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Links Today: Not Bad, Just Drawn that Way

Marianne Sweeny

I have always been deeply suspicious of PageRank and the model that the site with the most in-links wins.

Sure, it was fun to spam blogs with gratuitous comments and watch a page on sub-prime loans for gas stations rise on the SERP like a card from a magician’s deck. The month-end Google dance was some kind of cheap fun as the three top pole sitters bounced around like the steel ball on a roulette wheel before inevitably settling back into their rightful place at the top of the results. It wasn’t until Eric Schmidt blabbed about brands being automatically favored by search engines that we figured that one out. So, links had a good long run as the tiddlywinks game of search results ranking.

All good things must come to an end, and end it did with Google’s link-driven relevance model. Already-favored big brands like JC Penny and Overstock went a little overboard with link-building scams that likely tied up every SEO agency in the Balkans. After The New York Times cover story, link-base relevance became a desiccated shell of its former self. And that makes me a bit sad because, like my favorite screen star Jessica Rabbit, links were not inherently bad; they were just drawn that way … by us, the SEO community. 

I am fortunate in that I get to work with super smart colleagues like Travis Brown, who has started me on my path to link rehabilitation. Travis has some great link guidance that leverages Google’s sort-of-new focus on a user-experience relevance ranking model. If you’re smart, you will follow him on Twitter and get more than the crumbs I am able to share with you here. Before we start, let’s get a few things straight:

1. There is no more link juice. That dried up as soon as the Web went past the many million page marker that would allow Google to recalculate everyone’s PageRank on a monthly basis.

2. Site navigation (global and footer) links are referred to by the cognoscenti in the Adversarial IR world (spam to us mere mortals) are looked upon as nepotistic links and count for little if anything. So, all of those links are not bleeding the non-existent link juice from your page.

3. Link-based relevance (PageRank) has always been a flawed model. It was never an egalitarian way to find noteworthy resources because only people who knew how to code HTML, or have access to WYSWYG can create a link. PageRank was never a true indicator of document relevance to searcher query as it was a pre-query calculation. However, give credit where credit is due. PageRank was the first step towards incorporating user feedback into relevance ranking.

Links still play a part in ranking, albeit a much, much smaller one. They can and should be part of an effective and engaging user experience. Here’s a bit from Travis and I about how.

Links, User Experience and Information Architecture

link-guidance-UXAnchor text: In the User Experience (UX) and Information Architecture (IA) worlds, links are an invitation, a promise and a come-on. One purpose is to provide a clear indication of what lies on the other side of the link. This is called information scent, based on the information model that searchers look for for information like wild animals foraging for food. This, I tell my clients, is why a kitten dies every time someone uses the lame anchor link text "click here" or "learn more" (among many others). Exercise discretion and extreme care when submitting requests for external links. We do not want to awaken those blood-thirsty penguins.

Links in context: Google added context to PageRank with Hilltop, HITS and a few other algorithms. This also enhanced the user experience by ensuring that links and content shared context as well as connection. Travis schooled me that there is contextual link prospecting potential in blog comments. Even Matt Cutts does not dismiss all blog commenting as spam. Blog comments that follow the rules are thoughtful and pertinent to the post, and inciting will elicit responses and potential visitors to your site. Both are signs of a positive user experience.

Get busy: Travis reminded me that question and answer sites are also a great resource for meaningful, contextual links. Sites like Quora as well as listservs that post threads online are great opportunities to engage in intelligent, contextually relevant discourse, while directing readers and colleagues to valuable contextually relevant resources, namely your site or client site.

Note the contextually relevant qualifier there. It is critical to any link strategy. Here is an example of an amazing listserv thread about information architecture on the Interaction Design site (Ixda.org) that was started in 2005 and is still getting comments.

Find’em and Fix’em: Travis says that the more links you get the more important internal site links are and they all need to be working. I could not agree more.

Broken links are a wretched user experience. Run broken link scans and catch them before Google Webmaster tools or your customers will find them. Do not just put a redirect in. Find where the link is and swap it out for a comparable resource.

And while we’re on the subject, you can probably retire 301 redirects that are more than a year (OK, two years) old. They have served their purpose. Travis offers a good amendment to this recommendation to look to the sites referring traffic to the now missing page and reach out to them with an updated location. Why let a good link go to waste?

Do not "dead end" your site visitors because that can be a bad user experience. Critical to any link strategy is Relational Content Modeling. This is my own made-up term to represent links between contextually related site content. Make sure that your top content items have programmable link components that deliver the visitor to a next step or some other related concept ideally on your site. If one does not exist there, find an authority resource to link out to and you will still get credit. Worry not about diminishing your link juice because it no longer exists.

Little pieces joined together: If you cannot find it, then you should build it yourself. While we may disagree on link juice, Travis and I are in complete agreement on the unsung heroism of micro-sites. It doesn’t get more focused or contextually relevant than a microsite can be. However, don’t forget the 3Cs when you are building out your little site:

  • Click-through: all pages must have custom metadata that conforms to the new display guidelines for search engines. Customer <title> and Meta Descriptions have been proven to enhance user selection of the resource from search engine results.
  • Connection: Rethink the microsite page design by reducing the size of that BIG Hero graphic to include some text above the fold. Google’s Page Layout algorithm has designated this as the most relevant real estate on the page with query terms here receiving extra relevance love.
  • Conversion: Be about what the user is looking for so that they do not return to the search results and select another candidate to answer their needs.

Do not give up on link building as a part of your user experience strategy. Instead, try the more intellectually challenging pursuit of doing so within the framework of search engine guidelines. Links may not be the end-all and be-all that they once were for ranking high in search results. They are important though. I’m lucky because I have Travis two chairs down to help me find out how and why. Follow him on Twitter and you will find out also.

Author bio:

Marianne Sweeny is a Search Information Architect at Portent Inc. She is passionate about optimizing the user search experience on the Web or inside the enterprise firewall. Marianne’s last article for SEMrush was “SEO, UX, IA & Content Strategists: Hang Together or Hang Separately."

Marianne Sweeny

Provides valuable insights and adds depth to the conversation.

Marianne Sweeny is VP of Internet Marketing for Strategic Edge Partners, a medical marketing agency. She is passionate about optimizing the user search experience on the Web or inside the enterprise firewall. Marianne’s most recent article for SEMrush was entitled: "SEOs, Guns & Religion."
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