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I had a debate with an automotive SEO buddy back last year about the validity of high-quality inbound links for the purpose of search engine optimization. He contended that great content on the website was enough to boost rankings substantially. I argued that Google and Bing still look at outside signals such as links to help them determine the authority and validity of the content.
A few months later, I received a phone call that confirmed it. The best part is that I didn't even have to do any research or testing on my own. He had set up a very clear and easily duplicated test to see who was correct.
Two cities. Two Honda dealers. On both websites, he wrote up long pieces (over 1000 words) of content on similar landing pages. All unique content, all perfectly worded for SEO (which today means not written for SEO at all but written for real readers instead).
In one city, he used my link-earning strategy that I showed him to get some love for the Civic page. In the other city, he did the link-earning for the Accord page. After two months, the linked pages dramatically outperformed the unlinked pages in rankings, traffic, and most importantly in leads generated.
Any time I discuss links, I get hit with the Google Penguin argument. It's a valid one. The only fallacy in the argument is that Google did not penalize all links. They are going after the low-quality, purchased, or non-contextual links that many SEOs still use today. Those have been devalued and can actually do harm to your rankings.
On the other hand, high-quality contextual links on relevant sites denoting resource quality rather than pure SEO juicing have not only survived Penguin. They've flourished. My research before (and now my friend's research more recently) show that great links are actually more powerful today than they were before.
NO! Absolutely not. Content is definitely more important today than ever before and continues to increase in its necessity. There was a time in the past that you could take a blank white page with no content at all and link-bomb your way to getting it ranked for the term "White Bunny in a Snow Storm". Today, the content is a must.
Just like it is with offsite signals, onsite content that is high-quality, unique, relevant, and purposeful is absolutely necessary. The key is, of course, quality. No syndicated content. No "spun" content. No boilerplate content. No fluff content. Bring value and the content has the opportunity to shine.
Offsite signals like inbound links are the validating components that Google and Bing use to determine whether or not one piece of content is better to serve than another. A great piece of content that truly tells something incredible and useful about a vehicle is not very different from a weak piece of content that talks about the same vehicle, at least in the eyes of Google. Semantic indexing allows them to understand algorithmically what a page is trying to talk about, but it's the credibility given to that content from offsite signals that lets the search engines know which piece of content to trust.
Think of the content as the engine and the offsite signals as the modifications done to improve the horsepower. You could line up a couple of Mustangs with 5.0L engines and race them. If the drivers are equal in skill and the conditions are right, they should finish the race very closely. It's a tossup. On the other hand, if you add headers, throttle bodies, and a cold-air kit to one, it should win the race easily.
That's what links do. They increase the ability for the content to get the ranking it deserves.
Inbound linking is not easy. Many have tried using link networks or other methods to "build" links, but the real strategy that works requires manual effort. You have to "earn" the links based upon quality content and networking with the right people.
Old-school link-building is dead. Today, the process is one that cannot be easily scaled. If one of the large website vendors tried to pay me a million bucks to get them an offsite signal strategy that they could implement to thousands of websites, I would have to pass. It's something that is unfortunately (or fortunately, from a certain perspective) very challenging to bring to the masses.
Using aggressive SEO strategies is not for every dealer. In many cases, it's not cost-effective. However, dealers who want to dominate in high-volume areas should take a closer look.