What really sets Google apart from the rest of the search engines is the quality and consistency of their results. In less than a decade, and with very little marketing, Google has become the stand-alone titan of search. And millions of Googlers wouldn’t even dream of searching anywhere else.
Much of Google’s success can be put down to the way in which their search algorithm works. From conception the brains behind Google were looking for a way of finding the most authoritative sites on the Web. They came up with a neat solution whereby every link pointing to your site was measured as a vote of confidence. And the more confidence Google had in your site; the higher it appeared in the search results.
It sounds simple and in the early days there was little more to SEO than sprinkling a few links here and there. But over the years Google has been playing a continual game of cat and mouse with webmasters and things have got a lot more complicated.
Today you still need links, but it’s essential that you get the right ones. When developing a linking strategy your end goal is for Google to see your website as the authority.
What’s in a backlink?
Links come in all shapes and sizes, but dig into the code and you typically met with a string of HTML which looks like this:
- <a href =”http://www.dogsrus.com”>Visit Dogs R Us</a>
- <a href =http://www.dogsrus.com rel=”nofollow”>Visit Dogs R Us</a>
- <a href =http://www.dogsrus.com target =”_blank”>Visit Dogs R Us</a>
Each of the above links points to the same place: the homepage of dogsrus.com
Each of the above has the same ‘anchor text’ or ‘link text’, which refers to clickable element of the link found on the page. In this case it reads Visit Dogs R Us
The second and third links contain additional attributes which are of interest to optimisers. The second contains the ‘no follow’ attribute (rel=”nofollow”) and the third the ‘target’ attribute (target=”_blank”). Both are discussed later in this chapter, but included here so that the code blind can at least recognise them.
What makes a good backlink?
There’s a school of thought in the SEO world that simply believes ‘a link is a link’ and on one level it’s difficult to argue with. However, a more insightful maxim would be ‘a link is a link, but not all links are equal’.
Just as Google evaluates the authority of your website, they also evaluate the authority of the links pointing to your site. Google’s ranking algorithm rewards the quality of links over the quantity of links; and this should be mirrored in your linking strategy.
Gauging the worth of a link is something of a juggling act and you have to learn how to keep several balls in the air at once. However, once you’ve got the knack (and with practice you will pick it-up) you can then decide how much you are prepared to invest in pursuing a particular link. And as with all investments it’s a question of time, effort and ultimately money.
When evaluating the value of a link, you need to consider all of the following:
Measuring backlink authority
It’s hardly surprising that links from websites which are already established in Google’s eyes as ‘authorities’ are more valuable than links from sites which have yet to earn their trust. Say for example you are running a Sports Injury website; you’ll get significantly more link love from an article in the sporting pages of BBC online than from your local Leisure Centre’s website (although the latter is not to be sniffed at!)
Authority links are the toughest to get, but well worth the effort involved. One of the reasons why Google trusts such sites is precisely because they stand outside the world of SEO link manipulation. If only the authorities in the real world were less susceptible to corruption!
Gaining authority links requires a good deal of effort and creativity. For example: media websites are more likely to respond to newsworthy press releases, while education (.edu) and organisation (.org) websites may be better approached with offers of sponsorship or by providing free tools & widgets.
Gaining authority links is hard work, and if you aren’t prepared to put in the effort; your linking resources are best spent elsewhere.
When judging the authority of a website it’s essential that you don’t rely solely on PageRank. Admittedly most authority websites will have a high PageRank, but the opposite isn’t always true. Toolbar PageRank is largely an expression of a website’s link profile, and it’s perfectly possible to build up a decent PageRank without earning Google’s trust.
The quickest way to see if Google trusts a site with a high PageRank is to identify the page where you hope to get a link and copy the title tag into Google’s search box. Run a query and the page in question should be at the top of the results.
Does the age of a backlink really matter?
Google loves history and it’s generally a case of the older: the better. Established websites have had longer to build up trust and consequently Google gives greater weight to links from websites with a proven track record.
A similar weighting also applies within a site, whereby you get more link love from an older pager, rather than one which has just been created.
Domain Tools is an easy way to check the age of a URL, and you are looking for sites that have been around for at least two or three years.
It’s also worth having a quick look at the Wayback Machine which provides a visual archive of screenshots for all websites throughout their history. Make sure the site hasn’t had a previous incarnation which could be frowned upon by Google; this could include anything from morally dubious content to Black Hat SEO. If you don’t; you may find that you’re investing in links from a recognised ‘bad neighbourhood’.
The importance of relevance when building links
Next to authority comes relevance. Links carry extra value if they come from a website which is topically related to your site. And if you put yourself in Google’s shoes you can begin to see why.
If you remember that Google sees links as ‘votes of confidence’ in a site, then surely a vote from someone operating in the same marketplace should carry more weight than that of a layman?
In fact, Google’s webmaster guidelines actually spell it out: “the sites that link to you can provide context about the subject matter of your site, and can indicate its quality and popularity.”
In an ideal world all your links would come from websites that are on-topic and in the right geographic location. However, inbound links from relevant pages (even if the site is slightly off-topic) can be just as beneficial… especially if they have got the right title tag.
By focusing on relevance surfers are also more likely to follow links to your site, so you’ll also enjoy extra visitors. And don’t forget that ‘link traffic’ is exactly the sort of thing that Google is now monitoring.
In recent years Google has been getting hotter and hotter on relevance, and because it’s easier to find relevant links than authoritative links; your linking strategy should focus on this area.
Anyhow, why on earth would you want links from an Eastern European property company pointing to your Sports Injury website? It’s just plain wrong and Google isn’t stupid.
Are outbound links important when building links?
The number of outbound links on a page affects the value of each link. Put simply, the more links there are on a page: the less each link is worth. Google divides the strength of each page by the number of outbound links, so if you are one of a handful of links it’s good news. However, the flipside is that if you are surrounded by tens or even hundreds of other links, then you won’t see much benefit.
So how many outbound links are too many? It really is a case of, the fewer: the better. Google suggests keeping “links on a given page to a reasonable number (fewer than 100)”, but that seems overly generous from a link-building perspective. Let’s just say that 20 outbound links are a lot better than 50.
It’s worth having a quick look to see where the existing links on a page are pointing. Again steer clear of anything that might tie your website to a ‘bad neighbourhood’.
Does inbound link location affect SEO?
The value of a link can vary depending on its location within the site and on the page:
On Site Location: Pages buried deep within website generally have a lower PageRank than those closer to the homepage. The result is that links from low level pages have comparatively less value than those higher up in the structure. The trick is to aim as high as possible, but to remain realistic.
On Page Location: Endless papers have been published on how the physical location of a link on the page affects its strength. It makes for exhausting reading and there are only a couple of things you really need to know:
- The closer your link is to the top of the page; the more strength it imparts. This is because search spiders reach your link sooner and logically assume it is more important than links further down the page. And it also explains why so many companies are prepared to pay premium dollar for ‘sponsored listings’ at the top of a directory page.
- The more ‘natural’ the link location; the less likely it is to be ignored. Google’s very good at recognising patterns in HTML and spiders often skip code that is the same from page to page. It’s a phenomenon that’s known as ‘boilerplate stripping’ and the result is that linking fingerprints (typically in footers and sidebars) are identified and disregarded. It’s a much safer bet to make sure your links appear ‘naturally’ by placing them within the body copy.
So that’s the basics of assessing the value of a link covered covers, in our next we will be looking at planning a link building campaign