For as long as I can remember, the root of what we call SEO (search engine optimization) from a search engine’s perspective is simply this: if you as a user search for something, who offers the best answer to the question out of all of the options on the internet (in relation to where you live)? To do that, Google has modified the algorithm since its inception to limit bad links or irrelevant answers to those questions from showing up in the results in an effort to give users the best answer to the question. However, in a recent turn of events, Google recently changed its statements about how backlinks relate to this effort – from being major criteria to just a “factor” amongst a whole host of other factors.

Now, I’ve been in SEO for more than 20 years. For me to say this is big news is a massive understatement. I recently read an argument on Reddit between SEO professionals on the importance of backlinks. I would have argued that they were incredibly important…until just two weeks ago. So, for those that aren’t in the SEO world or those of our clients who need a little background on the topic, I’ll try to explain.


Table of Contents
The Evolution of SEO
The Statement
What Matters for Users and Google
How Does This Impact SEO Strategies?
What We’re Doing About It
The Future of SEO


The Evolution of SEO

In the beginning… it was simply about keywords. How many times can you get that word on the page so Google knows that you know about that topic? Early in SEO efforts, you could even hide words on the bottom of a page or just list a bunch of words on the bottom of the page and with a little effort, you could rank the page in the top 10 of a given search INTERNATIONALLY.

Because with a little know how back in the early 2000s you could understand the algorithm pretty easily – you could say that I “wrote the book” in SEO for bank marketers. It really wasn’t that difficult to do. You just had to know how to use the algorithm to your advantage. It was a simpler time and Google’s algorithm was much easier to manipulate. At that time, my employer Gainesville Bank & Trust and the banks within our holding company worked with an agency (where I would eventually work) and together – we owned local search. If you looked for a bank in Gainesville, GA, or Villa Rica, GA, or where any of our banks existed – we ranked for it and within the top 5 of nearly every bank-related term in that market. We competed directly with major national banks for those positions and won. That effort, and my research in that industry, led to the publishing of the first major article regarding SEO and ROI and a cover story in ABA Bank Marketing Magazine in 2006 (SEO and ROI was quite confusing back then).

But again, it was easy. It was about keywords, short copy, and backlinks. Keep it simple. And with links, it was about quantity, not quality. How many times can you get someone to link to that page so it seems popular? It didn’t matter if the site linking to you was quality or not.

In speaking about what would become the search engine, a highly influential research paper written by Jon M. Kleinberg in 1998 explained this idea of quantity of links simply:

To provide effective search methods under these conditions, one needs a way to filter, from among a huge collective of relevant pages, a small set of the most ‘authoritative’ or ‘definitive ones.’

The idea was this – that links were simply a way to objectively measure for authority. The more links you have meant the content was quality (more followers means quality personalities, right? 🧐). In the original research paper that defined Google by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, it referenced these ideas. They believed it was possible to determine how relevant a site through the crowdsourcing of millions of websites and the link structure between those pages.

However, that sort of system is really easy to manipulate. You simply get a bunch of backlinks from anywhere and rank. It’s easy to be popular when you can even create websites that link back to you. In my first agency job, we had a client who owned almost every single keyword in animal pharmaceuticals. Why? Because they had a bunch of websites all individually dedicated to those topics that would cross-reference one another. Genius (and effective) strategy.

Over time, Google engineers got a whole lot smarter. They began to navigate this by looking at the popularity of the site sending the links, quality, server locations, and more. They would use this information to determine which links were of poor quality, now referred to as spammy links, and remove the relevance of those links as a determining factor for rankings. It wasn’t that links didn’t matter – just that spammy links would be detrimental to a website. That strategy I mentioned above with the multiple websites all cross-referencing one another – today – that strategy would be frowned upon and potentially even detrimental if caught.

Over the years, new things became important. Do users interact with your content? Can you create content someone wants to read and they stay on the page longer or visit other pages?

Next, user experience. Can you make sure your website is as fast as possible and works on mobile devices.

Then, with the Helpful Content update – is the content actually helpful?

And, so on. As technology has evolved, so has Google. Many of the tools available to us today were simply a dream in the late 90’s / early 2000’s. The focus – as it has always been – is on ensuring that Google as a tool is providing the best and most relevant response to the user’s query.

The Statement

At April’s SERP Conf 2024 in Sofia, Bulgaria Google’s Gary Illyes spoke. During his presentation he was quoted as saying in search today…

Google “need[s] very few links to rank pages. Over the years we’ve made links less important.”

After it was said, he tweeted that he shouldn’t have said it. True, because it set the internet ablaze.

However, it simply re-emphasized something that he said at a conference in 2023 and was re-iterated in language from the March 2024 Google Core Update (supposedly the largest update in the system’s history). We now know that 1) backlinks are not in the top 3 of ranking factors, 2) they are not nearly as important as they once were, and 3) over-focusing on links will often just be a waste of time where we should be focused on making the website better overall.

What Matters for Users and Google

This all leads to the new elephant in the room – what matters?

SEO as a marketing tool is getting more difficult by the day because it’s no longer about JUST keywords, backlinks, and code. As Google has gotten wiser, it’s gotten closer to its mission: organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

It’s one thing to organize information. It’s an entirely other thing to make it accessible AND useful. Accessible means that when the user arrives on the site, the site functions and is easy to navigate. Useful – well that requires Google to not just give the popular answer based on links, but actually the most useful response.

This means that now:

  • User Experience is mission critical. It’s no longer that we want to provide a quality user experience. It’s a must. Google is favoring sites that are easy to use, easy to engage, and sites where users don’t bounce back to the search results page quickly. Users need to stay longer, engage more content, and interact more frequently.
  • Site Speed should be impressive & Mobile-Friendliness is a must. Most users now use mobile devices to navigate the web. Google also indexes sites mobile-first. This means responsive design, fast loading times, quick first input load times, mobile friendly menus, etc. are all critically important.
  • We can no longer stuff keywords in content. I recently had a client question our SEO strategy as the content did not include the keywords X times in H tags and X times in the copy. Why? Because they weren’t needed. You may recall something we’ve written about before called EEAT. Websites have to provide high quality content from proven authors that answer the questions the user asks in a way that is unique and thorough. Websites have to both answer the question the user is asking AND prove they are worthy of trust.

How Does This Impact SEO Strategies?

It actually affects SEO strategy in some major ways. Many of the ideas above have always been part of marketing and/or your developer’s role. Now, they are fully integrated into SEO requiring each of these varying skillsets to work together. Here are a few of the major ways strategy changes:

If you’re focused on backlinks, you’re doing it wrong.

This is a VERY difficult thing for some of us and will be difficult for some clients to accept. Now, this is not to say that directories aren’t important for local search. Or, that local links or PR links aren’t important. They are. But, the idea of the famous “skyscraper model” – a model we’ve used for years by the way – is slowly dying. If we’re implementing those strategies for you now, it’s because we still think some of them are valid. But, overtime, we likely won’t have to chase as many backlinks on your behalf. But, we certainly will need to amplify and improve upon the way we’re building pages and providing content to the end user.

Answer the query, dummy.

I hate to say it this way, but it’s true. If a user is searching for “California Consumer Privacy Act,” what are they searching for? They want to know what the act “is,” not “who” can help them with it. So, in our “response” to the query, if it’s something we want to rank for, our page better be the end-all, be-all expert on this topic. If there’s a question about this topic, our page better answer that question or link to another one of our page’s that helps answer it.

So, as SEOs, a good SEO will focus every effort to make EVERY PAGE THE BEST POSSIBLE RESPONSE TO THE QUESTION OF THE QUERY. I would be lying if we haven’t known this for a while, but to be honest – it’s a struggle for some of our clients because it may require you giving away more information than you bargained for. Again, it’s a shift in mindset to understand that Google wants experts and experts share information.

Make it easy.

Think about it this way. We need to answer the query in the most user-friendly way possible and present the information in the most effective format possible. Google’s algorithm is insanely sophisticated in not only how it understands the query, but in location, understanding the context of your search based on prior behavior, and even the quality of the content itself. Usability, functionality, etc. are all critical to SEO.

In our recent past, we’ve had clients ask if we would be willing to take over SEO for an existing site and I’ve been hesitant for this reason. Now, unless the website is amazing, expect us at Forum to suggest revisiting your site’s design and structure to simplify things for the end user (and Google). It may require being redesigned. It’s part of the game that is SEO.

The content can’t be good. It must be GREAT.

Across the web, Reddit, LinkedIn, etc. SEO experts have talked about the importance of content. With this shift, our SEO strategies must be holistic in approach. We have to prioritize content that truly helps the user over any other SEO tactic. According to RockContent, a content at scale service business, content needs to be “well-researched, well-written, and genuinely useful.” Content has to be more than just surface level overviews. Every page needs in-depth analysis, in-depth guides, long-form content, detailed case studies, informative white papers, etc. to win in this new world.

But can we make it interactive?

When we talk SEO, we’ve always talked about traffic volumes but rarely user engagement. That was for the web / content / design team to figure out. Not anymore. These tasks are now fully integrated. Video, polls, infographics, infographics that use parallax, design interaction, etc. can all increase time on page which increases content quality. Websites are no longer just glorified brochures. The days of websites as brochures is, well, dead ☠️. Websites are living, breathing organisms now where every page needs to be updated to provide a better experience than the day before. For long-time SEOs like me, that’s a mind shift. It means that instead of focusing on what the search engine needs – we need to now focus on what the user needs ALWAYS.

These changes seem really easy at the surface – just some more content right? But, they are quite challenging. As a farmer, when was the last time you wrote about the peach picking process? How it works, when to do it, what you’re picking, etc.? Rarely if ever. Or, when was the last time your B2B business wrote a case study with the client’s name, a testimonial, and the exact details of the amount of money you save them. Maybe never for fear of oversharing. Therein lies the challenge. How much detail are you truly willing to share to prove your expertise?

What We’re Doing About It

Call it what you will (divine intervention, maybe?), but over the past 12 months our digital leadership has pushed to align our web and SEO teams more closely. All the data has been for some time pointing toward this close alignment between user experience and SEO. It’s affected the toolsets we choose for ongoing SEO clients. It’s also starting to directly impact design and the tools we are building for new websites so video and other elements are a little easier to add.

Second, our team has already been looking at ways to amplify content production and improve our efforts. That has benefitted many of our clients. Even some of our most recent site launches have felt very little, if any, site shock from the launch because of those efforts (among others).

And, last, while we will still be implementing some link building activities, our current clients are going to hear a whole lot less about traditional link building and even more about partnership. What does that mean? First, partners linking back to your site are valuable. Second, if you buy a sponsorship for an organization or charity, make sure they link back to your website with a standard “follow” link. Last, and for some time, we’ve recommended SEO clients to have an active PR strategy to better tell their brand’s story. Those efforts align effortlessly with a modern link building strategy that perfectly fits the expectations of this changing SEO landscape. Rather than chase links from competitors, why not just generate buzz to gain those links over time by winning with the best content in your industry?

These are just some of the tools we’re using for clients in this new environment.

The Future of SEO

When I started in marketing in 2002, I knew search was big but never thought it would replace the Yellow Pages. Today, my kids don’t even know what the Yellow Pages are. So, I don’t think that we can predict where we’ll be in another 20 years, but here’s what I do believe:

AI and Machine Learning are here to stay. We’re using these technologies already to amplify content at scale. This has been one of the leading factors to this change by Google. We all need to produce more content at a faster rate to compete. However, the challenge here is quality. So, with a focus on producing higher quality content also comes less focus and reliance on links.

SEO will be more local. For many of our clients at Forum, it’s not always about national or international rankings. It’s about gaining ground in our backyards first. Can we rank for this term in a 5 county radius? Then, if we can do that, what about the state (if applicable)? So on. That means writing content that speaks to the audiences around us – not to all audiences. SEO should not be a shotgun strategy but a sniper strategy.


But, these are just in the next 6-12 months. In the end, however, the future is just that – the future. Our team will continue to improve our processes and to get better every day by implementing ethical strategies that benefit both our clients and their customers.

My question to you, though, is this: with all of these changes, is your SEO strategy amplified in the right ways? Do you feel prepared or are even competing in this space? Feel free to give us a call at Forum and we’d be honored to be part of your business’ growth strategy.