Web Links from the Search Engine’s Perspective

Webmasters often try to raise their ratings in the search engines by using Web links. They are not always successful. In order to make this strategy work, you need to know what kind of weight the search engines give to various kinds of Web links. To understand that, it helps to know how a search engine views Web links in the first place. Barry Schwartz provides insight into what the search engines see as “natural” and “unnatural” linking.  

I write this as I fly back to New York from the Search Engine Strategies Conference in Stockholm, Sweden of 2004. Scandinavia is one of the emerging search engine optimization markets, with much growth over the past six months and enormous anticipated future growth. At this time, many are new to the SEO game.

Web links is an area where there is often confusion and anxiety for novices. Therefore, this article will discuss how search engines interpret Web links, as opposed to how a Web user might interpret Web links. The information below is my personal understanding of the true meaning of links from the search engine’s perspective. As many of you know, only the search engine engineers themselves truly hold the answer to these questions. However, for purposes of this article, I will be conveying this information in a fairly simplistic manner, by staying away from the algorithmic definitions and taking a painless and layman approach.

By the end of this short article you should be able to understand:

  1. What Web links are. 

  2. The difference between incoming links and outgoing links.

  3. The different terminology used in the SEO community to describe some links.

  4. How search engines view links. 

  5. What links represent to the search engines (natural vs. unnatural linking).

When explaining link building to clients, prospects and those interested in listening, I often need to draw a diagram. Diagram 1 portrays three pages A, B and C. Page A links to both page B and page C, however, page C does not link to page A nor does page B link to page A. In addition, you will notice that page B links to page C and page C links to page B.

Web Links from the Search Engines Perspective

SEO Link Terms

A term that you will often hear in the SEO community is ”reciprocal link.” A reciprocal link is an exchange of a link between two pages. In diagram 1, pages B and C would be considered to have a reciprocal link (note: keeping it simple here).

A one-way link is another SEO phrase you will hear. A one-way link is when a page links to another page without a link back from the same page. In diagram 1, a one-way link would be considered the link from page A to page B and the link from Page A to page C.

In Diagram 2, you will see a slightly different link structure between the three pages. Page A links to page B and page B links to page C, as in diagram 1. However, Page A does not link to page C, nor does page C link to page B. Instead we have a non-reciprocated link (or one-way link) from page B to page C and a one-way link from page C to page A.

Web Links from the Search Engines Perspective

You should by now notice the triangular fashion in which page A links to page B and page B links page C and page C links to page A. This type of linking is coined “triangular linking.”

Before conceptualizing how a search engine views a link, I want to define one more term used often within the search engine company. In diagram 3, you will notice that page B and page C are connected through page A. In other words, there is a “direct edge” between B and C, which is A.

Web Links from the Search Engines Perspective

Search engines can view page B and C to be within the same community, or at least assign a lower weight than a direct link between the two pages of the community-like relationship between page B and C.

Link Structure of the Web

Search engines can take a step beyond what humans can compute. They look at the entire Web from a one-way linkage view, triangular linkage view, reciprocal linkage view and a direct edge linkage view.

Envision the three diagrams above multiplied together to form hundreds, if not thousands, of pages with various forms of linkage between them.  Now isolate the pages that link in one of the four fashions mentioned above and assign a solid red line to represent a one-way link, a dotted red link to represent a reciprocal link, then mentally note the links that are triangular in nature and finally, I have highlighted the links that are direct edges in yellow/red.

After you have all of that mapped out, stand over this color document and look down. You should be able to quickly see an unnatural linking pattern between groups of pages. For example, look at the page on the second row to the left, second box down. You will see that many dotted red lines point to the box (page). That means there is a lot of reciprocal linking taking place between that page and others. While you are at it, try to locate pages that are linking in triangular patterns versus one way links.

Web Links from the Search Engines Perspective

Search engines have the computational power, the algorithmic know-how and the experience to effortlessly find any unnatural linkage scheme. Of course, you need to determine what would be unnatural versus natural. It is very possible for you to naturally have reciprocal links, triangular links and so on. But if you see an “excessive” pattern of one category of the link types mentioned above, then a red flag may be raised.

When working on your link building campaign, it helps to have rich and unique content, free tools, a good brand or a real reason for other pages to link to your pages. The best types of links are those that are not asked for, people linking to your pages because they are truly helpful to the referrer’s Web visitor.

Buying links, conducting link exchanges, and performing any linkage schemes that feels unethical is most probably unnatural. Unnatural linkage schemes are a problem for many of the search engines today. As time goes on, you can bet that the search engines will determine quick methods to reduce the weight of “unnatural” types of links. So it is best to act now and build the most authoritative and informative site for your niche, in order to get the most natural and positive link citations.

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