Whether you know a lot, or very little, about search engine optimization (SEO), you probably know at least a little something about backlinks, and link building.

With billions of web pages on the internet, and a near infinite number of keywords (search terms, or the combination of words a person enters into the Google search box to perform a search), how does Google determine which web pages should rank for any one particular search? There are a variety of factors Google takes into account, but most SEO specialists agree that backlinks — when a page on one site links back to a page on another website — has long played the predominant role in determining the worth of a web page in ranking.

seo backlinks

The Power of Backlinks

In order for a web page to be considered a good match for a user's search, that page needs to have relevant content — the page has to cover the topic that the searcher is interested in. But for any given search, there are thousands, possibly millions, of web pages that might be considered relevant to a search. So Google needs a system that narrows things down. Google needs a system of determining that one relevant page has more authority, or power, or worth, than another relevant page.

Backlinks play a big role in that determination of the authority of a web page. If a web page has pages from many other websites linking back to it, Google feels that these other sites are casting a vote of popularity of sorts for the page they're linking to. After all, if website owners didn't like, or think there was value in, a page on another site, they certainly wouldn't link to that page from within posts on their own sites.

SEO specialists have come to an agreement on the importance of backlinks, and that's why you'll see any SEO plan or package, from any SEO specialist, include a lot of references to backlinks.

All backlinks aren't considered equal. That's why if you read up on SEO you'll hear a lot about the quality of backlinks, and that backlinks aren't just "a numbers game." It's quality over quantity.

If you add a comment to someone's blog post, and are able to include a link to your site within that comment, that's a backlink to your site (also referred to as an inbound link to your site). But anyone can spend a little time surfing the internet, stopping at blogs and posting comments. Why should Google feel that a website that has many backlinks from blog comments — backlinks that a site owner can obviously create himself — be considered a powerful, or authoratative, website?

In short, Google doesn't give much (if any) weight to such site owner generated backlinks. Instead, Google gives far, far more weight to backlinks that originate from established, popular websites. If a post on your website gets a backlink from, say, an article on the website of Apple, or Microsoft, or the New York Times, now that's something. Those are hugely popular sites and if one of those sites includes a link to your site, it's going to be a solid Like, or vote of authority for your website.

brand marketing

Linkless Mentions: Backlinks Are a Thing, But They Aren't the Only Thing

So we know that Google uses backlinks as a way of determining the importance of websites. And we know that to further narrow things down Google uses the concept of quality over quantity in regards to backlinks. This is a system that Google is always refining, and it's worked pretty good in the past in determining what search results pages (SERPs) should look like for each and every search.

But relying on backlinks alone isn't enough to really deliver the most relevant content for searchers. That's where linkless mentions come into play. The name is pretty descriptive. A linkless mention is a mention of your brand, without that mention being a clickable link.

Consider this example. Our brand is MadBeeTech Web Hosting. It makes sense for us to get some backlinks with anchor text (the text of the link — the text that one clicks on to visit the linked page) that is our brand, and some backlinks that have anchor text related to what we do. Like this:

     MadBeeTech Web Hosting is a U.S.-based, 10 year old web host.

     To set up a website you'll need to find quality web hosting.

Here's an example of a linkless mention:

     To sell digital downloads from your website, consider hosting with MadBeeTech Web Hosting.

In the above, our brand is mentioned, but not as a clickable link. Why do that? Why get your brand mentioned without a link, when you could instead get your brand mentioned with a link?

Firstly, unless you own a website, you don't have any control over whether that site will mention your brand or link back to your site. Website owners are always on the lookout for ways to get a backlink from other sites. Most websites aren't going to link to your site. Site owners can be "stingy" when it comes to linking out to other websites. However, that same website might just be willing to mention your brand, allbeit without that mention being a link. In the past, most site owners would skip that option — it's that all-important backlink, or nothing. Now, knowing that Google considers brand mentions of some worth, even when not in the form of a link, you definitely want to take any opportunity to get your brand out their. Link or no link.

Secondly, Google can't always tell whether a backlink was naturally created (the website owner truly found the linked-to site interesting) or whether a backlink was paid for (the website owner didn't know anything abou the linked-to site, but placed the link in a post because he was getting compensated for that act). If all of the references to your brand are in the form of backlinks, it could be concluded that you're paying for some of these links. On the other hand, if there's a mix of links to your website and linkless mentions to your website, it's more likely that it's all something that came about naturally (as website owners don't typically pay for brand mentions).

Do We Know For Certain the Worth of Linkless Mentions?

In short, "No." That's because we don't know the true worth of any SEO technique. Google isn't about to fully disclose how their complex ranking algorithm works. That would make it far too easy for SEO businesses to "game the system" and try to develop strategies to help their sites rank, regardless of the quality of the content on their sites.

With that said, there is some evidence that linkless mentions play a role in search rankings. In 2017 at an SEO conference Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Gary Illyes had a few words to say about mentions (see the above YouTube video of Mr. Illyes at the SEO conference):

"If you publish high-quality content that is highly cited on the internet — and I’m not talking about just links, but also mentions on social networks and people talking about your branding, crap like that. Then you are doing great."

There, Google came right out and said that mentions are great. However, while Google might say they like some particular type of content, does that necessarily mean this type of content weighs heavily (or at all) in their search rank determination algorithm? Google is under no obligation to disclose how their algorithm works. In the case of mentions, though, there are some other references that make it seem like Google does indeed think they are a worthwhile part of ranking a web page.

One such reference is in Google's patent for Panda (Panda being a Google algorithm update to reward high-quality websites). In this patent Google talks about "express links, implied links, or both." An implied link being, in short, a mention that isn't a clickable link:

"Links for the group can include express links, implied links, or both. [...] An implied link is a reference to a target resource, e.g., a citation to the target resource, which is included in a source resource but is not an express link to the target resource. Thus, a resource in the group can be the target of an implied link without a user being able to navigate to the resource by following the implied link."

Which Is It Then: Linkless Mentions or Backlinks?


Backlinks have always mattered, and there's every indication that they still do matter. And probably will matter for the foreseeable future. So by all means do not neglect your efforts to secure quality backlinks!

But Google is always working to make their ranking algorithm better, and it seems that the addition of giving weight to linkless mentions is a part of that effort. So don't dismiss the idea of working to get brand mentions — even if that mention isn't in the form of a clickable link. Brand mentions can improve your online reputation which is always a good thing.