When site owners come to the realization that links are an important component to search rank they start to ask questions about the value of links. How many links do I need? Which link is better? Where can I get links?
I want to spend this post (and one post to follow) looking at links and answering questions about link value in a common sense way.
This post is aimed mainly at those new to link building and its goal is to help make some general concepts easier to understand. Next week we’ll continue with some thoughts about what makes one link more or less valuable than another.
Very Brief History of the Search Engine Cat and Mouse Game
Search engines have a difficult task. You type in a few words and they need to quickly recommend web pages they think you’d like. There are 3 things involved in doing that.
- Search engines need to find your content
- Search engines need to understand your content
- Search engines need to prioritize content from across the web
Before Google this was mostly done through the words on your web page, whether part of the actual content or part of the code producing that content. The problem with that approach is that it was very easy to manipulate.
People would repeat keywords over and over on the page, resulting in a lot of nonsensical content. The net effect was the best content wasn’t always what you found at the top of the results.
Google changed things by adding links as a ranking factor.
Given how much money can be made by having your site rank well some site owners will always look for holes in any algorithm and attempt to manipulate rankings in ways search engines don’t care for.
That includes links. People observe what works and seek to manipulate those factors for quicker results. Search engines observe how people are attempting to manipulate things and seek to close the holes.
It’s an endless game of cat and mouse. Find hole in algorithm. Take advantage of hole. Search engines close hole. Find a new hole in the algorithm…
Think Like a Search Engineer
The above explains one of the reason search algorithms change.They don’t only change because of the cat and mouse game, however. They also change because search engines are always working to provide a better experience for end users.
The point is algorithms change. And with all that change there’s a lot of advice online, often conflicting advice. How can you separate the good from the bad?
One answer is to think like a search engineer.
If you can imagine yourself with the job of being a search engineer and thinking about what you might do to improve those algorithms you can often predict what will and won’t work in the future.
For example one tactic for link building has been link exchanges or reciprocal links. People agree to exchange links for no other reason than to gain links. Much of the time these links aren’t going to be useful for the visitors of either site. They exist solely for the seo benefit.
A search engineer isn’t going to want those links to improve how either site ranks since the links aren’t an honest signal for the quality of either site.
It stands to reason that search engineers would be working to lesson or remove the value of reciprocal links. A few years ago that’s exactly what happened and many people who built links mainly through link exchanges watched as their sites lost traffic overnight.
When it comes to links (or any seo tactic) ask yourself if it was your search engine would you consider that tactic a signal for finding quality content? Ultimately the goal of search engines is to return the best content they can in the results.
Anything likely to indicate content is good will probably be something that will continue to be good seo. Anything that doesn’t indicate good content is likely to not work at some point in the future.
There’s one last concept I want to mention to prepare us for understanding link value and that’s competition. How many pages you’re competing with for a given keyphrase impacts how many links you’ll need or what link factors are most important.
An example should make this clear.
Imagine there’s one and only one page on the internet about the subject of red widgets. We know it’s about red widgets, because both words and the phrase are used on the page and in the code.
Assuming the page has been indexed by a search engine it’s likely to be returned as the #1 result as it’s the only page on the subject.
Now imagine a second page about red widgets is also found and indexed. It includes red widgets on the page similarly to the first site. Search engines now need to decide which is the better result. They might look at:
- How often the phrase us used on the page and in the code
- Any emphasis of the words and phrase on the page and in the code
- Where are the words and phrase used on the page and in the code
- Are synonyms for the words and phrase used on the page and in the code
It might be enough to look at what happens on the page itself when there are only 2 or a few potential results.
How about when the number of indexed pages about red widgets becomes larger. Is the page that mentions the phrase one more time really better? Does that one bolded occurrence of the phrase really improve the quality of the page?
As more and more pages are competing the importance of links increases. When no pages have any links pointing to them the one that gets one or two regardless of where those links come from is probably the one that ends up ranking best.
When more of the competing pages start acquiring links search engines have to look deeper than the sheer number. They have to start asking some questions about links such as:
- Can we trust all these links equally?
- Which factors of the link offer a better signal of quality?
- What is this link really indicting?
Search engines have to start ranking the links themselves. They have to create some link value scale to determine what any link is really suggesting about the page it points to.
I want to leave things today with the idea that different links have different values associated with them. Hopefully this post has helped you understand why that needs to be the case.
Next week we’ll pick up and start talking about what might influence the value of a link in the eyes of a search engine.
For now understand that search algorithms evolve and are constantly changing. A cat and mouse game exists between some exploiting holes and search engineers then closing those holes. If you can imagine yourself as a search engineer you can often predict what seo tactics will and won’t work.
Know too that as competition increases search engines need to dig deeper into what they measure. More doesn’t automatically win the game. Quality matters. Some links are more valuable than others.
Next time we’ll look at individual links and talk about why one link is seen as more valuable than the next.
Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.
Thanks for the really informative post. I’ve just started out promoting my site so understanding how search engines work is really useful! I look forward to your next post …
Glad I could help. I hope you also enjoyed the 2 posts on link building after this one.
great article. there’s so much to learn about SEO it’s a little daunting.
It can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Also if you keep learning seo there will come a point where much that seemed daunting seems clearer.
You really need to approach your link building with an open mind and a realization that things take time and finding the right links takes persistence along with creative thinking. Finding loops holes is not a good SEO strategy and will certainly lead to nothing but misery eventually.
It’s the taking time thing that’s the key. I think a lot of people don’t want to hear that it takes time so they look for the quick and easy. Unfortunately when quick and easy doesn’t work people decide seo must not work either.