Linking Overview

by Eric Enge

You may have heard that links from other sites to your site play a key role in helping your site rank highly in search engines. This is in fact true – but it’s important to understand what makes a good link versus a bad link. This paper will discuss all of this in detail.

When all is said and done, what you will find is that most of what you need to do will be accomplished by thinking about promoting your site in the same manner that you would if the search engines simply did not exist, and you are simply seeking out traffic from other web sites to your site. This is in fact what the search engines want you to do. On top of this basic philosophy, a little bit of fine tuning is all you need, and you will be well on your way.

How search engines measure a site

Search engines use a number of factors to measure a site or page and rank it for particular search terms. Of course, one of the things they do is look at the page itself and examine the text on the page, the title, the headers, and pages that the page links to. This helps the search engine determine what the page is about.

However, even in a perfect world without spammers (people trying to achieve search engine rankings they don’t deserve), this is not enough. How would the search engine know that Amazon is more important than Joe’s bookstore if the on page content was substantially similar? This is enough of an issue to force search engines to rely on third party links to your site (or page) to evaluate its importance. Bear in mind that the search engine wants to treat each link as a vote, or endorsement, for your site. So links that are not earnest votes for your site are not what they want to value.

Spammers simply make the situation worse. In the past, spammers created on page content intended to deceive search engines. The result is that links became even more important in evaluating a site. After all, if hundreds, or even thousands, of other site owners link to you, it becomes more likely that your site is important. In addition, if they link to you from relevant sites, using relevant text to describe your site, this further confirms what your site is about.

All of the major search engines rely on third party links to your site as a voting mechanism to determine its importance, and they also look at the relevance of the site linking to you to confirm what your site is about. In principle, more links means a more important site.

However, this is not a strict democratic system. A link from a more important site (i.e. one that has lots of links to it) counts more than a link from a less important site. In addition, a link from a highly relevant site (a site on the same topic) counts more than a link from a less relevant site.

Google provides a crude measurement of site importance with its “Page Rank”. Don’t know what this is? You can read more about Google Page Rank here.

It’s also good to get more than one link from a highly relevant site. However, getting links from 100 pages on one site is not nearly as good as getting a link from 1 page on 100 sites. More domains is better.

More on Relevance

Search engines measure the relevance of a link from another site in many different ways. The basic methods are:

  • Link text (anchor text) – what does it say? If your site is about “blue widgets” does the link text say “blue widgets” or something similar?
  • Nearby text relevance – does text before and after the anchor text of the link to you support the theme of the anchor text?
  • Page relevance – does the page where the link appears have a similar theme to your page?
  • Site relevance – does the site where the link appears have a similar theme to your page?

The most powerful links come from relevant sites, on relevant pages, and use anchor text that relates to a keyword that you are trying to rank your page for.

Link filtering

So now that we know that we want links from lots of domains, and from relevant sites, what else do we need to think about? Filtering. Google has published a patent application that details filtering algorithms that they might use, and it is well known that they use many of these filtering techniques today.

For example, it is well known that they apply a time filter. For most links, Google does not count the link for a considerable period of time (3 to 6 months) after they first detect the link. The reason for this is that it provides additional protection against spammers.

There are many other techniques that they could use as well. For example, if all your links use the exact same link text, the search engine will recognize this as unnatural behavior. Or if you add 10,000 links in one week, and less than 100 over the next 3 months, this also looks unnatural. This is data that is readily available to the major search engines, and data they can use to detect bad behavior by a site owner.

There are exceptions to the Google time filtering algorithm. Links from .gov (government) sites and .edu (educational institution) sites are not subject to the filtering algorithm. It may be that other sites that are recognized “authority” sites, such as major news sites, are not subject to the time filtering algorithm either. Because of their special status, these sites may also provide additional benefits in the weighting of their relevance.

How to Pursue Getting Links

There are many techniques for pursuing links. If you have been operating a web site for any length of time, you surely have gotten the emails requesting that you trade links. Often these come with some description of the importance of “link popularity” to web site rankings. Sounds good right?

Trouble is that these links do not meet the search engines goal of being a vote for your site. These types of links represent barter. Search engines easily detect these types of links and discount them in their entirety. If the site you are linking to is not relevant to your site, you are wasting your time pursuing these types of links. Note that link swaps with highly relevant sites do still bring benefits to your site rankings.

Another common practice is to go out and purchase links. Many major SEO firms still recommend this practice. It is dangerous business. A purchased link is not a vote for your site either. Google uses two major techniques to detect purchased links:

  1. Algorithms look for clues near your link. For example, phrases like “Advertisers” or “Sponsors” represent an obvious clue. In addition, if your purchased link shows up among a group of links about unrelated topics, this is another clue that the link is purchased.
  2. Google accepts reports of purchased links from third parties (for example, your competitors). They take these reports and use a variety of methods to check them out.

Google also has key employees, such as Matt Cutts, active in the forums. A recent example of this is the recent discussion about the Washington Post Blogroll Links. While I don’t know for sure, I would assume that any paid link scheme that gets publicly discussed in a forum is tagged, resulting in it having no value whatsoever.

Our experience is that Google detects a far larger percentage of purchased links then most people think. When Google detects sites that are engaging in the purchasing of links, they take action. In the best case, they simply tag the links as purchased, in which case the links have no effect on your rankings, and in the worst case, you can be banned from the Google index.

So what to do? Simple – market your business on the web effectively. Here is the simple plan:

  • When you form relationships with business partners, make a link to your site part of the business terms.
  • Develop great (non-commercial) content, and then ask people to link to it. Site owners like to reference and link to great content. This is the entire initial concept of the web in the first place. Do more than use this concept. Excel at it.
  • Engage in web PR – it’s a great tool for getting links.
  • Start a blog. Use it as a tool for gathering links.
  • Implement an RSS feed. Submit it to RSS directories.
  • Submit to quality directories, such as Yahoo and DMOZ. Even though some of these directories are paid submission, the links do count because Google knows which directories are trustworthy, and because human editors review your submission and reserve the right to reject your submission and keep the fee. Note that if you find a directory that does not reserve that right, don’t submit to it – it probably will add no value to your site.

There are many other things you can do to get links to your site. The best way to proceed is to realize that you want lots of relevant, quality sites to link to the pages on your site, and to go after it aggressively. But instead of thinking about how to game the search engines, think about what you would do if you were depending on traffic directly from those sites to grow your business.

If you take that approach, you are well on your way to search engine success!

You can also read this article to get 8 quick tips on strategies for getting links to your site. Follow these 8 tips to increase the number of links to your site.

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