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Pound for pound, SXSW was a little disappointing this year, at least for search professionals. It's not that there wasn't plenty to do, plenty see, and plenty to hear. That's always going to happen when you're at a conference/festival with speakers the likes of former Vice President Al Gore and Tesla co-founder Elon Musk. The disappointing part was that there weren't a whole lot of "holy crap" moments like there were in previous years.
In 2012, we heard Google's Matt Cutts and Bings' Duane Forrester tell the audience that big changes were coming that were going to take out SEO spammers by the bulk. A little over a month later, Google introduced the Penguin update and Bing followed with an unnamed but equally significant algorithm update of their own that attacked low quality links. The results have shaken the SEO world in ways that have never been felt before or since. 2013 didn't have quite as ominous of a moment, but there was a point in the discussion with the dynamic duo and moderator Danny Sullivan that made some in the audience shutter. More changes are coming. No real hints as to what they are, but many are looking towards a further rise in appropriate social signals and another Penguin update in the weeks ahead.
The real moment of clarity for SEOs came during a different portion of SXSW. Google’s senior vice president of search Amit Singhal (Matt's boss) was being interviewed by Guy Kawasaki on the big stage. Most of my team was there, our VP of Internet Marketing most significantly, and there was one huge takeaway. Inbound links are still the most important component of search engine optimization. Period.
They talked mobile, natural language search, and spent an uncomfortably long time on the subject of Singhal's history, but one exchange was also telling.
“Is SEO bulls***?” Kawasaki asked.
“That would be like saying marketing is bulls***,” Singhal replied. The audience chuckled, but it's an important thing to understand. Despite what PPC companies and vendors who aren't very good at SEO will say, Google doesn't hate SEOs. In fact, the love them. They help to make the web more easily understood by Google. What Google hates is blackhat SEO.
Links are considered a part of blackhat SEO by many, and depending on the type of links and the ways that they're acquired, they can definitely be bad. Getting inbound links as a result of quality, value, and interest - that's where the real power of links can be achieved.
As Singhal said, links are still their most valuable indicator amongst 200+ other factors. They are the juice through which Google can understand the authority and popularity of a piece of content and a domain in general. Tied in with social signals, inbound links can be a dealer's best friend when marketing their website. However, when the art of link-building is overdone, acquired through nefarious techniques, or patterned, they can actually be the worst thing you can do to your website.
This isn't new and it's very likely that most dealers have stopped doing the wrong things to get links to their website, but there are also those who are scared of links. Perhaps they've heard rumors. Perhaps they've been bitten by them in the past. Regardless of the reason, it's not prudent to be gunshy about them. Inbound links work. They'll continue to work for a long time. If you do it the right way, they can help to separate you from your competitors.