Balancing Inbound and Outbound Links

One of the most important aspects of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is link building. Any SEO worth his or her salt will help the webmaster understand and achieve quality links. Since every one of the search engines relies upon backlinks to help determine the relevancy score of a particular website, it is usually part of any SEO consultant’s work with a webmaster, even though the weight that search engines give to backlinks may vary greatly.

What we forget, however, is that one-way links have to work, well, both ways, so to speak.  In order to get the one-way links, someone has to be willing to give them out, right?  But in the pursuit of achieving the precious one-way links, have we become stingy with our own gift of links to others?  You bet we have.

The word “Internet” is interesting in and of itself in the aspect of linking.  Ultimately, the entire purpose of the “Inter-Net” is creating a huge web of all of the sites on it, connected to one another.  Search engine spiders rely upon this web of networked sites to be able to index them, and Google in fact does NOT penalize sites for linking to like sites. Contrary to current and popular belief, most search engines in fact have favorable views of a website that links to similar sites. I believe that, in a way, being greedy with links is like missing the forest for the trees; the whole purpose of links is to connect the sites together, and not just to boost your PageRank.  Profound, I know, but I think that we all have forgotten this concept.

The idea that linking to other sites with some of the same types of information is somehow going to bring a website down a few PageRank notches is wrong.  In natural, organic SEO strategies, people should still be focusing first on what their audience wants, then secondarily upon what the search engines are looking for.  You might be surprised to know that they really go hand in hand.  Yet, site owners and SEOs are still fearful, and the loss of PageRank, either in threat or in reality, is devastating to those who watch those little numbers on the Google toolbar religiously.

Where does this fear come from?  The fear comes from the knowledge that if you don’t get found in the search engine’s results pages (SERPs), then you just don’t exist in the Internet world.  Heaven forbid one may actually get traffic from other websites in the form of reciprocal linking.  In the last year, reciprocal linking has gotten knocked around quite a bit.  But it’s not just reciprocal linking in general that should be looked down upon.  It’s when sites link to other sites that AREN’T similar that they start having problems, especially if a site isn’t linking to other similar sites and being stingy with their links by only linking to their own family of sites. Google will put up with this for a while, but ultimately the spider wants to flow from one page to the next, then on from that site to a similar site in content in order a) to crawl efficiently and b) to be able to connect similar sites.

But because many webmasters are in too much of a hurry in their link-building strategies, combined with the fear of reciprocal links to the wrong types of sites, most of the SEO savvy webmasters just disregard the reciprocal links at all costs.  In my opinion, this is just as bad as linking to everyone who asks for a link, regardless of the theme of the site.  Why do I say this?  For the sole reason that it is the same type of blatant disregard of that site’s prime audience, and the refusal to provide the quality resources that good links are all about in the first place.

One of the major reasons reciprocal linking has been deprecated is the sheer massive numbers of links that some sites accumulate in a short period of time.  In light of the view by the search engines that good websites will be linked to on their own, this inundation of links that a site gathers in a small period of time seems to do nothing more, in the eyes of a search engine, than artificially inflate that site’s importance.  Further, another major reason for reciprocal links to have lost their meaning is that when a site is providing links, it is providing resources to its audience.  If you have a site dealing with barbecue grills, then it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to provide a “resource” to Internet banking.  And why on earth would that Internet banking site provide a link back to your barbecue site?  Other than to inflate a site’s importance, there really isn’t any reason to.

Let’s look at a few myths that have propagated throughout the Web with regards to link building, PageRank, and linking strategies.

Myth #1 – Sites can leak PageRank, and by outbound linking, you are inadvertently siphoning off your PageRank to the site being linked.

Contrary to popular belief, sites don’t “leak” PageRank from outbound links. Sites get into trouble with their PageRank if their outbound links are to anyone and everyone who wants a link, with no rhyme or reason, or to sites in “bad neighborhoods” (which is an entirely different article), or to their own family of sites. I’m sure for some, I’m telling you nothing new; however I’m merely attempting to remind those who do know all of this. It’s difficult to change people’s perceptions at times, especially when good SEO changes nearly every three months; you simply cannot rest on your laurels, nor expect what worked for you last time will work for you today.

Let’s look at the concept of “leaking” PageRank.  Many webmasters get a few terms confused, and use them interchangeably.  Terms like PageRank, traffic, and inbound links really all mean different things, even if they are all somewhat related to another.  In my humble opinion, the idea that sites “leak” PageRank is nothing more than that pressed meat you put on sandwiches; meaning that this idea is entirely fiction.  But the concept is so ubiquitous that it lurks around every corner of SEO sites on the web.  In fact, it is probably the biggest myth around when it comes to links in general.  And while so-called “experts” can argue the mathematical possibility of a site’s ability to leak its PR, there is nothing that actually backs up the theory — as if Google doesn’t have an endless amount of PageRank, which it has to divide up among all the Internet’s websites?  That’s silly if you really think about it.

Sure, there is a mathematical equation for PageRank.  Trust me; this is NOT what I’m talking about.  What I’m referring to is the mathematical formula that determines whether PageRank is transferred from one site or a page to another.  Folks, there isn’t any such thing.  And because this concept has people confused (yes, SEOs too), this is where the cross-contamination of terminology occurs.

Myth #2 – Reciprocal linking is BAD.  One way links are GOOD.

While in certain situations, this statement may hold a kernel of truth, overall, generalities such as this get our thinking skewed.  The whole purpose of reciprocal linking is to share traffic, create resources for visitors, and promote a sense of connectivity to the Web.  Reciprocal linking, in my opinion, has never been about PageRank or search engine positioning.  Does reciprocal linking help a site’s PageRank?  Probably not.  Does connecting like sites together promote “find-ability” in the SERPs?  I think so.  But when I say “like sites” I mean that they share a common theme, have the same types of information, or in some way complement each other. 

It would be helpful to someone looking to travel to Egypt, for example, to visit a site that compares prices on hotel and airfare that is linked to another site that has a review of entertainment options in Egypt.  The sites complement each other.  Another example would be for a site that caters to Search Engine Optimization to United States customers to be linked to a site that does the same for webmasters in the United Kingdom.

Unfortunately, in order to get one-way links, which are the jewels of link-building, someone has to be giving away those links.  If we all hoped to get links, but never gave them, then there would be no such thing as one-way links at all.

Myth #3 – PageRank is like time; you can’t lose it, you can only spend it.

This is probably the silliest statement I’ve heard concerning PageRank.  Let’s look at this statement.  First and foremost, the person who came up with this little statement apparently has never “lost” PageRank.  Further, the second part of the statement implies that PageRank is like your savings account.  Let’s say you have $100.00 in there.  If you spend $95.00, this means you only have $5.00 left over.  Fortunately, this is really NOT the way that PageRank works.

Phil Craven, author of an article explaining PageRank, says: “When a page votes its PageRank value to other pages, its own PageRank is not reduced by the value that it is voting. The page doing the voting doesn’t give away its PageRank and end up with nothing. It isn’t a transfer of PageRank. It is simply a vote according to the page’s PageRank value. It’s like a shareholders meeting where each shareholder votes according to the number of shares held, but the shares themselves aren’t given away.”

I can certainly relate to the analogy Craven gives.  You can’t just assume that PageRank is a tangible element in this case; and by thinking that you can “give away” your PageRank, in essence it becomes somewhat tangible.  In my own analogy, I think of PageRank more along the same lines as knowledge:  you can impart your knowledge to others without actually losing the knowledge yourself.

Myth #4 – If you’re linking to someone else’s page, you’re giving them PageRank that you could be giving to one of your own pages.

Wrong again.  This is wrong in the same way as the previous myth; PageRank is not a savings account, with only so much PageRank to be had for anyone and everyone you are linking to until you just run out.  I would like to point out that there are high ranking sites like CNN, Wired.com and MSNBC that have dozens of links to other sites without giving away their PageRank.

Further, internal PageRank doesn’t work this way either.  In fact, too much internal linking without the balance of outbound links to other sites can indeed get you into trouble, not only earning you a lack of search engine positioning, but the loss of PageRank as well.

Myth #5 – Linking to someone else’s site with some of the same information as I have is like sending my customers to my competition.

As much as this may be true in the shopping world, it isn’t necessarily true of the interworking of the Web.  Sure, you might be rerouting a bit of traffic, but traffic is also being routed to you.  It doesn’t make sense that a reciprocal link will hurt one party, but be only helpful to the other.  No one likes sending traffic or customers away, but let’s be honest for a second.  No one can be all things to all people.  Your customers have more needs than you can possibly provide for, so they will still end up going elsewhere for something.  At least you can give them your two thumbs up, and that referral may mean more to them in the long run than simply the lack of information from the start.

There is more to having a good position in the search engines that hoarding all of your links.  There are many sites that I see have wonderful keyword-rich content, many thousands of backlinks, yet are so afraid of losing their PageRank that they only link to their own sites or internal pages.  In the case of those webmasters, I’d be more afraid that it would look like an attempt to keep inflated numbers while losing the important purpose of linking in the first place: connecting the web.  So come on, guys: stop being stingy with your links, and try to relax a little.  You’re not going to plummet in the SERPs by providing links to someone else.

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