Do Links Still Matter for Rankings? A Study by Ahrefs

Over the past few years I’ve seen more and more people say that links are dead, don’t matter to rankings, or have lost their meaning. Links are a confirmed important ranking factor, so I thought it would be interesting to test their effect.

Instead of linking to pages, I thought the easiest way to test this is to remove links to a page and see what happened. With the help of Joshua Hardwick, the Head of Content at Ahrefs, we selected three articles and disavowed all links to these pages for a month, thereby depriving the value of the external links. A month later I removed them from the disavow file which should have restored the value of the links.

The disavow file was processed immediately, but the Links in the file still had to be crawled again before the effects of the disavow became apparent. It was the same when the disavow was removed. The linking pages had to be crawled again so we could see the effects. I thought a month for any period should be long enough for the top links to be crawled and for us to see an effect.

We disavowed 3,476 links in three blog posts. It was uploaded on August 17th and removed four weeks later on September 14th.

Opting out of links to Ahrefs pages

Spoiler alert: Links are still important. Traffic and ranking keywords were down after I voided the links and up after removing the disavow file.

Results of our disavow test.

Check out the immediate drop in traffic when I uploaded the disavow file on August 17th. The downward trend continued for a while as more and more pages were crawled with links to these blogs. You can also see the instant surge when I removed the disavow file on September 14th. I suspect that this immediate impact is due to the more valuable links being on pages that are likely to have a higher PageRank and that will be crawled more frequently.

Now let’s take a closer look at the examples.

The test pages

The graph above shows Ahrefs average organic traffic, a stable metric that measures search visibility. It estimates traffic based on rankings and expected CTR for all keywords a page is ranking for.

I wanted a stable metric because things like clicks or impressions could be influenced by seasonality or user behavior. The metrics for clicks and impressions from the Google Search Console mostly followed the same trends, but not in all cases.

The test was a total of three different pages, so let’s look at each example.

Example 1.

Book page: Top searches on YouTube (2021)

I was expecting that we would lose rankings on some of the most popular searches and end up losing traffic because this topic is so competitive. That was right in the end. This page lost about 18% of its search traffic in the first month. But I didn’t expect it to be 4% less after we removed the disavow file.

Since then, we’ve made up more than half of the loss, but overall search traffic is still declining.

Let’s see why.

Here are some of the terms that influenced our traffic estimates the most, and their ranking positions during the test.

For “YouTube Searches”, a YouTube page and a Google Trends page moved our page down in the results during the test. We’re back to number 1 and have restored traffic for this semester.

For “what is the most searched for on youtube” and “the most searched for on youtube” a competitor took the featured snippet from us and is still holding it.

Example 2.

Book page: SEO prices: ~ 350 agencies, consultants and freelancers reveal how much SEO costs

I didn’t expect much of an impact on this page by removing the links just because the competition was much weaker here. But in this case I was wrong. Although the links were disavowed, this site lost 13.3% of its traffic. But when we removed the file, the page returned to 99% of the previous traffic.

Here are some of the terms that influenced our traffic estimates the most, and their ranking positions during the test.

Example 3.

Book page: Top Bing Searches (2021)

Because of the competition here, I expected this site to see a decent decline. Interestingly, there was hardly any decrease in traffic during the disavow phase. But after I removed the disavow file, the site shot up over 44% in traffic.

This is actually the page that messed up the trends for clicks and impressions. I think that’s mainly because a lot of the terms weren’t really affected.

Only one term really affected the traffic estimates for this page.


Links are still important. The tested pages are not yet where they started. This could be due to algorithm changes, links that have not yet been crawled again, or other websites receiving more links while we were being deleted. But I hope that we will at least be back where we were.

I definitely do not recommend disavowing all the links on your pages. The disavow tool should generally be used with caution, as Google nowadays mostly devalues ​​bad links for you.

Do you think we should do this test several times to see what happens? let me know on twitter.