Outbound Linking For Fun And Profit

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.

6. Ego

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?

7. Flame

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?"

9 Non-Typical

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.

Further Reading:

Published: November 6, 2008 by A Reader in Links


November 6, 2008 - 11:57pm

Been looking for a post that really sells the idea of linking out and this one hit it right on the nose.

November 7, 2008 - 12:16am

Quality stuff here Peter. I wasn't aware of the HITS algo, so thanks for sharing that.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with Stymiee (John Conde) at Sitepoint a while back about ranking factors. He kept insisting that outbound links weren't taken into account. My point was that even if they weren't, at least you were building relationships with the recipients, who'd link back to you in time. Well, this is an even better point. :)

November 7, 2008 - 4:38am

I loved the girly dring comment. I've never even heard of Mike, but it made my day.

phillip skinner
November 7, 2008 - 8:02am

Hi link builders one n'all ... Links are essential and natural connectors of the web, my understanding its fairly easy for search engines to analyze links and judge the quality of a website based on the quality and quantity of its incoming and outgoing links. Unlike on-page factors, links are harder to manipulate and are accountable you cant just open a page full of linking. I think Charles Heflin sums it all up well on his blog here http://www.charlesheflin.com/social-marketing-footprints/

All my best to you and your linking strategies
Phillip Skinner

November 7, 2008 - 8:52am

This post was just confirming my assumptions. I noticed some of my post gots PR=1 after one month just because they linked to relevant source of information and authority sites. If your outbound links blend well into the flow of reading then chances are your post will have good ranking. IT seems that Google love very much informative articles.

November 7, 2008 - 10:45am

In my experience, the webmasters who look at their logs are in the minority.

On a related note, is there any research on the effects of linking out to rotten sources? I'm not talking about bad neighbourhoods, but simple 404s and other broken links. In a recent post someone mentioned that 7% of links are broken.

It must be very easy for search engines to determine whether a site is linking out to certain broken sources, by analysing 404s, duplicate content, default parked pages, and so on. Broken links would indicate that the links have not been checked lately, and are less trustworthy. So it's one of the things that search engines might look at as one of their ranking factors. But do they?

November 7, 2008 - 8:20pm

Yes they may be the minority...but you can still target them. Jason Calacanas probably looks at his referrals...so do lots of people blogging on search.

I think 404s may be taken into account on some level...I had one site that I cleaned up double its traffic within a couple months.

November 7, 2008 - 11:36am

"Google doesn't care if a link is negative or positive. A link is a link. "

It will be interesting to see how long this will remain true, though!

I'm currently building a hubpage like that, actually (mostly linking out to relevant resources). How did you mean the ..showing up for queries..sites in the deep web...kind of thing? How would you find sites that are in the deep web, in the first place (if they're not linked to by anyone)?! Sounded interesting, but I dont get it

November 7, 2008 - 8:04pm

If you get enough bad links it can hurt you (especially if your site is new with low authority)...but big sites are less likely to be taken down by bad links.

Some stuff may not be accessible because it is in a foreign language, is too complex or academic in nature, or is behind a subscription wall.

November 7, 2008 - 2:25pm

I've done some work with the HITS algorithm, and I can tell you that pages with high "HubRanks" aren't worthy of a high SERP.

If you look at Jon's early paper on HITS, for instance, you'll find that almost all of the "hub" pages he identifies are gone now. Most of the authority pages, on the other hand, are still here.

Back in the day, the HubRank half of the HITS algorithm used to turn up personal link collections that were "optimized for Netscape 1.1" and had awful background images. This was a behavior that was really popular back in 1996 and 1997 but was going out of fashion even by 2000. I like to call these pages "pseudo-directories;" they work a lot like directories, but they don't have a formal process for adding new links. "Pseudo-directories" seem to be increasingly scarce and are rarely maintained. That said, the can be quite a good target for link building.

One of the weaknesses of the HITS algorithm that you can easily create a #1 hub by the following algorithm:

(i) copy the #1 hub
(ii) add an extra link to the hub

With a little more thinking, it's straightforward to dominate HubRank, then have your hubs link to your (would-be) authority site.

I have to admit that the general unwillingness of people to make outlinks is depressing. I blogged something a few months ago that was a big success: enough that it crashed my VPS and I had to buy a new server. Quite a few people blogged about the same topic in the next few weeks, and very few of them linked to me. I mean, they're not even trackback whores...

November 7, 2008 - 8:06pm

I think if you look for hubs they are still good for finding potential link sources. Over the past couple years blogger's review/top 10 lists has certainly replaced most structured directories.

November 7, 2008 - 2:29pm

The drudge report is all about links, and he gets major traffic. He is a pr8 and linking like a mofo

The Glider Guy
November 7, 2008 - 3:22pm

I figured out the value of linking out to other websites years ago. Its never failed me yet in achieving higher rankings by turning the site into a far more resourceful version... the way I link out is to place the web address followed by a 3 line paragraph (at most) as to why that site is listed and I'll drop in anchor text into the paragraph too. Works a charm. Too many people are more concerned with people navigating off their site but the loyal ones (the ones that convert) will return to check out updated links AND content....

November 7, 2008 - 7:46pm

Are you saying your outbound links discover your from their webstats, and return the favor with a link to you? Where's the beef?

November 7, 2008 - 7:56pm

Some people do that...not all. And having quality content is another element of being link-worthy.

November 7, 2008 - 7:43pm

Is this the new preferred way to rank on Google?

Google ranks one of my sites solely on the keywords of inbound links, and not the content. Yet Yahoo and Live etc. rank my site for keywords found on my site. So Google rewards links more than content (which can sometimes be spammy).

I am right?

November 7, 2008 - 7:53pm

It depends on the query space...for competitive queries with lots of results more weight is put on domain authority and links...for longtail queries with few competitors page content counts more.

The web is a social network...sometimes getting people to want to link to you requires linking out.

November 7, 2008 - 8:54pm

Great post - I'm a big fan of linking out, especially for new sites when you don't really have much to lose by doing so, and a lot to gain.
With the HITs theory, how would hub pages be viewed by Google if the outbound links are 'no follow' or are re-directed via a tracking script that masks the destination URL?

November 7, 2008 - 10:47pm

There has been Microsoft research on BrowseRank that might be able to detect valuable links even though they go through redirects. Google has a lot of usage data as well, but if I were a search engineer I would not want to count nofollowed links.

Though there have been numerous reports of nofollow leakage in the past.

Terry Van Horne
November 8, 2008 - 11:34am

Aaron, great article! I have been building sites for 15 years using the HUB method of site architecture. Those of us who have used HUB/Indexing pages for years know the secret of outbound links to authority, however, in most cases we're motivated by the desire to enhance the user experience, not, rank higher, that is an added bonus! When you get a bunch of interlinked HUBS linked to by authority sites PR/benefits trickle down to all the interlinked HUBS.

In the beginning I mainly did the pseudo directory thing. Then when Google came along I began embedding the links to take advantage of Google's contextual analysis. I always laugh when I see the poor saps touting hoarding PR. It's clueless and shows exactly how much they really know.

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