This article began as a solo presentation about links given at SMX East in New York. The information has been updated. It is an overview of how search engines may use links and what I believe are best practices for cultivating links. The goal of this document is to build a foundation from which you can better understand how search engines may use links and what the best approaches may be.
Reason Why Search Engines Use Links
Search engines used to use just the text on a web page in order to rank a web page. However web publishers began adding keyword phrases in a way to help rank their pages. Not all pages that ranked were relevant, resulting in a poor user experience.
Information retrieval researchers began work on new ways to identify relevant web pages, particularly with links. Search engineers noticed that the best pages on the Internet tended to accumulate links.
The more links a site had the more important it tended to be. Conversely, the less links a site accumulated the less important it was judged to be. Links were (and continue to be) counted like vote. Modern search engines today use a combination of AI, machine learning, links and page analysis to rank websites.
An important change with how sites are ranked is that the kinds of links that are used for ranking purposes have been narrowed down to the most relevant. The goal has always been to count links that are meaningful to the content they are linking to.
Not to complicate matters, but there is also a thing called link ranking that may be in use, a method to rank the links themselves. By ranking links, popularity and relevance can be more accurately measured.
Links that are paid for and not the result of an editorial decision tend not to count.
Search engines continue using links as a way to measure popularity and authority. However it’s no longer enough to simply acquire links to assure rankings.
Because web publishers have employed a number of schemes to increase their rankings, search engines have improved their algorithms in order to ignore artificial links (example: advertorial guest post links) or non-relevant links (“powered by” links).
Links May Not Always Influence Top Rankings
I have to stop here and note that links are not necessarily the most important ranking factor.
To what extent links help rank websites is an open question that cannot be answered. What is known is that links continue to play a role in ranking.
Other factors such as how accurately a web page satisfies a users search query plays an increasingly important role. Thus, a web page with a lot of links could be judged as important but still not rank at the top of the search query if the page itself does not satisfy the user’s information needs.
An example could be a search query for Jaguar. In the USA the top two results are the USA websites affiliated with the auto manufacturer. In the UK the top three results are affiliated with the UK versions of the manufacturer’s website.
These differences in rankings represent the information needs of users in the USA versus the needs of users in the UK.
There are many scientific research papers and patents concerned with understanding user satisfaction of search engine users, understand what users mean when they use ambiguous search queries and even for understanding if a user on a mobile device is satisfied by tracking where on the search results page the user lingers (Viewport Time).
Tracking user satisfaction is an attempt to enhance the accuracy of satisfying the information needs of users when they type a search query. Satisfying the information needs of a user could be referred to as the goal of a search engine.
In that context, links could be said to play less of a role for ranking. By how much is unknown. We only know that links continue to play a role.
Links as a Measure of Importance and Relevance
The process of reducing the influence of non-relevant links has been going on since nearly the beginning of the use of links for ranking purposes.
The goal has been to filter out artificial or non-relevant links in order to be able to create a map of the entire Internet made up of genuine links that are useful for judging if a site is important and/or relevant for various keyword phrases (Reduced Link Graphs).
Search engines use links as a way to judge if a web page is important, to understand what topic the web page belongs to and also to identify spam. These judgments are then used for ranking or not ranking web pages.
Examples of How Links Communicate Importance
Links from important websites may be a signal that a web page is relevant for a particular topic.
- A large amount of spread out across an entire site may indicate that a site is important.
- A web page that is rapidly gaining links because it solves a problem in a way that excites users may begin to rank well so that more users can discover the page.
- A web page that has not gained links in a long time could be considered stale because users don’t feel enthusiastic about the content anymore.
Links as a Validating Signal
As previously mentioned, websites are not ranked by order of which sites contain the most links. Search engines rank websites according to which site will be the most useful to the most users. Links are used to create candidates of web pages that are then put through other algorithmic processes that judge if those candidate pages are the most useful.
Links are important to all web publishers because they continue to be one of the ways a site becomes “worthy” of consideration for ranking. Search engines are aware that new sites don’t tend to have too many links and will still send traffic to those sites.
But until those sites become popular with users and acquire links, they will be unable to rank for a wider range of keyword phrases that attract more traffic.
Thus, it is important to create web pages that site visitors will find useful and enjoy enough to recommend to a friend.
A site that is able to cultivate word of mouth enthusiasm will be able to cultivate spontaneous links from other websites. This is the gold standard of links. It is a method of promoting a website that I call Cultivating Links.
Cultivating links is a process that focuses on creating useful pages that solves problems for site visitors. For example, a typical problem could be acquiring winter shoes.
A site that makes the process of purchasing those winter shoes in such a way that makes consumers enthusiastic is going to generate word of mouth enthusiasm which in turn tends to generate spontaneous links. A quality user experience that cultivates links could be based on brand equity (people love your brand), low prices, fast shipping, ease of checking out, etc.
If You Build It Will Google Rank It?
Of course a little promotion to get the word out about a site is important. As in the real world, building a business only begins when the doors first open. Random foot traffic has never sustained a business. Creating a plan for cultivating links and awareness of the site is a key part of creating a successful web presence.
Summary of Link Fundamentals
- Links tell search engines that your site is important
- Links can be a sign of relevance for keyword phrases
- Not all links are useful for ranking purposes
- The best links are links are links given freely by relevant sites
- A plan for cultivating links can be useful for building a successful site.
What is Link Spam?
Definition of Web Spam
“Web spamming refers to actions intended to mislead search engines and give some pages higher ranking than they deserve.”
“Web spam taxonomy” by Zoltan Gyöngyi, PhD (Google) and Hector Garcia-Molina (Professor, Stanford)
Google’s Definition of SEO
“…make it easier for search engines to crawl, index and understand your content… you should base your optimization decisions first and foremost on what’s best for the visitors of your site.“ Google Search Engine Optimization Guide
As you can see, Google’s definition of SEO differs from the version the SEO community believes. Google’s interpretation is focused on creating a site that is easily crawled, easy to be indexed and that is easily understood by search engines.
The link building advice is passive but useful. So it’s good to read what Google has to say:
Effectively promoting your new content will lead to faster discovery by those who are interested in the same subject. As with most points covered in this document, taking these recommendations to an extreme could actually harm the reputation of your site.
…Putting effort into the offline promotion of your company or site can also be rewarding. For example, if you have a business site, make sure its URL is listed on your business cards, letterhead, posters, etc. You could also send out recurring newsletters to clients through the mail letting them know about new content on the company’s website.
That’s not a lot to work with. But it’s a good start.
How to Avoid Link Spam Issues
Some of the worst ideas look great on the back of a paper napkin. Examples range from “getting the word out” by registering on discussion forums to announce a giveaway offer to dropping links on blog comments.
In general, a link that is controlled by your company or your agent can be considered spam.
The result of poor link building practices may manifest in the form of ranking positions sliding away. Best case scenario, nothing happens to your rankings because the links don’t count.
But if you see your ranking positions begin to decline, this could be an indication that the link building may have been relying on poor link building practices.
Taking the link building process in-house is a way some companies keep control over the process. This can be considered the safest method for building links, provided you have a quality link building strategy.
Link Building Overview: Content Marketing
Depending on how it’s done, content marketing can be a euphemism for link building and I agree to a certain extent. Done badly it resembles a paid link campaign utilizing networks of sites and networks of authors that accept money for article contributions.
There is a robust industry in authors who specialize in placing articles in authoritative publications. Strictly speaking, these can be considered link schemes and there is a risk attached to those schemes. I don’t endorse these kinds of schemes.
Here’s an important insight about content marketing: Content creation for the purpose of cultivating traffic is one of the smartest ways to cultivate natural links.
Instead of focusing on obtaining links from the article itself, create a piece of content that focuses on driving traffic to your company site. This means that all links are no-followed if it’s published on a site that is not your own.
Any content is good enough to drive traffic is good enough to cultivate high quality inbound links.
Viral Link Bait Strategies
Done properly a link bait strategy that focuses on a relevant topic of interest to regular visitors of your site will produce high quality links. The best kind of strategy revolves around creating a useful piece of content that potential customers would link to and share on social media. That is what I call Relevant Content Baiting.
Any strategy that is non-relevant and focuses on a gimmick or humor may end up attracting visitors who are not interested in your company product and will never return or turn into a sale.
That kind of link bait, in my opinion, tends to attract irrelevant links to a web page on your site that is irrelevant to the core product that the site revolves around.
For example, if your site is a Hilton Head, SC seafood restaurant and you run a fish photo contest and it goes viral, the links will likely not be relevant for seafood restaurant. They’ll be relevant for the “fish photo contest” page.
In my opinion, because Hilton Head, SC is a destination and because a restaurant is a local business, it makes far more sense to cultivate travel related links to attract tourist business from outside of the state as well as cultivate local type citations so that the restaurant ranks in the local search.
In my opinion, viral link building strategies are rarely a viable solution unless the topic is directly related to the product or service.
Search Engines May Rank Links
Search engines, in my opinion, based on various patents and research papers, rank relevant links from relevant sites and ignore everything else. This creates what’s known as a reduced link graph. It’s a map of the Internet, ordered by topic, with the spam sites left out. The ranking process begins from there.
Relationship Between Links and Content
Ranking a site is not solely about cultivating links. Content is said to be the most important ranking factor. If your content is useful then the links will, with some promotional effort, begin accumulating.