Eli Schwartz

In the early days of the Internet and search, Google differentiated themselves from the other search engines by focusing on quality signals to determine relevancy for a query. Amazingly, the other engines – and yes there were lots of other engines – completely ignored quality and looked at keyword matches to pages in the index.

The primary quality signal that Google used to determine quality is the value of the links that pointed to a specific page or website. The value passed by those inbound links is calculated by the value of their own links and on and on it goes. From Google’s perspective, the Internet is a true web of pages linking to each and connecting all pages together.

Linking understood

Google modeled their ranking algorithm like a traditional academic authority model. An academic paper with a new idea is considered to be more authoritative if it has a large quantity of citations discussing it. At the same time the quantity of those citations has to be qualified by the quality of the citations, so a paper cited by a Nobel laureate would be more valuable than one cited by a high school senior.

Moving this model over to the web Google used the same calculation to value the web. A website that has a link pointing to it from Stanford University would in theory be more valuable than one that only has a link from Kaplan University. It’s not that Google recognizes the Stanford is a highly reputable university with a higher caliber of education than Kaplan because of the Stanford “brand”, rather Stanford has more authority because it has a higher quality of other websites that link to it than Kaplan.

Furthermore, quality is not created by a website alone, the linking page also must have its own authority which is calculated by the internal link flow as well as any external inbound links. From this respect, a link from the Kaplan homepage to a website is likely more valuable from a link standpoint than a private student’s blog on the Stanford domain.

Viewed holistically in this manner, the idea of .edu or .gov having more link authority than a .com is completely false as every domain has to stand on its own within the web based on its own backlinks. It is likely that a .edu or .gov will have more link value to share, but there is no guarantee. Just to underscore this point, Google knows that whitehouse.gov is the most valuable government website not because it is the website but because it has the highest value of incoming links.

Manufactured linking

While Google claims to view hundreds of factors in determining rankings, links have always had a very prominent part of the calculation. The non-link factors are lot more mysterious, but on its face, this link calculation algorithm seems very simple to manipulate. High value links will pass an extraordinary amount of value and help the linked page rise in search rankings.

As a result, almost from the day Google launched its index, huge economies sprung up to help marketers manipulate their rankings via artificial rankings. On the cleaner end of things, there were reporters or websites willing to accept compensation in exchange for a link placement while on the dirtier end there were botnets designed to hack websites just to place links.

In between these two options, there were brokers that assisted websites in finding the perfect place to purchase a link on a permanent or even temporary basis. Up until 2012, all of this link manipulation was remarkably effective and websites that spent vast sums on link building saw their websites dominate valuable positions in Google. But this is not the way Google had been conceived to work. Websites were not supposed to just be able to spend their way to the top of rankings when Google really wanted its index to focus on user experience and relevancy.

Penguin

In 2012, Google released their Penguin algorithm update whose sole purpose was to identify manipulative linking schemes and demote the recipients of the links. When possible, Google nuked entire link networks bringing down sites that linked as well as the sites receiving the links.

For the first few months and even years after Google unveiled this algorithm update, websites were terrified of having their previously undiscovered link building efforts be revealed and lead to a penalty. Sites frantically posted disavow files to Google where they disclosed the shady links they may have had a role in acquiring. Out of fear, websites even disavowed links proactively that they had nothing to do with. This algorithm update gave rise to the concept of negative SEO where a malicious person could point dirty links at a website and then watch Google penalize the receiving website for having dirty inbound links. (Note: Google claims this is not possible, but there are many case studies of negative SEO working).

It has now been almost 8 years since this algorithm update and link buying activity is once again picking up. Websites have become more confident in their abilities to evade Google and use these links to accelerate their SEO efforts. This time it is now called guest posts or sponsored posts rather than outright paid links

Google is smarter than you think

In my opinion, most of the time this is a completely wasted effort not because they will be caught by Google, but because the links just don’t work. What many might forget about Google is that it is a company driven by machine learning and artificial intelligence. Outside of search, Google’s Waymo has driven more autonomous miles than anyone else working on self-driving vehicles. To date, in the 5 million miles driven by Google,  we have not heard of any serious injury or fatality caused by Waymo which means that Google has AI that is good enough to make life and death decisions. This challenge is light years more complex than ranking search results.

In many instances a human reviewer can quickly identify a pattern of artificial links which means that Google’s AI can likely do the same. A website might not get penalized when their artificial links are discovered, but the links themselves will just be discounted from the ranking algorithm. The net result is that any resources expended in acquiring the links was completely for naught.

Link solution

If links are an important component of SEO and they can’t be manipulated, this might seem like a dead end for a website looking to increase rankings. Fortunately, there is a solution and it is one that Google recommends: Build a brand. Brands don’t build links, they get links.

Brands in search

Google has been accused of favoring brands in search, and that should be true simply because users favor brands! Just like in a supermarket we gravitate to the branded products the exact same happens on a search results page. As in the earlier explanation about the value of university links, Google doesn’t give a brand extra credit for being a brand; rather, they recognize brands because they have brand characteristics.

Building a brand on the web is not an easy feat, but the first step is to think like a brand. A brand like Coca-Cola doesn’t seek websites to link to them because they know if they create well designed products, refreshing beverages, and launch campaigns the media will talk about them. A brand focuses on its core product offering first and then seeks to get attention. A non-brand seeks to get attention so they can one day have a great product.

Focus on the right goal

Focus on the product and let marketing tell that product story. The byproduct of that story will establish the brand and lead to links which will reinforce the brand. This does not have to be done without help. Brands use PR agencies to tell their stories, and any company aspiring to be a brand can do the same.

There are amazing PR agencies that are familiar with SEO who can ensure that there are links within promotional campaigns, but the PR is the focus not the link.

Links are and always will be a part of the ranking algorithm, but think of the algorithm like the smart human Google intends it to one day be. If a human could easily detect an unnatural link the algorithm likely could too.

Instead of using precious resources to build those unnatural links instead deploy that effort to build a brand which attracts the links that lead to rankings. A clever infographic designed to inform, a media campaign, a billboard or a unique approach to data can all be used to generate the buzz that leads to links and eventually coveted rankings. Don’t focus on the means to build a brand on search – and instead view the links as the byproduct of brand building Google has always intended for it to be. Links are just a piece of the algorithm designed to inform Google about authority that should already exist.