The SEO community is reeling from an announcement by Googler Gary Illyes – @methode on X – during an AMA session last week during PubCon Pro 2023.

Responding to a question, Gary indicated ‘backlinks are not a top 3 ranking factor, and have not been for some time’.

Point of clarification: many posts/comments/Xs have injected ‘no longer’ into Gary’s statement, but that doesn’t appear to be part of his comments (though I did not attend and have not been able to find a video or transcript of the AMA session to confirm).

This ‘revelation’ should not have been a surprise, since we covered Googler Duy Nguyen 9 months ago responding to a similar question about backlinks as a ranking signal on the Google Search Central YouTube channel, who said this:

‘…backlinks as a signal has a lot less significant impact compared 

to when Google Search first started out many years ago.’

At that time, @marie_haynes conducted an X poll with 44% of almost 1K respondents indicating they believe link building is less effective compared to a few years ago.

But Duy made an even broader comparison: Google today (er, Google 9 months ago), vs ‘when Google first started out’.

In 1998.

As most SEOs know – either based on personal experience for old timers like me, or SEO lore for the ‘youngsters’ – Google very heavily relied on backlinks in the early days. 

In other words:

before Panda

and Penguin

and Hummingbird

and Pigeon

and RankBrain

and BERT

and Helpful Contentn

and the velocity of core algorithm updates and refreshes and updates to the above algo additions plus all the updates I’m missing that have added complexity and capability in depth and breadth to Google’s algorithms, effectively diluting the impact of any single ranking that existed before them – including backlinks. 

And we (Citation Labs) think nowadays the evaluation of backlinks is more part of the broader focus on E-E-A-T (most likely the “T”), rather than as a stand-alone algorithm/area of focus anyway.

So from this lens, Duy’s assertion almost a year ago wasn’t any more ‘revelationary’ than what Gary Illyes said last week. 

It was more just a restatement of what SEOs already know implicitly as Google’s algorithm has evolved over time (and even explicitly from various comments over the years like this one from Matt Cutss in 2014 in the context of ‘Needs Met’ with early nods to [E]EAT), but re-stated as a response to a very specific question about links.

And the irony for me is, Gary follow-up comment in his response is much more noteworthy, but garnered nary a headline. 

Gary immediately followed up with:

‘there really isn’t a universal top 3.’

Which seems eerily – but perhaps appropriately – similar to this exchange:

This was a new perspective for me. 

Yes, it makes sense that the most impactful factors for one site could be different for another site.

But the concept of one site being evaluated based on certain criteria and another site on a different set – both for the same keyword result – seems to shed light on why we sometimes see very different profiles for the same SERP.

Or, maybe Gary’s just indicating that if, say, backlink profiles are relatively the same and content is generally on par between two sites, then additional factors are relied on more heavily to break the tie.

Furthermore, there’s enough variance in these ‘top’ factors that influence a rank-order decision, that based on the dynamic nature of what moves the needle, it’s not realistic to assume X, Y and Z ‘are always the top three factors’.

But Gary didn’t seem to indicate what he meant by his comment. Which is kind of my point. 

If we rely as heavily on any individual Googler to unlock the mysteries of organic rank as Neo did to assume he wasn’t The One during his conversation with The Oracle, we might end up taking things out of context.

Especially when the Googler doesn’t clarify or explicitly provide clarification or context, similar to The Oracle’s response, which did not correct Neo’s assumption that he wasn’t The One:

Tips for observing guidance from Googlers:

  1. When a Googler mentions something about backlinks for example, it’s usually in response to a question that was asked by someone in the SEO community – often (but not always) it’s someone who is relatively new to SEO or has depth in one area of SEO (technical SEO, for example) but is asking a question about a different area of SEO, which matters because:
    1. This may influence how the ‘asker’ posed the question; and
    2. Responses may apply universally even though that’s not explicitly stated.
  2. Intentional or not, Google often plays on nuance, without any disclaimer or clarification offered.
  3. Googlers don’t typically challenge one another, which contributes to why the SEO community can think external links are a top 3 ranking factor since 2016, and now in 2023 we are told there really isn’t a top 3, without any acknowledgement something had changed, just what it is today. From this one Googler’s perspective and in the context of the specific question that was asked.
  4. Googlers have various roles, which could influence their understanding and comments.
    1. Matt Cutts was the head of web spam
    2. Danny Sullivan is the Public Liaison for Search
    3. Gary Illyes is an Analyst
    4. John Mueller is Search Relations team lead
    5. Andrey Lipattsev was a Search Quality Senior Strategist when he mentioned in 2016 that links were a top 3 ranking factor in the first place, and is now Partner Development Manager.

All this to mean if we’re not careful with how much universal weight we give to (and whether we question/challenge/think critically about) out-of-context comments from individual Googlers, we might be doing ourselves, our community and our clients/employers a disservice.

Just think of how much chaos The Oracle’s lack of clarification caused when Neo assumed he wasn’t The One – even if it was only temporary and potentially by design, because there was still work Neo had to do before he would even be ready to BE The One.

So too are a Googler’s remarks often as nuanced, weighted, and specific as any of Google’s individual calculations that collectively get influenced and weighted by, and boiled down to, a single rank-order SERP — and aren’t designed to act as a stand-alone universal truth on their own.

Talking to non-SEO stakeholders RE: SEO “news”

Most of us have probably had this happen – a CEO or CMO, VP, client, etc. comes urgently to your desk or Slacks/emails/otherwise messages you, after reading something on X or SEO blog that indicates such and such no longer works for SEO, and they’re ready to up-end the roadmap, cancel expenditures and investments, shift team priorities, etc. 

Just as I attempted to point out the additional subtext and pretext germane to Gary’s AMA comments last week, there’s an opportunity (that needs to be nurtured/earned in advance so now’s the time to start) to ‘fill in the blanks’ not offered in that article or X that started the domino effect leading to the rant that landed one way or another on your plate. 

As Gary indicated there is no ‘universal top 3’, it’s also often true there is no absolute, guarantee-able result of any of the SEO work we do. It’s up to us to provide that context.

shifting/redirecting/reframing the convo

For many of the reasons mentioned above and many others that aren’t, just about any and every SEO input we make (change titles, re-structure URL taxonomy, rewrite or publish new content, build links, etc) may have an unknown outcome. 

Here are a couple of things you may want to keep in mind & implement in your communication practices:

Everything we do in SEO is essentially a test. No, really.

Hopefully we’re structuring our work in a way that can effectively be isolated and measured (similar to a traditional A/B test – a number of tips in this article about reporting on impact might be helpful).

A big part of that is getting buy-in upfront, prior to an initiative kicking off, with a clear methodology about how we’ll be testing said input, so if it doesn’t go the way we planned, it’s not seen as a fail but as the result/outcome of that particular test, which indicates the tactic or way the tactic was implemented is not key to improved rankings.

The true measure of ‘quality’ is impact – on the right metrics

The SEO community could improve its reporting to higher ups. When we don’t speak up, we often rely on reporting tools implemented by other teams without a specific focus on what’s unique to SEO. We don’t challenge this nearly enough. 

Instead, we end up being obligated to report on things that aren’t even true outputs of SEO or at the very least are only indirect factors or that are heavily influenced by other elements altogether.

  • Should organic traffic really be the core KPI for SEO? Or is it, instead, something that is influenced by, but not directly a result of only the SEO inputs we’re making?
  • If we cannot exclusively control organic traffic (which is heavily influenced by all the SERP feature changes, etc.), then can we really consider some SEO inputs – building links or rewriting main body content – a success or failure based on organic traffic?
  • Conversions often become a KPI for core SEO work as well, instead of being more properly categorized as CRO. The pitfall here is a non-SEO stakeholder deciding a particular SEO initiative is a failure because it didn’t result in the same CVR as, say, a targeted paid search squeeze page.

Avoiding these traps is easier typed than done, but it starts with proactively getting buy-in on how we’re approaching SEO work, fostering a ‘testing’ culture, communicating/confirming KPIs our work will be measured against, and proper testing and reporting on the metrics that align with our work.

And hopefully, doing *enough* of the right things and failing fast on the others will lead us to positive impact, like this screengrab from a client report illustrates:

Not too shabby, given [links [are not | are no longer | never were] a | there is no] universal top 3 factor(s).

Final thoughts on links [Not] being a top 3 factor

There is a lot of variation to what SEOs think in terms of top ranking factors. Two days ago, Cyrus Shepard released a poll in response to write-ups from Gary’s AMA, indicating 76% of 1K+ respondents still think links are one of the top 3 factors. 

This a week after (and in response to) not only the assertion that this not the case, but that there is no universal top 3 list.

Kane Jamison’s RX of Cyrus Shepard’s X poll provides a nice illustration of this issue using an analogy of the top 3 ingredients a restaurant uses – which naturally would vary from dish to dish:

Here’s to realizing there is no spoon, and all the truths that follow.


1 thought on “[Links [are not | are no longer] a | There is no Universal] Top 3 Ranking factor(s)”

  1. This is a great article and is assisting us in formulating our (hopefully) ever improving onboarding process and client comms.. I particularly like your “SEO is actually constant testing” bit, even though you don’t state that explicitly (or, maybe you did..).

    Bottom line is that the more we observe the state of the SEO industry here in Australia, the more we see outdated dinosaurs who are doing their clients a massive dis-service by regurgitating practices from 2005. Keep up the great work!


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