Editor’s Note: This is a section of our completely redone SEO Guide. Enjoy!
For just a moment, remember a time before the Internet and search engines. What did we do if we needed information? In most cases, we began our own quest for a source to supply the needed information.
Let’s say you wanted to know the difference between Einstein’s General and Special Theories of Relativity. You could ask your next door neighbor, but you probably wouldn’t, unless you happened to know that your neighbor was a physicist, a science teacher, or was at least well-read on the topic. If you had access to a nearby university, you might seek out a physics professor to get your question answered. Alternatively, you could go to a library and ask the librarian to recommend the best book on relativity.
In each of those cases, you’re making a decision about authority. You know the closer the connection of your information source to deep knowledge about physics, the more likely you are to get a good answer. In other words, you want the most authoritative answer, which will come from the most authoritative source.
Of course, we need more than information. Sometimes we need stuff! Say you’re looking for a new dishwasher. Before the web, you might have picked up a copy of Consumer Reports. Or you might have asked friends or neighbors if they were happy with a particular brand. Unlike the physics example, in this case people you know might actually be good authoritative sources.
As soon as it was apparent that the World Wide Web was going to become the major repository for human knowledge—not to mention the primary source for products, services, entertainment, and much else—the need for search engines was obvious. Search engines help connect us with authoritative sources for our questions and needs, whether that’s a physics professor’s blog or dishwasher reviews by real users.
There were a few early attempts to do human indexing and categorization of web pages, but it didn’t take long to realize that effort would never keep up with the growth of the web.
Modern search engines use complex algorithms to find, read, and ascertain the topicality of web pages. They can then match those pages with search queries looking for the information they contain. It’s at this point that the importance of authority emerges.
For any given query, there are typically a great many pages that potentially satisfy that query. Users expect the search engine to take the role of the knowledgeable librarian and direct them to the best pages for the query. That’s a judgment, then, of the relative authority for the topic of the query of all the possible pages, and search engines must be able to assess that authority at a huge scale.
How Search Engines Evaluate Authority
In reality, modern search engines such as Google use hundreds of factors in evaluating the authority and relevance of web pages, but we can boil them down to two main categories: Content (relevance) and Links (external citation authority).
First, a search engine must read and analyze the actual content and other features on a page. From this, the engine associates relevant topics with the page. In the early days, on-page assessment pretty much ended there, but now search engines are much more sophisticated in being able to analyze a page’s language, structure and other features to determine things like how completely the page addresses a topic and how useful it might be to a visitor.
Once the search engine understands the page and adds it to its index, it turns next to external signals that help validate and gauge the level of authority of the page for any given topic. Ever since the invention of PageRank by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, links have been the primary signal used for such assessment. Search engines use links much like we might treat scholarly citations. The more scholarly papers relevant to a source document that cite it, the better. The relative authority and trustworthiness of each of the citing source comes into play as well.
In the next two sections, we will go into more depth about how search engines use content and links to assess authority, as well as what you need to do to gain such authority for your own site.
Why Links Still Rule the Roost
The big innovation that made Google the dominant search engine in a short period was that it used an analysis of links on the web as a ranking factor. This started with a paper written by Larry Page and Sergey Brin called “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine.”
The essential insight behind this paper was that the web is built on the notion of documents inter-connected with each other via links. Since putting a link on your site to a third party site might cause a user to leave your site, there was little incentive for a publisher to link to another site, unless it was really good, and of great value to their site’s users.
In other words, linking to a third party site acts a bit like a “vote” for it, and each vote could be considered an endorsement, saying the page the link points to is one of the best resources on the web for a given topic. Then, in principle, the more votes you get, the better, and the more authoritative a search engine would consider you to be, and you should therefore rank higher.
A significant piece of the initial Google algorithm was based on the concept of PageRank, a system for evaluating which pages are the most important based on scoring the links they receive. So a page that has large quantities of valuable links pointing to it will have a higher PageRank, and in principle will be likely to rank higher in the search results than other pages without as high a PageRank score.
How this works is that when a page links to another page, it passes a portion of its PageRank to the page it links to. Thus pages accumulate more PageRank based on the number and quality of links they receive.
Not All Links are Created Equal
So more votes are better, right? Well, that’s true, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. PageRank scores range from a base value of 1 to values that likely exceed trillions. Higher PageRank pages can have a lot more PageRank to pass than lower PageRank pages. In fact, a link from one page can easily be worth more than one million times a link from another page.
Let’s use our intuition for a moment. Imagine you have a page that’s selling a book, and it gets two links. One is from Joe’s Book Store, and the other one is from Amazon. It’s pretty obvious which one you would value more as a user, right? As users, we recognize that Amazon has more authority on this topic.
As it turns out, the web has recognized this as well, and Amazon has a much more powerful link profile (and higher PageRank) than any other site involved in selling books. As a result, it has much higher PageRank, and can pass more PageRank to the pages that it links to.
The Role of Relevance
Of course, you have to be relevant to a given topic. If you have a page about Tupperware, it doesn’t matter how many links you get—you’ll never rank for queries related to used cars. This defines a limitation on the power of links as a ranking factor, but relevance also impacts the value of a link.
Consider a page on a site that is selling a used Ford Mustang. Imagine that it gets a link from Car and Driver magazine. That link is highly relevant. Also, think of this intuitively. Is it likely that Car and Driver magazine has some expertise related to Ford Mustangs? Of course, they do.
In contrast, imagine a link to that Ford Mustang from a site that usually writes about sports. Is the link still helpful? Probably, but not as helpful, because there is less evidence to Google that the sports site has a lot of knowledge about used Ford Mustangs.
So in short, the relevance of the linking page, and the linking site, impacts how valuable a link might be considered.
Google Doesn’t Publish PageRank, So What can We Do?
Google used to make a version of PageRank visible to users of the Google Toolbar, but they no longer do that. Instead, we have to rely on third-party metrics such as:
- Domain Authority and Page Authority from Open Site Explorer
- Citation Flow and Trust Flow from Majestic SEO
- Domain Rank and URL Rank from ahrefs
Each of these metrics does a good job of helping you evaluate the merits of a page, and offering a working estimate for how much PageRank it has to pass.
The Role of Anchor Text
There is another aspect of links that matters as well. Google looks closely at the anchor text in the links to your site:
The anchor text helps Google confirm what the content on the page receiving the link is about. For example, if the anchor text is the phrase “iron bathtubs” and the page has content on that topic, the anchor text plus the link acts as further confirmation that the page is about that topic. Thus the links act to evaluate both the relevance and authority of the page.
Be careful, though, as you don’t want to go aggressively obtaining links to your page that all use your main key phrase as the anchor text. Google also looks for signs that you are manually manipulating links for SEO purposes, and one of the clearest indicators of that is if your anchor text looks manually manipulated.
The Concept of Trust
You may hear many people talk about the role of trust in search rankings, and in evaluating link quality. For the record, Google says they don’t have a concept of trust they apply to links (or ranking), so you should take those discussions with many grains of salt.
These discussions began because of a Yahoo patent on the concept of Trust Rank. The whole idea was that if you started with a seed set of hand-picked, highly trusted sites, and you then counted the number of clicks it took you to go from those sites to yours, the smaller number of clicks that represented, the more trusted your site was.
Google doesn’t use this type of metric. If, for your own purposes, you want to assess the trustworthiness of a site as a source of a link, that’s not a bad idea. If they sell links to others, have less than great content, or otherwise don’t appear reputable, even if they have great PageRank, then it probably isn’t a good source for a link.
Google may not be calculating trust the way you do in your analysis, but chances are good that some other aspect of their system will devalue that link anyway.
Fundamentals of Earning and Attracting Links
Now that you know that obtaining links to your site is critical to SEO success, it’s time to start putting together a plan to get some. The key to success is understanding that Google wants this entire process to be holistic. They actively discourage, and in some cases punish, schemes to get links in an artificial way. This means certain practices are seen as bad, such as:
- Buying links for SEO purposes
- Going to forums and blogs and adding comments with links back to your site
- Hacking people’s sites and injecting links into their content
- Distributing poor quality infographics or widgets that include links back to your pages
- Offering discount codes or affiliate programs as a way to get links
- And, many other schemes where the resulting links are artificial in nature
What Google really wants is for you to make a fantastic website, and promote it effectively, with the result that you earn or attract links. So how do you that?
The first key insight is to understand who it is that might link to content that you create. Here is a chart that profiles the major groups of people in any given market space:
Who do you think are the people that might implement links? It’s certainly not the laggards, and it’s also not the early or late majority. It’s the innovators and early adopters. These are the people who write on media sites, or have blogs, and who might add links to your site.
There are also other sources of links, such as locally oriented sites, like the local chamber of commerce or local newspapers. You might also find some opportunities with colleges and universities if they have pages that relate to some of the things you’re doing in your market space.
Create Expert Content
Now that we know who the potential linkers are, the next step is to create content to which they want to link. The problem is, it’s pretty easy for them to find better content than yours on the web, if it exists. The best way to cope with that reality is to create expert content. If you can do this, your chances of getting people to link to you go way up.
People want to be part of sharing expert content with their friends and their followers online. And, if they write on a media site or on a blog, some of them will want to write about it as well.
If you want this to have a huge impact on your SEO, then start thinking about creating “Elite Content” or “10X Content,” i.e. content that is 10 times better than anything else ever published on the topic before. This is content that causes you to be seen as a thought leader, and it’s the best type of content to create to boost your reputation, visibility and yes, your SEO online.
Trust and Relationships
This all sounds good, but it’s not enough to publish great stuff. If people don’t trust you, or if they’re not willing to take a chance on you, progress will be much slower. It’s important to realize that any given marketplace represents an ecosystem. If you’re seen as only looking out for yourself, people will be slow to support you.
Instead, find ways to work the ecosystem. Help others out on social media. Respond to comments in your social media feeds, and on posts that you publish online. Go to conferences and make completely non-commercial presentations that inform the audience on topics of interest in your market. Go to local events and share advice and counsel.
Become an active and contributing member of the community (that forms your marketplace), and actively share the smart advice and contributions of others. If you share and link to great content that others publish, the chances that they will share and link to your stuff goes way up.
Bylined Articles (Guest Posts) and Publishing on Third Party Sites
Publishing content on third party sites can be a smart thing to do, too. Consider trying to get a column on a major media site that covers your market niche. This will certainly contribute to your reputation as an expert, and help with your reputation and visibility.
Also, most media sites will give you an attribution link at the bottom of each article, or they’ll give you an author bio page that links back to you as well. These types of bylined articles can be invaluable in driving SEO benefits.
Be careful, though, to focus on the high end of potential target sites. If there are 100 sites that cover your market, then there are no more than 20, possibly 30 targets, that will do, and it’s the top 20 or 30 sites in your space. How do you get there? Ah yes, we’re back to your ability to create expert content again!
The Role of Social Media
If you’re able to leverage a strong social media presence, you can expose your content to a large number of people. However, this depends on your building a positive image with that audience. If you do that through positive interactions with your community, including the pre-existing influencers in the community, you have a strong chance of netting good results.
Obtaining good results from social media depends on creating the right types of content. A recent study by Moz and Buzzsumo analyzed one million articles to try and determine the correlation between shares and links. This study showed that across the complete article set, there was almost no correlation at all.
However, a deeper analysis showed that certain types of content performed far better. In particular, opinion-forming journalism from recognized experts, and data-driven research studies. These kinds of content showed a strong correlation between shares and links.
This ties in well with the idea of writing content for innovators and early adopters, and recognizing this should be a cornerstone of your overall link-earning/attraction strategy. Once you have established this position in the market, the role of social media becomes easy. You use it to create exposure to great new content, and the rest takes care of itself!
Earlier, we spoke about the role of innovators and early adopters. Another term people use for these two groups of people is influencers, because others (including your potential customers) are influenced by them.
So social media can help provide visibility for your content, and potentially result in links, but this goes even faster if influencers are involved in sharing your content. Once that starts happening, the growth of your reputation, visibility, and links will accelerate.
Getting influencers interested in sharing your content is heavily dependent on the trust and relationships you build with them, your willingness to share/link to their stuff, and, of course, the quality of the content you create.
Building a Content Marketing Plan
Last, but certainly not least, create a real plan for your content marketing. Don’t just suddenly start doing a lot of random stuff. Take the time to study what your competitors are doing so you can invest your content marketing efforts in a way that’s likely to provide a solid ROI.
One approach to doing that is to pull their backlink profiles using Open Site Explorer, Majestic SEO, and ahrefs. With this information, you can see what types of links they’ve been getting, and then based on that figure out what links you need to get to beat them.
Take the time to do this exercise, and also to map which links are going to which pages on the competitors’ sites, and what each of those pages rank for. Building out this kind of detailed view will help you scope out your plan of attack, and give you some understanding of what keywords you might be able to rank for. It’s well worth the effort!
Putting it All Together
In a Google Hangout sponsored by WebPromo Expert, Google engineer Andrey Lipattsev was asked what the top ranking factors are for Google. He replied that the top two were links and content (but not necessarily in that order). It’s easy to misunderstand that statement (in reality both links and content are probably made up of and influenced by a great many particular factors), but the import of the statement is clear: To do well with search engines, you must have high-quality content and authoritative, relevant links.
Remember where we began this chapter: Search is the quest for authority. Search engines want happy users who will come back to them again and again when they have a question or need. The way they create and sustain that happiness is by providing the best possible results that satisfy that question or need. To do that, the search engines have to be able to understand and measure the relative authority of web pages for the topics they cover.
When you create content that is highly useful (or engaging or entertaining) to visitors, and when those visitors find your content reliable enough that they would willingly return again to your site, or even seek you out above others, you’ve gained authority. The search engines work hard at continually improving their ability to match that human quest for trustworthy authority.
As we explained above, that same kind of quality content is key to earning the kinds of links that assure the search engines you should rank highly for relevant searches. That can be either content on your site that others want to link to or content that other quality, relevant sites want to publish, with appropriate links back to your site.
Remember what we said above and treat your SEO as part of an ecosystem. Serving your audience, building relationships (especially with influencers), and increasing the reputation of your brand will all increase the opportunities for your content and make link-earning easier.
You have everything you need for SEO success. Now get to work!
Featured Image: Image by Paulo Bobita
All in-post photos by Mark Traphagen