Let’s get one thing out of the way. Link building is the foundation of SEO. Google is built on a technology called “BackRub”. BackRub’s main innovation was that it used the backlinks as a ranking factor. That’s all it did.

This was revolutionary at the time that Google rolled it out because the key players in the search field like AltaVista, Excite, Lycos, and Yahoo didn’t pay as much attention to backlink signals as to the actual content in a page. Not surprisingly, search results back then were actually very easy to manipulate.

In fact, the manipulation of search results got so bad that almost any search for any kind of topic almost always yielded at least one link to a porn site or a gambling site. It was really bad. In fact, search results were so bad and so dicey that a lot of industry observers were under the impression that search engine technology will never work.

Well, things really changed with the advent of Google because Google’s main claim to fame is that it was able to deliver on search engine technology. They actually pulled it off. When you do a search, you can actually find the information you’re looking for.

As the years go by, the technology became more and more sophisticated and they were able to reduce as much spam, or irrelevant websites from search results. Foundational to this is link building. A backlink is a link on a third party website. It’s not a link inside your site. When there are links found on other websites linking to your site, Google views those links as “votes” for your site. Paired with other indicators like anchor text or text signals, Google looks at these links as a measure of the authority and trust the rest of the internet has on your website.


The historic problem of link building

Since Google looked at external websites that have links to determine relationships with websites and determine proper ranking, it should be very easy to see why this is easy to manipulate. There are many websites that wouldn’t instantly give you a backlink. You just need to fill out a form and after it clicks a bit, there you have a website. We’re talking about article directory sites, directory submission sites, social book marking sites, forum sites that enable you to build profiles, and many other types of websites.

This is the problem that Google has struggled with for a very long time. Whether it takes the form of links in articles that are published instantly, or blog posts on free blogging platforms like Blogspot, Google has continuously tried to make heads or tails of all these backlink signals. And as much as it has made tremendous headway in discounting fake backlink signals, it is still susceptible to all sorts of link based manipulation schemes. There’s a constant arms race between black hat SEO practitioners and Google. It’s a never ending game. In fact, Google often has to make tough judgment calls whether to punish suspected link gaming hard and possibly harm legitimate websites or let potentially gamed links slide.


Enter RankBrain

Thanks to Google’s success with Google Panda in using machine language to artificially learn content patterns on websites, Google has rolled out RankBrain. RankBrain uses data signal generated by actual users going from Google search results to websites.

By analyzing this huge usage pattern according to an algorithm, Google is able to make educated guesses regarding whether certain user behaviors indicate that the website is a genuine authority or a fake. Two key factors are crucial for RankBrain: bounce rate and dwell time.

Bounce rate indicates how quickly somebody goes from Google search results back to a website and back to Google search results. A high bounce rate means that the information that the searcher is looking for could not be found on the link that was clicked. Dwell time, on the other hand, measures how long a user stays on a website clicking page after page.

Putting these two factors together along with other factors, RankBrain is able to put an end to completely link building based ranking system. The old days of “rank and bank” by just simply buying all sorts of links or generating all sorts of dubious links is coming to an end. It’s very easy to see why a lot of old school web masters and online publishers are running around like chickens with their heads cut off. They think that the sky is falling. But what they fail to realize is that you’ll always need links.

The way Google is set up, backlinks are still needed. As mentioned above, links are foundational to Google. They will never truly go away. Their importance may diminish quite a bit over time, but they would not be completely discounted anytime soon.


You still need links to rank first

While the days of simply finding that “one awesome link” to get you to number one is pretty much gone, the truth is you still need links to rank. Whether you’re ranking number 20 or ranking number 10, you still need links to rank your website.

This is crucial for RankBrain to work. You have to understand that RankBrain can only work once a website makes it to any kind of ranking so you still have to rank, and this means that you still need backlinks.


Earn links and RankBrain takes care of the rest

For SEOs, the name of the game is to still build quality links. Get those links going, and then RankBrain will take care of the rest. If you did your job right and your content is set up properly and your whole website is based on high quality and useful content that people can trust, RankBrain will reward your website.

Why? Your website actually terminates more of its searches compared to your competitors. The bottom-line is simple. Links help your site become visible to Google. RankBrain then optimizes your ranking based on user behavior-based quality indicators. The conclusion is obvious. You still need backlinks.