Google Website Rank: How Do Links Work In Google?

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Andy Crestodina
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Google considers more than 200 factors when ranking websites, but none are more important than links. When many websites link to a page, that page is more likely to rank in search engines. Link popularity matters. A lot.

But not all links are created equal. Keep reading, and in 5 minutes, you’ll know all about links:

  • How do links work in Google?
  • Why are some links better than others?
  • How can I tell the difference?
  • What can I do to get links and rank higher?

First things first. How do links work in Google?

Now for a little history (Don’t like history? Scroll down to the tips)

Using links to measure relevance was Google’s great innovation. It’s how they crushed Alta Vista, Lycos, and everyone else. Those search engines were easier to manipulate. SEOs just crammed in a bunch of keywords and their pages ranked higher. Eventually people noticed that their search results weren’t so relevant.

Then Google started using link popularity as a ranking factor, and rankings became harder to fake. Search results became more relevant and people noticed. Today, Google handles two-thirds of all search traffic. This dominance comes from relevance and relevance comes from links.  

Links Are Credibility

 

  When another website links to one of your pages, it’s a vote of confidence. It’s an indication of relevance, and Google notices.
  When many sites link to one of your web pages, even better. Link popularity works like any popularity contest. You want a lot of votes.
  The best links are from sites that have a high link popularity themselves. These links are worth more. Just like a popularity contest, one vote from someone popular is worth more than a dozen votes from the unknown.
  If a page is linking to several sites, the value of those links is divided. So a link to you from a page that’s also linking to all kinds of other pages isn’t as valuable.Again, in a popularity contest, if the person who votes for you is voting for three people at once, it’s not as good. You’re really only getting a third of a vote.

 

Keywords: A Million Links Won’t Help Unless…

…your page is relevant for a specific topic for which people are actually searching. This is why researching keywords is so important in SEO. The goal is to align the page with a relevant phrase.

 

  Choose a keyword for which people are really searching and that is relevant to your topic. Use these keyword research tips.
  You’re unlikely to rank if you don’t deliberately target a phrase. SEO doesn’t happen by accident!
  You could also hurt your rankings if you overuse the keyword on the page. Keyword stuffing is spam. Indicate relevance, but don’t try too hard. Using this checklist will help.
  Links from related sites are generally better. A link from a completely irrelevant site is not as valuable, since that site doesn’t have as much credibility on that topic.

 

Check the Competition

 

  Do the high-ranking sites for the keyword have higher link popularity than you? Then choose another keyword.
  If your link popularity is low, start with a narrow niche and target longer, more specific keywords. It’s better to rank first for a less popular phrase than rank on page 50 for a big-money keyword.

 

Link Text: The Words Within Those Links

The link text (or anchor text) is the word or words that make up the link. The link text for this link is “this link.” Make sense?

Lots of times, link text is simply “click here” or “www.example.com.” But when link text includes a keyword, it can be another indication of relevance. If the links to a page say “flying carpet safety” then Google is likely to believe that this is what the page is about.

  It’s good to have links that include the target keyword.
  When too many links to a page include the target keyword, it may look spammy. Google may penalize you for “over-optimization.”Don’t try too hard to get links with your exact keyword as link text. It looks unnatural. Balance is good.

Measuring Link Value

To see if a link from a website is valuable, look up the site on Open Site Explorer. This “search engine of links” shows the link popularity of any site and measures it as “domain authority” on a scale of 1 to 100. This is the size of the balls in the diagrams above! Keep in mind, the free version of this tool is limited, showing only some links and may be used only a few times per day.

Tip: It’s also valuable for checking competition during keyword research.

Trivia: The Google metric for link popularity is called “PageRank” and is named after Google co-founder, Larry Page. Because PageRank is a scale of 1 to 10, I prefer using domain authority.

How to Get Links

Google has an army of math PhDs working hard to fight anyone who tries to artificially manipulate rankings. Any spammy, unethical attempts to drive traffic to a page could be devalued or even penalized.

Here are some ways to “future-proof” your link building and SEO. Google changes their secret formula hundreds of times each year. It won’t bother you a bit. You’ll be safe and happy if you focus the natural approaches to link building.

Notice how each of these tactics has benefits beyond links.

1. Quality Content

Links happen naturally but only when the page is worth linking to. Google has told us all, time and again, that the key to ranking (and links) is great content. Just make the best page on the Internet for the topic; Google will take care of the rest.

You can deliberately create a “linkable asset,” which is simply high-quality content with a web address on your site. It could be a webpage or blog post (not a PDF), but make it something good, like original research, an online tool, or even a useful checklist or buyer’s guide. If it’s good, the links will come.

Beyond Links: Quality content is effective at getting visitors to act. It’s good for converting visitors, not just for links.

2. Guest Blogging

One of the few ethical, reliable ways to get links is to write for other websites. You will generally get a link in the “author bio,” and you may find a few opportunities to link to other pages on your site.

Guest blogging takes a lot of work. Writing something good enough to get accepted by a good blog takes time. And pitching a guest post is its own skill.

Beyond Links: Guest blogging often has social media benefits. It’s good for networking, not just for links.

3. PR

I don’t mean online press releases, which do not lead to quality links (did you think Google could be fooled so easily?). I’m talking about actual mentions in the media. Press mentions don’t always lead to links, although savvy PR firms know the value and do request a link.

Beyond Links: PR has obvious public awareness benefits. It’s good for your brand, not just for links.

4. Keep Your Eye Out For Legit Opportunities

If you’re part of an association or chamber, request a link. Find websites that already mentioned your business but haven’t linked. Ask nicely for the link. There are at least 131 other ways to get legitimate links. Just be aware, resourceful, and polite.

Other types of web marketing, such as social media and email newsletters, can indirectly lead to links. These traffic sources improve the visibility of your content, and some of those readers may write something and link to you.

Tip: Social activity, such as comments, sharing and +1s, may contribute directly to higher rankings, since Google may see these as evidence of quality content.

And Now You Know

If you made it this far, you now know why links matter to Google and how they can work for you. If you’re like me, you’ll never see the Internet the same way again!

By the way, Google actually wants you to understand this stuff. Google’s own Matt Cutts explains this in this video (skip to minute 7:30), and the Google Webmaster Blog is filled with this kind of SEO advice.

So be good, write well, and pay attention to your links!

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Comments (25)
  • Great summary of links.  It’s great to see the trend towards legitimate, quality interactions having the real value.  I’m glad to see the days of focusing on pure volume to game the system are coming to an end.

  • I just got a question over email and I thought I’d share my answer here…
     
    QUESTION: You mentioned online press releases don’t impact search results.  As a sales rep for a news distribution provider, many of my conversations with clients/prospects focus on SEO strategy with hyperlinking in a release. What would you say is the difference between hyperlinks coming from automated news reposting and unique posts coming from influential bloggers/websites?
     
    ANSWER: Thanks for your question! I suggest you think of it this way: if links in press releases were given full-value in Google, it would be very easy to cheat the system and every SEO would simply submit press releases all day …and Google search results would stink.
     
    Google can see that it’s a press release. It gets picked up many places, all at the same time, always in the same form and always with the same links. Every online press release a miniature explosion of duplicate content, which is obvious to Google.
     
    There is an inverse relationship between the value of the link and the effort it took to win it. If it’s easy (or automated) it’s not going to be worth as much. The links that are hardest to get are generally the most valuable.
     
    On the other hand, there may be an indirect SEO value to press releases. They drive attention and that attention can lead to links.

  • Hi Andy! Love your newsletters. 🙂  Question for you: Do trackbacks and pingbacks help with Google rankings as well?

    • @lhugel Hi, Lauren. Good question. I don’t have a lot of data on this, but I believe that yes, Trackbacks and Pingbacks are legitimate links that do indeed have SEO value. But keep in mind that blogs that post these links will inevitably have more outgoing links per post, decreasing the value of the link…

  • You mention that social media and email newsletters can affect the value of links. Do things like frequent posting to SM sites, and especially retweets by credible sources create more value for a specific link? Also, does google consider a link to a pdf file (via an ftp site for example) irrelevant?

    • @lindseyjodts Hello, Lindsey. Yes, “social signals” are widely believed to positively affect rank. But this is separate from links. The idea is this: all things being equal, a page with stronger social signals (more likes, +1s, comments, shares, etc.) will rank higher than a quiet, lonely page without friends. But this ranking factor is completely separate from links.
       
      Links from Twitter or Facebook don’t have anything to do with link popularity. If they did, the SEOs would tweet and post meaningless content with lots of links. Soon the social networks would be completely polluted. Choked with link spam! Thankfully, those links don’t have value…
       
      If the link is easy to get (like a tweet) it probably doesn’t have SEO value. …And that’s a good thing!

      • @crestodina  @lindseyjodts Lindsey, I would add one or two things to this already excellent discussion.
         
        1. SEOMoz has done some really interesting analysis and concluded that the strongest correlation between high rank is pages that are also shared on Facebook. There is no proven causation (pages are shared on Facebook and therefore they rank well) but it is the strongest correlation of all the factors they looked at. Both of the following articles are worth a gander if you’re interested in this topic at all.
         
        http://www.seomoz.org/blog/facebook-twitters-influence-google-search-rankings
        http://www.seomoz.org/blog/do-improved-social-signals-cause-improved-rankings
         
        2. Content that gets shared socially is generally pretty “valuable” and is therefore also likely to be linked to on a web page. Both sharing and linking are ways of sending an audience to valuable content.
         
        3. Social shares may in a very real and direct way result in additional links that DO count for SEO.Think of link acquisition as a 2nd order value of social shares. Content that gets shared drives direct visitors and also increases the likelihood that someone else will link in a way that has direct SEO benefit.

  • I saw a discussion of SEO recently where the author (I can’t remember who) said, “Site owners spend 90% of their efforts in *onsite* SEO — the header tags, keywords, etc. and that’s important, but professional SEO practitioners spend 90% of their effort on link building. 
     
    Thanks for this — it’s important.

    • @blfarris I’m surprised at how little SEOs care about “on page” and how little website owners care about links. They should both be a bit more balanced, don’t you think?

      • @crestodina  @blfarris Yes. 🙂

  • Super useful, as always! I’ve sent along to my team and it will be a topic of conversation when I return from vacation.

  • This is one of the best “how to” blogs I’ve come across. Please keep the tips coming and thanks for taking the time to give us this great easy to understand info.

  • Good! More useful information

  • Good Work Very informative…..!!!

  • awesome.  One of the best blog i have seen recently about “link value”. Thanks from http://www.ncooltips.com, I am  one of amongst, who might have benefited from this post. Please keep posting.
    Thank you very much.

  • @davelucas Hi, Dave. If the tool you’re using to measure your PageRank doesn’t show a value, then there must be something wrong with the tool. The problem isn’t related to links or SEO!

  • Thanks for sharing this useful information about page rank issues.

  • Hi Andy,

    Your article is really helpful, thanks for writing. I am looking forward to read more articles in future. Keep writing!!! cheers.

  • Hi Andy,

    Thank you for the informative Guide, priceless. As always very useful and to the point – shared it with the team and followers on social media.

    Have a fabulous day and hello from Down Under – sunny Sydney. Hana

    • Glad you found this useful, Hana! I have a few other friends “down under” including the guys at Blue Wire. If you run into Adam or Toby, please tell them I said hello!

  • Fantastic video. It’s one of the best I have seen explaining the complexity of page ranking. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Anthony! Glad to hear it…

  • is joining an business affiliated program the same as website linking to my blog?

    • If it creates a new link from their site to yours, then yes!

  • Hi!

    Very nice this video! 🙂 Great work! 🙂

    Cheers,

    Maryan.

 
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