How Valuable is That Link?

SEOs put a lot of effort into link building – and justifiably so, since Google weighs links very heavily among the factors it considers when deciding where to rank a web page in its results. But the search engine doesn’t treat all links equally, and neither should you. How can you tell whether a particular link is worth pursuing? Keep reading.

First, let me give credit where it’s due: much of the content of this article comes from a thread started by PhilipSEO in our own SEO Chat forums. If you’re serious about building links to your site, I recommend you read that thread, but be prepared to spend some time at it. Phil covers a lot more than just assessing a link’s value, and many other SEO Chat forum members made valuable contributions to this thread as well.

Let’s get started. If you want to climb the SERPs, you need to get links that are of high quality and permanent. These kinds of links “deliver the largest impact fastest,” Phil notes. So how do you tell whether a link meets these criteria? You’ll need to start by assessing the page which will link to yours, based on several factors.

The first factor you should consider is relevance. Look at the page that is linking to your site. Is it relevant to the target page (the page that you want it to link to)? Is it relevant to the target page’s keywords? Is it using relevant keywords in prominent places that Google will catch? Look for keywords in the following places, keeping in mind that you may have to use the View Source command when viewing the page through your browser to see some of them:

  • Title tag
  • Domain and URL
  • Heading tags (H1, H2, etc.)
  • Elsewhere in the text and HTML
  • Backlinks pointing to the page itself

The point is to check the areas that Google would look at to judge relevance, and see if they match your target page. So if you’ve just written the definitive article on how to groom your dog, and you hope to get a link from a site selling dog grooming supplies, you should be looking for phrases like “dog grooming,” “grooming your dog,” and so forth. 

The next factor you need to consider is link equity, or how much “link juice” the link will pass. Often link juice and link equity are considered in the context of Page Rank, which really is not directly related to how high you’ll rank in the SERPs. In fact, Page Rank is a rather controversial issue; some say it has become useless (at least for certain purposes), but others say it still offers some important value.

Right at the center of this controversy is the issue of nofollow links. When a website marks a link “rel=nofollow,” it is in effect saying that the link doesn’t count as a “vote” for the page to which it is linking. This means that the link doesn’t pass any link juice to the page to which it is linking. No link juice means no increase in Page Rank.

But “The jury is out on whether or not nofollow links are capable of passing other SEO value,” PhilipSEO notes. These days, something other than Page Rank has been growing in importance: trust. But how does Google measure trust? Phil suggests that Page Rank offers some kind of loose approximation of trust, with domains boasting a PR 0 “unlikely to command great trust,” while those with a PR 10 likely to be “extremely trusted.”

Why does this matter? Some observers think that a nofollow link from a trusted site still passes along some kind of SEO value, even if it doesn’t pass any link juice. Phil states that “Many have reported and speculated, for example, that nofollow links from Wikipedia and similar high-trust sites can provide a great boost to rankings in spite of nofollow.”

The other reason to look at a page’s PR, according to Phil, is that it can help you to determine whether a site has been penalized.

So, given that a page’s PR is a shaky SEO measurement, there are still three factors to consider when evaluating a page’s link equity. The first, of course, is the page’s Page Rank. The second is the number of internal and outbound links on the linking page; this is because the total PR or “link juice” passed from the page is divided among those links.

You can understand this second point as basic math, even though the actual calculations are more complicated. If a page has 10 “points” it can pass on, and links out to two other pages, those pages each get 5 “points.” If it links out to five other pages, on the other hand, each of those pages only get 2 “points.” For a more in-depth examination of back links and Google Page Rank, read the linked tutorial.

The third point you should consider when evaluating a page’s link equity is whether the links on the linking page are nofollow, for reasons that should be fairly obvious by now. But don’t rule out getting a link from a page simply because it is nofollowed; as mentioned, there are other reasons it might be valuable.

SEO is a long-term game. A link gained from a site that’s just starting to build content and trust could grow in value over time as the site (and the link) matures. Isn’t that even more true of a link gained from a high-quality site? Yes, but only if that link actually WILL be there for a long time. Any benefits from a link disappear once the link is gone. Because of this, PhilipSEO recommends that you not waste your time with any links that will not continue to exist for a long time.

This is one reason why buying links isn’t worth it. Usually you’re just buying them for a certain period of time; if you want to maintain the link after that time is up, it will cost you more money. This could get expensive if you buy a lot of links – and that assumes that Google doesn’t catch you and penalize you for it. If that happens, your link buying gets very expensive indeed!

Relevance, link equity, and permanence are the three factors that PhilipSEO recommended you take most seriously when evaluating whether a particular link is worth pursuing. But these are not the only factors you should consider. Other important factors include positioning and context; cost of acquisition; likelihood of acquisition; and non-SEO values.

Positioning and Context

Links can appear in all sorts of different places on a web page: at the top, somewhere in the middle, in a sidebar, in the footer, and so forth. Not every spot on the page is valued equally by Google. Just as humans tend to pay more attention to the beginning of a web page to find out what it is about, Google considers the top of a page to be more important than other parts (such as the bottom). So try to get a link as close to the beginning of a page as possible.

Closely related to the position of a link is its context. If you’re reading an article and interested in finding related information, would you pay more attention to a link at the end of the article in the author’s bio, or a link in the middle of a paragraph that makes it clear from the anchor text that it leads to a case study on the topic? You’d pay more attention to the link in the middle – and so does Google. So if you can, strive to get your link included within a paragraph of content, rather than apart from the rest of the text, and try to make sure it’s surrounded by relevant keywords. This is doable if someone writes an article about your business, for example.

The remaining factors you should evaluate before you try to acquire a particular link are the cost of acquisition, likelihood of acquisition and non-SEO values. These may not tip the scales one way or the other, but they could hint at whether trying to acquire the link would be too costly or a waste of your time.

Cost of Acquisition

The cost of acquiring a link refers to more than just money. How much work will you have to put into getting the link? This is not necessarily a deciding factor, as acquiring links from .edu sites is often difficult but can really pay off in the SERPs. However, if you’re going round and round with someone about whether they’d be willing to link out to your site, it might be best for all involved to just let it go.

Likelihood of Acquisition

If you run a gambling website, it is unlikely in the extreme that you’ll be able to acquire a link from any .edu site – unless, perhaps, the .edu in question teaches casino dealers. You can probably think of a variety of other factors that will influence the likelihood of your acquiring a link from any particular web site. PhilipSEO offers this list of items to consider:

  • Your ability to add a link directly.
  • Your ability to submit the link.
  • Relationship with someone at that domain.
  • Your ability to make (or request and see through) a correction or addition to the linking page.

You may be able to think of other points that might affect your likelihood of acquiring a link from any particular site.

Non-SEO Values

There’s more to links than getting a high rank in Google. Links can bring you relevant traffic. Remember when I mentioned the positioning and context of a link? If someone reads an article and follows a link within its text that goes to your web site, they became a visitor without resorting to the search engines to find you. If your material is relevant to their interests, they might even convert.

How can you improve the odds that this will happen? Make sure your link is seen in relevant places, but don’t spam. PhilipSEO notes that “The tactics for improving your referred traffic include link distribution to leading digital media (articles, guest blog posts, quality listings), to online discussions (possibly engaging industry leaders in conversation) and growing expertise-based relations with the media.” Show that you know your topic, and your links will help build your brand, attract traffic, and hopefully encourage conversions – which is really the bottom line, regardless of where you rank in Google. Good luck!

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