Content, links or thinking machines: what really matters?

rel = nofollow So many sites use "no-follow" tags on links

A recent conversation on a Google hangout had Andrey Lippatsev – one of the company’s engineers – as a contributor. Under discussion was RankBrain, the machine-learning algorithm designed to work out what blocks of content actually mean. He was asked: “If RankBrain is the third most-relevant signal for search results, what are the first two?”

To this, Lippatsev replied: “Content and links.”

Why does this matter?

At face value, it is an admission that Google is backing serious and original content – as opposed to the kind of short-form articles that proliferated on the web a few years ago. So while Google may enjoy a monopoly, at least it is trying to do good things with it. Hopefully, this will help content marketing.

But what is better… links or content? In an effort to address the problem, marketing consultancy Stone Temple Consulting boiled it down to a very simple equation. If links * content = ranking then what would your ranking be if the number of back links was higher than your content relevance and quality?

The answer it found was that good links and average content will tend to win over average links and quality content.


On the one hand, it is good that content – especially long-form – is being encouraged and backed by Google. If everyone was chasing the lowest common denominator, the web today would look very different and so would search engines.

On the other, one wonders whether back links are as important as they used to be. This is especially true when you notice how many sites have added no-follow tags to their outbound links.

Ultimately, it is hard to avoiding feeling that AI, such as RankBrain (or whatever is set to follow), will come to dominate the search results that come back to us.

Content, links or thinking machines: what really matters? is part of Content24, the blog for London content marketing agency FirstWord.