13 Dec 2006

Forward Links – Because who you link to matters

I’m sure most of you heard about SEOmoz making changes in how they link out and the use of the nofollow. As Rand stated:

…It’s also an excellent time to talk about how bad outbound links can affect your website.

At SEOmoz, we’ve got 10K+ members with profiles, and a visible amount of those were linking to some naughty places (at least, enough to have it mentioned to me in person). Not just spam, but places that none of us who contribute here (or work here) would want to be associated with. The grapevine source basically said – unless you want all links at SEOmoz to lose their value (including those in the blog, on the recommended list, in articles, etc.), you should take care with who you link out to.

The new system will allow folks who contribute to still have those outbound links that pass value ..We’ll manually approve the folks who get moved into the "contributed a bunch of good stuff" pile so as to prevent linking out to nasty neighborhoods ..

Interesting, as this is the exact advice Matt gave back when he was talking about the no follow tag:

In an ideal world, nofollow would only be for untrusted links. Let’s take the example of a forum that wants to avoid linking to spam, but the same advice applies to wikis or any other web software. If an off-domain link is made by an anonymous or unauthenticated user, I’d use nofollow on that link. Once a user has done a certain number of posts/edits, or has been around for long enough to build up trust, then those nofollows could be removed and the links could be trusted. Anytime you have a user that you’d trust, there’s no need to use nofollow links.

I might have blown this off more back back when Matt first said this, but now I’m thinking he might have actually been giving some good advice (even if I do hate the nofollow tag) when thinking about the trust value of who you link to.

I know it’s been talked about in the past, but so often SEO’s get so focused on who they get backlinks from, that they overlook who they link out to.

Stuntdubl said it very well once in his post called "You’re Only as Smart, Sexy, Funny, and Trusted as the People You Link To"

Link to people that are more intelligent than yourself, and eventually people might actually believe that you’re smart too….

Don’t try to hoard your links, and don’t try to pimp your site out to people. Surround yourself with good people and learn from people smarter, sexier, funnier, and more trusted than yourself. Create resources, but give them some personality….

Martinibuster started a nice thread on webmasterworld back in August called "Could Your Link Neighborhood be a Nightmare on Elm Street?" where he states:

One of the most explicit rules handed down by search engines is the prohibition on linking to bad neighborhoods. Not bad neighbors, but the entire neighborhood. This implies that when you link to a website, you are linking to everyone else they are linking to.

and then asks:

Perhaps one of the troubling issues about defining a bad link neighbor is that a relevant site can be a bad neighbor, and some say that an irrelevant site can be a better neighbor. Oh my! What rules do we use to define the bad neighbors?

Tedster (who I was hanging out with just last night in NYC) then adds:

Another comment: how about looking at the percentage of reciprocal inbound links as an indicator — especially for well established domains. If a site approaches 100% reciprocals for IBLs, then I think it is a very questionable link partner.

Neuron also adds:

When I review a site to determine if it is worthy of me linking to it, the prime determinate of whether I should link to it, is who they are linking to.

If I see that the site links to 100 different Bali hotels or 100 casino sites, and when checking those sites that they too link willy-nilly to anyone and everyone, then that is a bad neighbor. ‘

yahoo.com has little relevancy to most of my sites but I’m very willing to link to yahoo because yahoo exercises discretion in who they link to, so does Google.

TrustRank is very much a backwards iteration of PageRank, it’s not who links to you that matters but who you link to. Can your links be trusted? Do you link to sites that link willy-nilly to all sorts of other sites without regard to who they link to?

In desperation for links people often swap links with sites that are also just as deperate for links. Another word for this is spam. If you do no exercise discretion in who you link to, then you (and your links) cannot be trusted. This incorporates you into a bad neighborhood.

Good neighbors are those that can be trusted. A bad neighborhood is where no one is trusted. If you’ll link to any site then you can’t be trusted, you are from a bad neighborhood.

Very wise words indeed.

Back in Dec of 2004 Bob Mutch was asking in the SEW forum questions about why one site he had just picked up had dipped in rankings, and GoogleGuy came in and offered some advice…ending with:

….Who you link to can affect your ranking. This site seemed to have a lot of links to a lot of very aggressive sites for a non-profit. I’d recommend that he remove all links to these aggressive sites, and then send an email to us requesting reinclusion.

So now let’s look at a couple of types of sites as far as styles of linking out:

1. The Dead End Site. This type of site doesn’t link out to anyone. I don’t want to say that there’s something wrong with this types of site….but I would say that I’m pretty sure that on average 9 out of the top 10 sites link out to other good related resources.

Some Dead End sites are SEO relics from ideas of a few years ago where there was a fear about "Leaking Pagerank"….but that was when Pagerank was a hugh ranking factor, and so lots of people wanted to horde thier pagerank….but wake up…it’s almost 2007 and fears of leaking pagerank need to be replaced with fears of trust levels and co citation.

2. The site who has a Link Trading section of their website (call it what you want, directory, resources, etc). Here is a site who links out to 300 websites on their "links pages" (and fyi, these links pages don’t have any outside links to them….near worthless). Now these 300 sites all link back to this guy from their crappy links pages (that don’t have any outside links to these pages that link to you…near worthless). So this site links out to 300 sites, and all 300 link back….doah! Do you think this looks natural in the eyes of the search engines, or does it have a big ole "kick me, I’m an SEO" flag on it?

Sure, you can be clever with this….there’s those who say "yea, but I only trade with other related sites"….well, that’s better than trading with unrelated sites….but there’s still some problems.

It’s worth also noting that google probably dates when they find someone linking to you as well….so if you link out to someone one day, and the next day they link back, how natural is that (hum…maybe I shouldn’t allow pingbacks in my comments). (tin foil theory?)

3. The Natural Site. This type of site has links out to trusted related sites. Some of those trusted sites also link back to this site on real pages (not from links pages, but on real content pages).

If you’re a regular reader of my blog you know I’m always saying how much I hate "links pages"….but mind you, I don’t feel that all reciprocal links are bad.  Think of it this way….who links to you is part of your neighborhood, who you link to is part of your neighborhood….who you trade links with is your closest neighborhood (you’re linking to each other…..so if you’re going to trade, ideally you’ll want to trade with those sites that are extremely relevant, and only with those site who link out to trusted sites as well (and have trusted backlinks).

Having a few reciprocal links is great…but having 100 links to other sites, where all 100 sites link back is not a good thing.

Solutions:
Ok…. so if Rand is worried about who he links to because he’s worried about his rankings, do you think you should be worried as well about who you link to too? Yea, you should! Let’s look at some simple solutions to finding and analyzing who you link to.

Use MSN’s linkfromdomain command to see who you’re linking to, or who a prospective link deal site is linking out to….this methods is OK.

Better yet, use the new/improved We Build Pages tool – The Forward Links Tool. Once you start this tool, just minimize the screen…let it run it course. After is loads the pages, and the title tags, and checks if it’s a recip link, (takes ~15 minutes to finish), it will then show you some nice summaries.

I ran www.jimboykin.com through this tool. It took 22 minutes to complete….but when it did it said

Summary:  426 forward links, 77 (18.1%) of which are reciprocated (if more than 50% of your links are reciprocal I’d start to worry…that’s not natural)

It then showed everywhere I was linking to (and thier title tags of those page) and if it was a reciprocal link or not, then gives nice list of all your reciprocal links and also a list of any error causing urls.

In browsing through the title tags of those I link out to, I can at least see an SEO theme in who I link to…but….there are many "off topic" sites I’m linking to as well….yea, and the way I have my blog set up with comments, that’s bound to happen…but if I ran webuildpages.com through, that’d be a different story….I’d be very fussy there on who I link to…and unless you run a blog too, you should be too.

If I were to browse through the title tags of the pages I linked out to, and I couldn’t guess what jimboykin.com was about, I’d be worried too (there should be a theme in the page you link to…the more focused, the better).

If I were linking out to bunch of error pages, it’d be a great time to clean that up.

If I wanted to know what specific page of mine was linking to any specific page of another site I could got to yahoo and type in link:http://www.that-site.com/the-page.htm site:jimboykin.com and I can find exactly what one of the pages on jimboykin.com was linking to that page in question.

Often the errors are false errors (many savvy bloggers stop auto checking of thier sites), but it’s worth it to click on them to double check.

Moral: The SEO of 2007 includes looking more closely at who you link to.

Think of who you link to……not only for your rankings….but for the trust your site might pass…and if you’re getting links from other sites, you might want to look at who else that site links to, and what co citation you’re putting your site in.