When is a link not okay? When will you get a penalty for linking to someone else? When will you get a penalty if someone links to you?
This area grows ever more complicated.
The old-hands will know this, but those newer to SEO are justified if feeling confused.
The Interflora UK site was recently dropped from top position in Google, although it looks like they’ve now returned. As we’ve seen in the past, major brands typically return quickly, because if visitors don’t see a brand they expect to see, then Google looks deficient.
According to this excellent analysis by Anthony Shapley, the Interflora site was likely dropped due to an abundance of links coming from regional newspaper sites. These sites contained “Advertorial” content that looked something like this:
Whilst similar pages don’t appear to have inbound links to Interflora UK now, it’s clear from Anthony’s analysis that they did previously. In turn, sites featuring the Advertorials appear to have suffered a decrease in PageRank. If they were selling space for the purposes of flowing PageRank then that value has likely diminished.
Google has downgraded the Toolbar PageRank scores for several dozen UK operated newspapers and news sites today. It is believed the reason Google has downgraded their PageRank scores is because they were selling links on a massive scale
But What’s This?
So, are Advertorial backlinks “evil”?
It would appear so.
Then again, maybe not, if you happen to be Google. Aaron spotted an advertorial placement - sorry, “Information Feature” - last week. Google appear to be placing content too, complete with backlinks that aren’t no-followed.
When they do it, it’s okay? Or is this simply an “unfortunate oversight” on the part of one rogue tentacle of the sprawling Google octopus? Given Google’s previous stance on such issues, it’s probably the latter. But how many webmasters, especially webmasters of minor web properties, can claim “an unfortunate oversight” in their defense? And if they do, would they receive a fair hearing?
Still, Google, as an organization have done a good job of building their brand, and like most major brands, I’m sure we’ll continue to see them at the top of search result pages. It helps, of course, that if there are any real problems in terms of penalties delivered by an algorithm, or a quality rater who has temporarily forgotten who pays her wages, someone in the search quality team can talk to someone else in the search quality team and clear up any misunderstanding.
And why not? There’s got to be some advantage in being big - and owning the show - right?
What About Guest Columns?
What’s an advertorial?
If someone guest posts on a site, and links back to their site, is that an advertorial? A lot of media websites are run that way. How would an algorithm tell the difference?
But doing so is a standard marketing 101 practice from a time before search engines existed. It’s not a crime to link to another site. It’s not a crime to place self-promotional content on another site that leads back to your own. The visitor traveling across the link is the payoff.
But SEOs know about another layer of pay-off, regardless of visitor traffic.
Google may argue that it’s safest to put a “no-follow” attribute on the link, which indicates intent i.e. “I’m not doing this because of what I read in The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, honest guv!”, but that seems to be an arbitrary way of doing things given people in the SEO community know what a no-follow is, but most webmasters and publishers don’t. Most links won’t be no-followed, regardless of intent.
If Google don’t think the content, and link, is of sufficient quality, then why not just degrade it? Why does the publisher need to jump through arbitrary hoops that won’t apply to everyone, equally? Does the fact a page is labelled an “Advertorial” mean it receives special attention? If so, then won’t we simply see more “integrated” editorial “solutions” in future?
The line is rather blurry.
In the case of Interflora UK, it seems the link problem was largely due to scale. Rule #1 is don’t embarrass Google, and a lot of links coming in from near-identical, low-quality content is a sure-fire way to do so.
It was almost certainly a hand edit, as this practice has been going on for some time, so given the sites are crawled, and in the index, and rank well, as they have been doing for a while, then we can probably assume the algorithms had no issue with them, at least up until recently.
Perhaps a competitor raised the alarm?
Difficult to know for sure.
It’s a good marketing opportunity for Google in that they get to put many webmasters and SEOs on notice again. “Content placement” is not within the guidelines, and if you do it, they may hit you if we see you.
So many webmasters start to fret about where, exactly, the line is drawn.
Google has said for years that selling links that pass PageRank violates our quality guidelines. We continue to reiterate that guidance periodically to help remind site owners and webmasters of that policy. Please be wary if someone approaches you and wants to pay you for links or "advertorial" pages on your site that pass PageRank. Selling links (or entire advertorial pages with embedded links) that pass PageRank violates our quality guidelines, and Google does take action on such violations.
Pretty clear. If you want to stay well within Google’s guidelines on this issue, don’t run Advertorial pages with links to the site that paid for them, and don’t be the target of same. As we speak, there will likely be hundreds of webmasters pulling down Advertorial-style campaigns. At very least, I’m sure SEOs will be disinclined to label them as such in future.
It raises an interesting issue, though. What’s to stop a competitor doing this? Running an Advertorial campaign on your behalf, reporting you, and taking you out. And if you’re a minor player, will you get a fair trial?
Dastardly competitors aside, the best way to avoid this type of penalty is to ask yourself “What Would Matt Cutts Do”? Matt's blog is the model for safe linking.
A link needs to be tightly integrated with editorial. A rule of thumb is that the editorial should be closer to balanced journalism and personal opinion and further away from PR - as in press release. The interesting thing about this case is that a lot of press releases will likely fit an Advertorial definition. This is not to say you’ll receive a ban if you're linked to from a press release, or if you carry a press release you’ll be degraded, but you probably need to be a little wary of badly "written" press releases displayed in a...cough....“systematic” way.
The other rule of thumb is “would this pass human inspection and will that human see the content as editorial”? If so, even if you don’t have a no-follow link, it should be fine. If it’s not, then most of the web isn’t okay, including many of Google’s own properties.
Those who don’t care about Google’s guidelines probably got a good case study in how well Advertorial-with-link placement can work, at least up until such time as the campaign pitches-up above-radar.
They have big advertising budgets. They have brand awareness. Every time they twitch, some business journalist will be writing up a story.
But what if you operate a small business? You have a limited budget, you've got a pile of other things that need doing, and very little time to devote to any one aspect of your marketing strategy. How do you build links without breaking the bank?
Let's take a look at how the small business can generate quality links, and do so without a great deal of time and money.
1. Use Your Agility
The small business has one huge advantage over the big business when it comes to SEO: agility.
The small business, on the other hand, can move very quickly.
Chances are, there are only one or two people making decisions, so use this to your advantage. Are there aspects of your industry where speed is essential? Can you react to fast breaking news before the big guys can? Can you spot fast emerging consumer trends, and publish information on them before anyone else does? To help you monitor breaking news and trends in your area of interest, sign up to trend sites, such as Google Trends, and monitor news feeds using Google Alerts.
Big business finds it very difficult to be controversial, yet controversy can be a great marketing tool. The Sex Pistols built a career, not by copying the establishment, but by butting heads with it. Everyone knows about "Will it blend?". That viral campaign was edgy, risky and out-there. If Blendtech hadn't taken that risk, they wouldn't have been worth remarking on. A blender is not a new invention, and there are a lot of big competitors making blenders, but Blentech made their name by being a bit wild and crazy.
Are there opportunities for you to go against the grain and stand out? If you do, you'll be link worthy. Can you borrow controversial ideas form other market sectors and apply them to your own?
2. Publishing Strategy
It is becoming increasingly difficult to get people to voluntarily link to purely commercial sites.
Consider adopting a publishing strategy that has a non-commercial angle. If need be, create a second site. It is much easier to get links for sites that have utility beyond selling a product or service. Create glossaries, unbiased buyer information, review sites, blogs, wikis, or industry news sites. Once the site has built up some link equity, and is ranking well, you can add your own advertising, or link it to your commercial site.
Try to create niche information sites that cover areas no one else is covering. Think small. If you're one of the few sources for a particular type of information, you stand to get more links than sites that compete in saturated areas. Try not to compete directly with the bigger operators. Redefine your niche until you can make your offering unique.
Take a step back from your site. Is it remarkable? Would you link to it? Be honest. Think about what it takes for you to link out. Why would someone link to you? Can you make the people linking to you look good? Consider writing favorable reviews about indirect competitors. Does your site provide genuine utility when compared to your competitors? Think about what problems you can solve for people that no-one else is solving. PlentyOfFish.com made millions by providing a free dating service when every other dating site was using a paid subscriber model. Provide information that solves a problem.
Get listed in relevant directories, local business organizations, and industry verticals. To find these sites, search on industry name + add url
Issue press releases whenever you have relevant information to share. Make a list of the top sites in your industry sector, and try to get a link from them. Can you offer to do something for them, like writing an article, in return for a link? Look at who links to your competitors. Use tools, such as Yahoo Site Explorer, to find these links
Make a list of those sites and see what your competitors did to get these links. Copy what they did. Put most of your efforts into getting quality links, rather than getting low quantity junk. It's surprising how few links you need in order to rank well, especially in niche areas.
4. Give Something Valuable Away
Web designers often give away templates. They create a template, and place their link in the footer.
Think about what you can create and give away. Compare the cost of developing these widgets and freebies with the cost of buying or chasing links. If you're providing something genuinely valuable for nothing, people are certain to remark on it, especially if your competitors charge for the same thing. You can also submit your offering to sites that feature freebies, such as TheFreeSite.com. While every other guy is "giving" the opportunity for a link trade - which isn't of much value - you're going one step further.
Offer coupons. Simply by offering coupons, you can get included in coupon and bargain hunting sites.
5. Local News Interest
Local newspapers and news sites are always on the lookout for local content. Unlike major newspapers, the barrier to entry is often low, but the link equity can be just as valuable.
Is there a local aspect to your business? Are there ways you can get involved in the community that would lead to reporters writing a story about you? Issue press releases with a local angle, and try and build up a relationship with local reporters. Offer to be a spokesperson for your topic of interest if they have future stories for which they need an expert opinion.
6. Sponsor Charities
Charity sites are often amenable to linking out to those who support them. The cost of the donation might be nothing compared to the value of a lifetime link from a well-placed charities.
Offer to do work of genuine value for the charity. Could you help them market their website? Design a new website for them? Can you write an article for them, or find a way of featuring in their news stories? These links are pure gold,and because it takes some effort, it is difficult for your lazy competitors to follow.
Search on terms such as donor, sponsors, and donations to find these sites.
7. Request A Link In All Communications
Whenever you mail someone, include a link request in the footer. The communication could be an order confirmation, an email newsletter, or an invoice. Here's an example on SEOmoz.
Highlight featured content in your email footer. Update the links in your email footer regularly, so people are more likely to look at them. Think of your communications as a call to action. How can you get people to engage further with you?
Start a Twitter account and post your articles. Do the same with Facebook and any other social media channels you use.
Go where your audience are.
It's not just about getting links that pass PR. It's about creating meaningful relationships. If your potential audience hangs out on forums, then post to those forums. Become a trusted member and advisor. People link to SEOBook.com not just because of the great information ;) but because of the quality of the relationship has been established in the past.
This approach will serve you well for the future. Google will be placing more and more emphasis on engagement metrics in order to determine rank. Why?
The problem Google was created to solve - finding relevant information - is morphing into a problem of locating quality information. There might be a lot of crawlable information on a given topic, so finding it isn't an issue any more. Finding the information people find most useful is the new challenge.
How people engage with your site is going to become increasingly important.Look to establish meaningful relationships, wherever possible.
Alexander Hamilton's face is on every $10 bill, but his brand isn't doing so hot. Thomas Jefferson, meanwhile, has a strong brand, and he's only on the 2, and there are hardly any of those in circulation. What is a fair CPM rate for either gentleman to pay for this type of exposure?
Just in time for the holidays, Media Whiz's Text Link Ads launched a new links product named InLinks, which puts text links inside the content of sites powered by Wordpress, MovableType, and Drupal. Rather than links sticking out like a sore thumb by putting a rail of paid links in the sidebar or footer (the old text link brokering model) this allows for a more efficient marketplace that is more likely to pass link juice and be a bit harder to detect.
Link Location Matters
Yahoo! Search's Priyank Garg highlighted that they look at link location when determining the value of links:
The irrelevant links at the bottom of a page, which will not be as valuable for a user, don’t add to the quality of the user experience, so we don’t account for those in our ranking. All of those links might still be useful for crawl discovery, but they won’t support the ranking.
Matt Cutts was quick to say that this link buying program violates Google's TOS (and might be against an FTC guideline), but Shoemoney highlighted how Google is known to look the other was on such decisions when it is profitable to do so.
Every time paid links is brought up Matt Cutts brings up the FTC’s “suggestions” on bloggers disclosing things they have been compensated for. In no where in these “suggestions” does it talk about paid links. But even if it did they are just suggestions.
They are not law and if Google was following the FTC’s suggestions I doubt Google Adsense/adlinks would be engaging in some of the most deceptive advertising methods I have ever seen on the internet.
Invariably I get the question, SHOULD I BUY LINKS?
Wanna know the funny thing? Most of the people who ask me that question are the people who least need to worry about the risk. The risk motivating the question being whether or not they may be penalized by google instead of the risk being about going broke.
Logic would dictate that anyone concerned about the risk of being penalized by Google, is actually worried about losing something they already have. In this case sales coming from targeted traffic generated from superior organic placements in the SERP’s. Fine, that makes sense as that is pretty much the definition of risk. Losing what you already have or at least losing a perceived opportunity that you have already made an investment in, (which was a calculated risk the minute a decision was made to put up a webpage and long before this question ever came up).
But far more often than not, when I take a look at the site belonging to the askee, I see a site that looks like a third graders ransom note and written by a Marlon Sanders school of “But Wait – There’s More” drop out with a title tag that reads, index-Mozilla Firefox.
Little traffic to speak of and certainly no sales to lose. There is VERY little visible investment in design, content or anything else. Yet they brag of the #3 spot they have for a keyword with over a million results like that is all they need for proof of their valuable contribution to the world of online commerce.
I spoke to some folks at Text Link Ads who said that the InLinks inventory is separate from their traditional old-school link inventory.
Is this new network on Google's radar? Absolutely, but then what did Google expect when they only penalized one link broker while letting all the others rank? In doing so, Google made their fighting paid links program much more difficult to manage.
Might they catch some publishers? Sure, especially if they are greedy, aggressive, and use little to no editorial oversight. But some will do it smartly, and for most advertisers the risk is minimal so long as you use it lightly...many of these sites are well ingrained into the web, with thousands of legitimate inbound and outbound links.
Most search traffic goes to the top few ranking results. I wouldn't use this type of linking program to try to go from #103 to the first page, but if you are ranking #8 or #12, buying a few of these links might be all you need to capture a profitable top Google ranking.
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Linking out is a valuable marketing strategy on a number of levels.
It increases the utility of your site. People will see you as being helpful. People will see you as non-partisan i.e. not always favoring your own stuff. Webmasters may see your inbound link in their logs and follow them back to you. Links are, at the most fundamental level, a connection between people.
If you've read something about the HITS algorithm (.pdf), you may have noticed that HITS looks for, and evaluates, both authority and hub pages. i.e. pages that contain multiple links out to authority pages. HITS stands for "hypertext induced topic selection", and, like PageRank, is concerned with link graph analysis.
HITS uses two values for each page, the authority value and the hub value.
"Hubs and authorities exhibit what could be called a mutually reinforcing relationship: a good hub is a page that points to many good authorities; a good authority is a page that is pointed to by many good hubs...An authority value is computed as the sum of the scaled hub values that point to that page. A hub value is the sum of the scaled authority values of the pages it points to. Relevance of the linked pages is also considered in some implementations."
How much is HITS being used? Mike Grehan, a noted world authority on search marketing, and girly drinker of Merlot (Hi Mike! - hows NY?), had this to say after interviewing Daniel Dulitz from Google:
Simply for this reason (and these are purely my own thoughts and opinions): I believe that PageRank has always been flawed. I believe that Kleinberg's HITS algorithm (and the variations on it), being closer to subject specific, provides more relevant results. A few years ago when Teoma was launched, there were lots of comparisons made about Jon Kleinberg's HITS algorithm. What many people didn't realise was, Kleinberg's algorithm had suffered its own problems: Namely "topic drift" and "run time analysis" delays. Monica Henzinger, now head of research at Google, played a major role in developing solutions to the "topic drift" problem (curiously enough by introducing a little element of PageRank in the recipe). But the "run time analysis" problem remained. In simple terms, the results from the HITS algorithm were more relevant, but they took an eternity (in web search expectation time) to compute.
Has Google rolled hub analysis into Google? Who knows. Whilst it is generally agreed that linking out currently doesn't have direct ranking advantages, linking out provides a number of marketing benefits that can, in turn, lead to higher rankings.
Some people fear that by linking out, there is less PageRank available to spread amongst your own internal pages. Whilst this may be the case, link hoarding is unlikely to win you many friends. Unless you're running an established brand, or you buy all your links, you're going to need friends to link to you in the first place.
Let's look at ten linking out marketing strategies.
1. Hey, I'm Here!
By linking out to a site, you you announce your presence to the owner of that site. Webmasters often follow back links to see who is linking to them. Simple enough, right.
Take it a step further.
When you link out, give the person a good reason to link back to you. Think about ways to add value to their site when they link sites to yours. This could be in the form of a great review, or praise, or a quote.
2. Become A Hub
Google is the ultimate hub.
Google has made a fortune by sending people away from Google. It's counter intuitive, but it works because if you provide sufficient utility, people will bookmark you and keep coming back.
No one person has all the answers. If you provide people with answers, even if those answers aren't on your site, people will still see that you provide value. Time spent on your site may actually increase as people bounce back and forth to find more information.
You may also be perceived as an authority, in a wider sense, even if you lack the content, simply by helping people find the answers they seek.
Consistency matters. Blogs that create new posts regularly will more likely be considered hubs, at very least by their readers, whilst dead blogs - not so much.
3. The Contrarian
Is everyone in you niche saying the same thing? Try going against the grain. Stand out.
"SEO sucks! It's useless! It does not work, and everyone who practicies it is clearly an idiot!".
Contrarian, right. At very least, you should create some lively debate!
Being contraian works because, by definition, it stands out. If you link out to individuals whilst being contrarian, you invite them to counter your arguments. Often, they'll do so by commenting and linking back. Google doesn't care if a link is negative or positive. A link is a link.
4. Praise Be
People love being praised.
It's one of those simple human connections. It also invokes a feeling of reciprocation.
Do so using links.
5. Give Forward
Try to give forward well in advance of when/if you need to ask a favor, otherwise reciprocation becomes a straight swap, and may be evaluated purely in terms of relative advantage.
Build up the link karma. One step at a time.
People look for their names. They ego search.
They also may see their names in links if they are evaluating keywords in the link text pointing to their site. Who wouldn't be curious to see that not only is their name being mentioned, but that name is also mentioned in the link?
Nothing sells like controversy, especially when it becomes personal, so it can be worthwhile, in terms of link development, to flame people. Be very careful, though. You risk damaging your reputation and credibility, and you'll certainly burn bridges.
Best to only flame people who truly deserve it :)
8. Deep Research
By linking to deep, academic research, you are more likely to be perceived as an authority by association.
Always be on the lookout for obscure academic research. This type of content isn't often marketed, as commercialization was not a primary consideration. Also, this research might not show up at all, because it exists in the deep web, beyond the reach of spiders. Not only do you increase utility to your visitors, and become a valuable hub, you may also be seen in search results for queries concerning that unreachable document.
Combining multiple deep citations, and/or formatting the information for easier consumption, can help make people want to cite you.
For example, "Hey I saw your great post about x and I made this image to help me better understand the concepts...do you think this is ok?"
If you graphed the web, the link graph does not look like a group of planets, floating isolated in space. It looks like a blur of interlinked sites. Typically, a site will have a number of links pointing to it, and a number of links pointing out.
Sites that don't link out appear "exceptional" on these graphs, and probably not in a good sense. Ideally, you want to be seen as both and authority and a hub, with lots of links flowing in both directions.
10. Temporarily Extend Your Site
Linking out allows you to temporarily extend your site. You could start off with, say, a directory of resources, then look to house similar but better content on your own site later on. This way, you provide utility and start building up karma immediately, with very little effort involved.
The Open Source movement works well because it is easy for people to contribute to - so many people do! Likewise, if you do not link out, you may not become insular and disconnected. You may miss opportunities to leverage off, connect with, and build upon, the work of others.
Not linking out goes against the nature of the web, and ultimately becomes self-defeating.
Have you ever tried to get people to link to your pure commerce/commercial brochure-web site? You know how tough it is out there. The link economy has become so established, we've even got strategies built around the idea of never linking out. Once people perceive something to be valuable, they'll think twice about just handing it over for nothing.
So what is an SEO supposed to do?
The key to linking in an environment where there is high value placed on links is to think of linking less as a process, and more in terms of building relationships.
Here are a few linking ideas designed to reduce the pain and increase the effectiveness of your link building campaign.
Relationship Link Building 101
The first step in your link building strategy occurs before your site hits the web.
If you're thinking of launching a static brochure-ware site, and link building is part of your marketing strategy, think again.
There is less chance for relationship building.
Preferably, you want a site with plenty of potential for on-going community involvement and interaction.
News Sites. Social sites. Blogs. Frequently-updated information sites. Teaching sites. Advice sites. Q&A. Wikipedia-style sites. The static brochure website will still have a place, but those sites with higher levels of user engagement will trump it.
Produce Really, Really Interesting Content
Posting what everyone else is posting is not interesting.
Look at what everyone else is posting and take a new angle on the the topic. Don't just go one better, go ten better. Learn the lessons of The Purple Cow. Be worth remarking upon. People are hungry for unique, quality content.
They'll link to you if you have it.
If your competitors are spending ten minutes on their posts, you spend a day. Spend a whole week. Cover areas no one else is covering. Make your posts game-changing posts. You're going to need not one, but a consistent body of such posts. Think about the sites you link to. You need to aim to be better than those sites.
At very least, you need to offer a point of difference in order to be linkworthy.
If you're new, you're going to need friends. You're going to need influential friends.
A link out to sites run by influential people becomes an advertisement for your site in their referral logs. People will follow the links back to see who is talking about them, and if you're got an impressive set of articles/posts, you'll be on their radar in no time.
Most modern marketing is based on the idea of reciprocation. If you do something for others, without requesting something in return, most people feel they should reciprocate.
Give something valuable. Give wide. Give freely. Some of it will eventually come back.
Give nothing, and you're guaranteed that nothing will come back.
Lose The Ads
The less commercial you appear, the more likely you'll get linked to, especially from .edu and other authority information hubs. Few people want to link to sites plastered with advertising unless that site already has established authority.
You can introduce advertising once you've built up link authority.
Flattery Gets You Everywhere
Make people feel important. Make them look good. If you make them look good, they'll want to point that fact out to others. They'll do your marketing for you.
Look For Companies With "In The News" Pages
This tip flows on from flattery. Write about companies in a good light. To find companies that have "in the news" style pages, do a Google search for [your industry + "in the news"].
Write stories about fast-breaking events that have little competition but high interest levels. If the meme gets big enough, news sites will look around for content to quote, and, given a lack of competition, hopefully they'll quote yours.
Get Seen In The Community
Participate in answer sites, forums, article sites, Wikipedia, Squidoo, Amazon et al. Contribute something of real value. You'll get direct links in some cases, but at very least you'll raise awareness, which can translate into links down the line.
The Designer Angle
Get your site re-designed by a high profile designer who has a history of showcasing his/her work.
The cost of the design might be more than covered by the value of the inbound links and attention you receive, especially if the design is mentioned in trade bibles, like Smashing Magazine.
Less about relationships, but good tools to have in the box.
Trade links, ask for links, beg for links. Hey, it still works, although it's probably the least effective method, and most time consuming. Outsource this task, if you can.
List With Local Business Services
List with your Chamber of Commerce, Business Bureau's, Government Advisories, libraries, and other appropriate institutions.
Link baiting is when you write content with the specific aim of attracting links. It works, but you've got to be careful with your pitch. Get the tone wrong for your audience, and you'll put people off.
Top Ten Lists
How To Do Something Exceptional With (Seemingly) No Effort
Be The First To Do Something
Almost all press releases end up in the web equivalent of the wastepaper bin, but if you can provide a fresh, newsy angle, there is significant potential for links.
Try combining link bait strategies with press release strategies. A local angle works well for local news services, who are often starved of local news.
Keep the following criteria in mind when evaluating which web directories are worth your time.
They appear in the SERPs
Offer direct links - i.e they aren't routed through a script, or no-followed.
High crawl frequency - check out the latest crawl date in Google cache. If the directory pages haven't been cached in months, chances are Google may regard them as low quality.
Look for quality standards - Matt Cutts outlined Google's view of a good directory. Directories that stay closest to these guidelines are more likely to be around for the long haul.
If you've reached this far, and thought "I know this stuff!" - great :)
How about sharing your single best link acquisition strategy with the community :)
The Future Of Linking
Links have been so important for so long now, but are things about to change?
In the dark, distant past - 1997 - the web was about publishing.
However, the web ecosystem is evolving into more of an interactive space, based on platforms.
As a result, we're seeing a different kind of website emerge - it is more "place" than "brochure". Think Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, Blogs, et al. We're seeing more applications. We're seeing more cloud computing. The web is becoming a place where we truly interact, as opposed to simply publish.
Google's ranking models have, in the past, been based on publishing models - specifically, an academic citation model in the form of PageRank. This approach will become less effective at determining relevance as people move away from the publishing model and towards interaction and engagement.
Google realize this, of course. This is why I think Google will be adapting their model to monitor and gauge interaction. Interaction will become a new valuable metric as to a sites worth, which will flow into ranking.
In a recent post on The Official Googleblog, Google talked of how interaction will change how systems "think and react":
"As we're already seeing, people will interact with the cloud using a plethora of devices: PCs, mobile phones and PDAs, and games. But we'll also see a rush of new devices customized to particular applications, and more environmental sensors and actuators, all sending and receiving data via the cloud. The increasing number and diversity of interactions will not only direct more information to the cloud, they will also provide valuable information on how people and systems think and react..... As systems are allowed to learn from interactions at an individual level, they can provide results customized to an individuals situational needs: where they are located, what time of day it is, what they are doing. And translation and multi-modal systems will also be feasible, so people speaking one language can seamlessly interact with people and information in other languages."
Notice the frequency with which Google use the terms "interact".
I think this hints at the future direction of search and ranking. Google will increasingly shift from measuring external popularity metrics, such as linking, to measuring the level of interaction, if they are not already doing so.
There have been three recent developments that search marketers should be aware of:
Microsoft have released a research patent on BrowseRank, a system which determines relevancy by tracking usage data
This all points to the increasing role of engagement metrics.
In order to positioned well in the future, you'll need to think as much about the level and type of interaction on your site as you will as you will about link authority. This comes all the way back to my first point above - build a site with plenty of potential for relationship building.
The common wisdom is that linking out will result in the following:
People will not link back to your site
A page that sends people away has low engagement
It boosts the completion at your expense
However, it appears that top news site in terms of session use, two months running, is DrudgeReport, a site that does nothing but send people away. I believe Google got rather popular for doing much the same thing :)
And look at the numbers:
"Page view statistics
500 million page views monthly
1.95 billion ad impressions monthly
12 million unique visitors monthly
1.75 million daily unique visitors (weekday)
1 million daily unique visitors (weekend day)
Assuming 60% sell-through at $4 CPM… that’s $56 million annual revenue.
One guy. Linking."
If you provide something people really want, they'll keep coming back.
These black holes aren't the result of the CERN Hadron Collider. They are forming for two reasons: the desire to keep people on site longer; and to hoard link juice, in order to dominate the SERPs.
Increasingly, top-tier sites are becoming cagey about linking out. They are more than happy to be linked to, of course, but often the favor is not reciprocated. Check out this post by SEOBlackhat.
What Does A Black Hole Look Like?
Uber-black hole, The New York Times, seems reluctant to link to anyone but themselves. This is especially annoying when they write about websites.
Wikipedia no-followed their links some time ago, thus forming a PageRank variant of the black hole.
The mini-me black hole, as practiced by TechCrunch. Rather than directing you to a site mentioned in an article, TechCrunch would direct you to their own CrunchBase entry instead, thereby keeping you on-site longer, and passing link authority to their own web pages. As a result, a search on Google for a sites' name may well bring up the CrunchBase entry. To be fair, TechCrunch does also link out, and there is an explanation as to why TechCrunch aren't as bad as the New York Times here.
The result is a link-love black hole. Sites using such a strategy can dominate the rankings, if they are big enough.
So if you wanted to create a blackhole, what would you do?
Don't link to anyone
If you must link out, then No-Follow the links, or wrap them in scripts
Direct page rank around your own site, especially to pages featuring your competitors names
Buy a motherlode of links
Become a newspaper magnate :)
Now, if you're an SEO, you might be feeling a tad conflicted about now. Why wouldn't every SEO do this? What if you owned a black hole? Isn't that the ultimate SEO end game?
In the long term, I doubt it.
If this problem becomes too widespread, Google will move to counter it. If Google's results aren't sufficiently diversified, then their index will look stale. If you search for a site, and get third party information about that site, rather than the site itself, then this will annoy users. Once confidence is lost in the search results, then users will start to migrate to Google's competitors.
I'm not certain such a move will be entirely altruistic, however. After all, what is the point of Knol? No, really - what isthe point of Knol? ;)
The Advantages Of Sharing The Love
Consider what you gain by linking out.
Webmasters look at their referalls, and may follow the link back to check out your site
Outbounds may count for more in future, if they don't already
Your users expect it. Don't fight against their expectations else you'll devalue your brand equity
Any site that looks "too-SEO'd" risks standing out on a link graph
There is social value in doing so. Black hole sites start to look like bad actors, can receive bad press, and risk damaging their relationships with partners, suppliers, and communities.
"..... The web is a great example of a system that works because most sites create more value than they capture. Maybe the tragedy of the commons in its future can be averted. Maybe not. It's up to each of us".
The phrase Black Hole SEO was used by Eli on BlueHatSEO.com over a year ago to describe various aggressive SEO techniques.
For a while Google was against the idea of seeing search results inside of search results, calling them redundant. But over the last couple years they losened up their stance on the issue...not only do they index and rank tag pages, but they go so far as generating content pages on the fly by entering keywords into search boxes on websites.
Search and tag pages usually have some editorial input, but some community content sites (like associated content) automate the process of adding links to content through algorithms which are likely self reinforcing on rankings and revenues. eHow takes this one step further by automating the internal links and pointing them at recycled content from Dealtime, eBay, and Amazon.com...just in case you are shopping for Ice online ehow.com/shop_ice.html.
Automated internal linking will become a big SEO trend in 2008 and 2009. Jim Boykin offers an interlinking tool inside his Internet Marketing Ninjas program, which came as inspiration for Gab Goldenberg to make a free Wordpress plugin to do the same. If a site like TechCrunch installs the plugin they could basically pick any phrase and own top rankings in a week. For smaller sites they might need to partner with a circle of 20 or so friends that swapped promotional editorial links back and forth.
Search has been a driving force in lowering the value of most traditional media business models, but how useful will search be if most major publishing platforms aggressively use automated internal linking, especially if they start doing it to point links at custom advertising pages focused on high value keywords? The problem with many publishing business models is a high cost structure coupled with poor targeting. Automated internal linking fixes the targeting issue, and those ad pages would subsidize the cost of their editorial.
I am guessing that if people are too aggressive with this they could get penalized. In fact, at SMX Todd Friesen stated the following tip, attributing DaveN as the source
Because different link brokers moved from Sponsored Links to inline linking, there's now a Google filter that looks for too many new links coming from old blogs. If you have a network of 40 aged blogs, go back into the archives, add a link to the site you want knocked down across the network; you'll knock someone down.
A safer way to use the automated linking strategy is to look at data from tools like SEO Digger, ranking reports, analytics, and SEO Digger. See where you rank close to the top, and then add a few more links pointing at pages ranking for the best keywords...keep iteratively testing and make a number of smaller moves rather than automating mass shifts in PageRank, especially if you are doing automated linking cross site.
I was just forwarded an email from a popular internet marketing list where a company gave people linking at them a chance to win $500 or $1000 for linking to them.
For each link you put on a page online, before May 30th, 2008 midnight you could have entered into a draw for the cash prizes. For example; if you put up 5 links on various sites, blogs, or even in a forum... you get 5 tickets into the draw. We did not accept 5 links on one URL as 5 tickets to the draw; it needs to be 5 separate URLs.
It is much harder for Google to kill paid links when those links come as a side effect of a contest or promotion.
Email lists of would be internet marketers have grown less responsive as blogs offering free information have sprung up, but having an email list or other audience that is not public will be a valuable tool for running contests through such that you can buy links without being called a spammer.
The beauty of having a list or large RSS subscriber base is that even if Google tries to take away your PageRank they can't take away your audience, which is already sold on you and do not care about your PageRank.