08 Mar 2012

Link Building and the Bigger Picture with Google

The 40 changes that Google announced last week are a little of what SEO dreams are made of. Not the changes themselves necessarily, which in some cases are significant, but it’s largely exciting for the insights they give. The peek we get behind the curtain in posts like this or like when we got 23 questions to help determine the quality of our content, are a little bit thrilling, at least for us geeks, anyway. Just knowing the issues “The Google Gods” think are important and the questions that they are asking among themselves, helps us know which questions we should be asking ourselves.

There were a lot of different elements of search covered in the 40 changes post, but the one that I was most drawn to, and I imagine piques the curiosity of many others like me, dealt specifically with link evaluation. They said:

Link evaluation. We often use characteristics of links to help us figure out the topic of a linked page. We have changed the way in which we evaluate links; in particular, we are turning off a method of link analysis that we used for several years. We often rearchitect or turn off parts of our scoring in order to keep our system maintainable, clean and understandable.

Fascinating, right? Because it raises the inevitable question, “What on earth could that ‘method of link analysis’ be?”

I believe the most telling words about the intent of the change are these: “figure out the topic of a linked page”. The topic, eh?

So perhaps it could be anchor text? Or the words around the link? Maybe it’s the title tag of the linking page? Or the on-page co-citation? There are so many possibilities, and we could debate them all for hours. But the truly important question is not which signal was affected but how that should affect our link building moving forward.

My thought is, if you’re looking at link building in the big picture, it’s not that much at all.

The most commonly assumed purpose of link building in general is that it is an attempt to influence search engine rankings. And, it is, but how?

Is it, or should it be, about trying really hard to get ranked for a specific set of search terms? I feel like for a lot of people that is what the intent boils down to. But that’s only one part of the purpose of building links that, even if this now defunct link signal were an attempt to limit that benefit of link building, it’s not the end of the world. Or at least, not when you look at the larger advantages of link building, it isn’t.


Trust

The biggest benefit any site can hope to obtain from link building is not necessarily a preponderance of links sporting competitive keyword anchor text, it’s trust. If links are still votes, then every link is a vote of confidence. But the question is who trusts you? And do they have high standards of trust? Getting links from trusted, discriminating sources can bring about much more than just references to subject relevance that may affect rankings. Links are a way of having others tell search engines that, “here is a site I trust, and here is content I found valuable”. And that message is one of the most powerful ways to impact rankings. It may not make you #1 for your top keywords tomorrow, but it will set you apart from websites that have only ever focused on obtaining low value indicators of topic.


Authority

Links can also be an effective way to build up your website’s authority. Links of a high caliber can help demonstrate longevity, accuracy and subject matter expertise. But links like that are based on merit; they aren’t the easy ones that anyone can get. And when you get the benefit of the quality points, whether the link uses the “right keywords” or is on a page with relevant phrases becomes of much less consequence. The fact that you obtained the link at all builds your credibility, and it may also place your link alongside other websites that also have established authority. Partnerships, collaborations, newspaper citations and sponsorships are all excellent links that may or may not include targeted keywords or market relevance. But they definitely provide useful signals about your authority, respect and the distinction of the kinds of websites you work with. And like in life, the company you keep on the web speaks volumes about your character. That relates to the sites that link to you, the sites you’re linked with and even the sites you link out to.


Branding

Another benefit of links is the way they can help with branding. Even though “branding” may feel like another installment in a long list of SEO buzz words, there is real value in establishing a brand online. Anecdotally, Google seems to like brands, sure. But branding efforts also build on the elements of trust and authority I talked about above. A brand is instantly recognizable, immediately evokes a greater sense of expertise and instills consumer trust. But it even goes beyond that.

Looking at links for branding purposes helps to extend your audience and reach in a way that is completely separate from search engines. Referrals from other sites can be substantial sources of traffic. I mean, if the idea is to build links to help search engine rankings to get more visitors, then if some links can cut out the middle man, sending traffic directly to the site those links have a significant value all on their own. Formulating link building campaigns that emphasize branding can yield visitors, and improve the visibility of your brand. Many websites also benefit from navigational searches – the ones people do for a business name or a website. Those kinds of searches won’t happen if no one is aware of your name, and link building to increase that awareness can ultimately help improve overall traffic from various sources.


The On-page Caveat

If there is now one less factor of link evaluation – one factor of hundreds, mind you, but one important enough Google felt inclined to mention it – that help to determine your website’s topic, that does bring us back to some fundamentals. Most prominently, it reminds us of the ever-present importance of excellent, on-page optimization. The way you use text on a page, set up title tags and H# tags, use alt-text and build relevant phrases into the content of your pages, still matters. A lot. Granted, any site will only get so far with just on-page optimization before having to focus on off-site factors to move beyond the plateau. But with the essential, on-page elements included and done right, they are augmented by intangible signals like trust, authority and branding.


The Underlying Idea

With so many factors going into figuring out a website’s topic and relevance, then in all likelihood whatever one that they “turned off” was one that was either easily manipulated and/or gave less reliable/accurate data about subject matter. But considering that hundreds of factors go into link evaluation, links are still probably going to be used in some way to help determine what a linked page is about. And we can drive ourselves crazy trying to “chase the algorithm” or we can step back and look at the bigger picture.

So my point is that, in the end, whatever it was, and whatever the remaining signals are, link building as a process is about SO MUCH MORE than just telling search engines what a page is about. Sure, links have been and probably will continue to be a huge part of determining subject matter, but they are also a part of establishing your overall online presence, and for a site that wants to thrive online, that means using links to indicate trust, authority and brand power in addition to just keyword relevance.

So what do you think the “turned off” method was? Wild speculation only of course! 🙂