextual backlinks, wiki links, guest posting, etc. We know building links has been something that can help us rank since the beginning of Google.

If we know that building backlinks can help us manipulate rankings, then it’s reasonable to believe Google has been working on something to reduce the effectiveness (and they already have many times).

A brief history of problems

Back in January of 2005… yes that’s 2005, over 10 years ago, Google collectively introduce the nofollow tag with Microsoft, Yahoo and others to reduce or eliminate the flow of PageRank for links that contained the nofollow tag.

Back in 2010 there were companies using bad reviews as part of their SEO strategy, Google found out they were ranking solely due to the links included in the bad reviews. Google later adjusted their algorithm to not give as much or any weight to links included in a bad review.

In 2011, JCPenny, overstock and others were manually penalized due to “shady backlink building” activities and intentional manipulation.

Later in 2011, Panda was unleashed. Publicly, this was about content farms, EZinearticles is a good example of that but I believe this update was overlooked by the industry. Judging content quality is one thing, but I believe it also reduced the PR flow throughout a website, preventing link and PR cultivation and manipulation. I believe that the Panda update which is its own filter, was just one side of things, whereas there was also a core algorithm update that adjusted the PR flow. In 2011, Google also mentioned there was 516 updates to the algorithm.

2012, Penguin was released. This impacted over optimization of backlink anchor text, backlink quality, velocity, and other issues related to backlinking. A lot of people believed they were being penalized, but the majority of people who saw ranking decreases WEREN’T penalized, they simply lost links that were being credited previously.

Knowledge graph was released, followed by hummingbird shortly after. Hummingbird is interesting because it was an overhaul of the algorithm, still using PR but also started the shift to more on page factors, LSI, co-occurrence and co-citations which you’ll learn about later in this post.

And of course, more recently, the 2015 “Phantom” update that changes how Google assesses quality content, which also has reduced the power of backlinks. In fact, I noticed almost double the organic traffic due to this update.

What Can We Gather From These Updates?

There are so many updates that Google makes, it’s impossible to know everything going on internally, but I believe we can all agree that one of Google’s biggest problems may be backlinks. We’ve seen countless times Google penalizing certain sites, reducing the impact of backlinks, removing PR from being publicly updated to stop us from trying to buy links to cultivate and manipulate PageRank.

The local algorithm, even though local backlink building can help, it is very low on the totem pole for rankings, there are many more factors, usually on page issues followed by citations, that play a much larger role in the SERPs.

We can only expect the reduction in the power of backlinks over time.

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The Future Of SEO: Without Backlinks?

A lot of people will say that backlinks will never be devalued entirely, and that may be true, but their reasoning is that’s how Google scraped the web, is through backlinks. Google does follow links, that’s how it has built up a massive index but it’s more complex than that.

Google is a registrar, they have access to know when a domain has been purchased, they technically don’t need to crawl other sites to discover another site. The important thing that google needs in order to effectively index, isn’t really backlinks, but internal links throughout a website.

I can’t say that Google will devalue backlinks entirely, but we’ve already seen Google change how they “rank” backlinks, and it has nothing to do with PR, domain or page authority, it has to do sort of with context. Think about LSI, but instead of it analyzing the on page content, think about separate LSI for backlinks. This kind of coincides with the increase in popularity of “contextual backlinks”.

For those that don’t know, LSI is Latent Semantic Indexing, basically a way for Google to evaluate the content on a page, and allows you to rank for long tailed keywords with proper on page optimization and the use of synonyms and supporting content.

This is also used beyond what most people discuss when it comes to LSI.

The Future… and Present: Co-Occurrence and Co-Citations

Over one thousand words in and we’re just getting to the real point of this blog post. It was necessary to lay the ground work though because this is a complex topic that people have trouble wrapping their heads around. It isn’t just about the how, or when, but the why, which is something I hope I covered well enough for you.

How many of you have heard of Yandex? It’s the Russian search engine that doesn’t rank sites based on links but based on what is called co-occurrence and co-citations. Something Google has increasingly been working towards.

What is co-occurrence?

It’s similar to LSI but for the “new backlinks”. It’s not about anchor text, and a backlink isn’t even needed but often follows co-occurrence.

To put it simply, co-occurrence is the common occurrence of keywords in a certain proximity of each other, describing a certain thing, source, link, website, etc. It’s also factoring in the frequency of those keywords used and how common the occurrence is on multiple websites for the supporting content, or content descriptors.

It happens within the same topic, using similar keywords without really using the same keywords. It’s based on observation and relevance, not based on whether there is a backlink or what the anchor text of that backlink is.

After Hummingbird happened, we stopped targeting keywords, and focused more on the keyword topics, keyword ideas, concepts, etc. Due to increased relevance necessary in most cases, that is how we needed to perform keyword research and optimization entirely. This was the beginning of a Google more focused on co-occurrence.

So What is a Co-Citation?

A co-citation happens when a website is mentioned, referred to, or identified through co-occurrence on multiple sources. Usually co-occurrence and co-citations can go hand in hand, but that’s not always the case. Co-citations can happen when you have a lot of brand recognition, which allows for greater increase in co-occurrence for multiple phrases and keyword topics.

It makes sense, that Google has implemented signals that impact ranking based on branding.

Most of you are already familiar with citations for local SEO, and while this is different, it does have a lot of similarities.

When you’re building citations for local search, you’re looking for NAP consistency, name, address, phone number and often times you’ll be able to include a website. However, with local SEO, you don’t need to include the website in order to have a citation, just the consistent information associated with the business name and location.

The same applies with co-citations for organic search. Maybe it isn’t based on the business name, address or phone number but it could be related to different terms or keyword topics and phrases.

Correlation of PBN’s, Rankings, and Co-Occurrence

This brought up an interesting case study a while back. I’ve been able to talk to someone who is very popular in more of the “black hat” SEO circles and makes a lot of money setting up PBNs and courses.

He has an agency, and I’m not going to mention him by name but we were discussing how he sets up PBNs. This individual is ranking in major cities for major terms with the same website, and I was able to “look under the hood” and see what the engine was behind his rankings.

He didn’t use PBN’s for his rankings. He initially believed it was his backlinking strategy that got him ranking, but after removing backlinks to one of the pages he was ranking for with an extremely competitive term, he continued ranking.

The strategy involved web 2.0 properties, and using them as part of a tiered backlinking strategy, close to a PBN but using free sites like about.me, hubpages, and other properties. After removing links to a specific page and not seeing any movement in the SERPs for over 2 months, it has become clear that he wasn’t ranking due to a backlinking strategy but because of co-citations and co-occurrence.

Because his name was associated with his business name, along with certain phrases, location and other supporting keywords in so many web 2.0 properties and other places on the internet, it was the co-occurrence that allowed him to completely dominate search.

This is something I’ve even used for non local specific businesses, but still using citation sources for business name, owner name and summary information to add a non linking backlink in the form of co-occurrence.

In essence, you can rank websites not just with on page optimization like I’ve discussed for local SEO purposes, but you can rank websites organically, without backlinking at all!

If you’re using PBN’s to rank, it is a good possibility that you’re ranking not because of the links you have but because of the co-occurrence that happens in context of the backlink, different than contextual backlinks.

How Does This Happen?

The concept of co-occurrence is complicated, but to be able to really be effective you have to do a couple things.

1.) You need to establish association between the business name /website name and the owner’s name. There has to be strong co-occurrence between the two before you move on.

2.) If you’re targeting a location based keyword, you have to associate both the business name / website name and the owner to the location you’re targeting. You can do this with multiple locations, not just one.

3.) You need to implement co-occurrence of co-occurrence. LOL… yes, I said co-occurrence of co-occurrence meaning you need to have co-occurrence of the phrases, associations and LSI of the co-occurrence and co-citation sources.

4.) You need to create a strong co-occurrence between industry related phrases, what you do, services or products you offer, etc.

For example, there’s 12 sites.

Site 1: Includes co-occurrence of business name and business owner, along with a co-citation of site 3.
Site 2: Includes co-occurrence of business name and location with a co-citation of site 3 and site 4.
Site 3: Includes co-occurrence of business owner, location of the business owner, and co-citation to site 4.Site 4: Included co-occurrence of business name, location of business, and industry related phrases.
Site 5: Included co-occurrence of business name, owner, location, industry related phrases and co-citation to site 7.
Site 6: Includes co-occurrence of business owner, business location and co-citation to site 7.
Site 7: Includes co-occurrence of business name and industry related phrases with co-citation to site 4 and site 10.

And so on.

Going Forward With Co-Occurrence and Co-Citations

This is something you should implement right now. Whether local, local organic, national organic or international organic search you can benefit from adding this to your overall SEO and marketing strategy.

Google has always said, marketing and the branding of your business will increase your search results. Co-occurrence does just that, without even needing to build a backlink.

Does that mean ignore backlinking opportunities? No. Does it mean ignore backlinking when creating co-occurrence? Absolutely not. In fact, lets pretend backlinks are not a factor in ranking at all, it would at the very least allow for faster indexing of co-occurrence and co-citations.

For now and in the foreseeable future, I believe that backlinks WITHOUT co-occurrence are completely useless. Forget anchor text, nofollow vs. dofollow, domain authority and pagerank, without co-occurrence there is no LSI added weight to your link. We know Google continues to shift towards relevance in everything it does, it only makes sense that this increases in necessity going forward.

I don’t believe this really fixes “spam” and the web spam team will still be in place at Google for sure, but whenever there is an algorithm there will be a way to try to “game” that algorithm and shifting from backlinks to co-occurrence doesn’t really fix that problem.

Here Are a Few Suggestions

1.) It’s about association. When you’re using co-occurrence and actively trying to expand your brand or business online, focus on off site association between your brand or website and the surrounding topics, content and targeted phrases.

2.) Forget about anchor text. Anchor text has been diminishing in importance over the years and has actually been a target of Google. When you think about it, anchor text doesn’t really provide that much value to readers, it is the context that does. Instead of looking for additional backlinks that you can stuff with specific anchor text, put your time into looking for opportunities to get your brand out there and get mentioned in related phrases and context, whether it includes a backlink or not.

3.) Stop focusing on keywords. The concept of ranking for keywords is a thing of the past, instead you need to be thinking about a more broad keyword topic, with the content discussing finer points of that topic. Many sites are ranking right now due to LSI, word association, co-occurrence and co-citations.

4.) Use content marketing to help boost your co-occurrence and co-citations, along with generating backlinks and of course the initial purpose of educating potential customers and providing useful, relevant content.

In Summary

This may be the future, and it makes sense, but if you’ve been smart about marketing your business and smart in your approach to SEO you have a big advantage because things aren’t really going to change that much.

The only ones that will be hurt are the ones trying to implement some heavy manipulation. If you approach backlinking with a co-occurrence outlook, you can’t really go wrong, because it’s branding your business, as well as marketing your business.

I’ve always had the stance that a backlink that doesn’t generate traffic itself, isn’t a backlink worth having.

Any questions? Comments? Would love to hear it in the comment section below!

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