Why Linking Is so Important for Ranking

The science of information retrieval on the Web is continually developing. Because of new discoveries and alternative methods of identifying popular results, search marketing has to continually develop with it. Yet, just last week I talked with someone who’s still trying to come to terms with why links are so important for a Web site to secure a prominent spot on a SERP (define).

Sometimes I’m guilty of assuming that, by now, everyone understands why links are the building blocks of a successful SEO (define) campaign. But the search marketing industry is still emerging and new people are coming in every day.

So, here’s a refresher on how linkage data became such an important factor.

By about 1996, the early search engines began to discover that ranking documents based purely on content similarity (between the query and the document) was no longer sufficient for two reasons. For one, the amount of content created between the mid- to late ’90s was so huge, the abundance of information made it too hard to identify the top 20 pages to rank. Second, it was easy to spam search engines by keyword stuffing and creating doorway pages to manipulate ranking.

During 1997 and 1998, a whole lot of research work was carried out in the field of applying social network analysis to the Web. The two most important ranking algorithms to emerge were Google’s widely known PageRank and the lesser known HITS developed by Professor Jon Kleinberg.

Social network analysis is the study of social entities (people in an organization known as “actors”) and their interactions and relationships. And these interactions and relationships (networks) can be represented in a graphical format.

Search engines take this similar approach, viewing the Web as a virtual social network. In this way, each page can be regarded as a social actor and each link between pages can be viewed as a relationship.

Two important concepts of social network analysis are factored into hyperlink-based ranking algorithms: centrality and prestige. Centrality basically means that a person with extensive contacts (links) in a community is usually considered more important than a person with relatively few. And prestige is pretty much based on the number of important people linked to you. This is why we talk about quality of links being more important than simply quantity.

As I explained these fundamentals to my friend last week, a light bulb genuinely seemed to go ping. At least he now understood the reasons for moving away from purely text-based analysis to a refined measure of prominence for one page over another, even when they have similar content.

Of course, that leads immediately to the SEO chestnut: “How do I get links?” And yes, I’m smiling as I type it. It’s a question I’ve been asked at every conference or via e-mail hundreds of times. In particular, smaller businesses and owners of smaller Web sites seem to puzzle over this more than others.

I’m afraid, just like the real world offline, the rules online aren’t much different. Small businesses are, well, small. Large businesses are large. The bigger the brand, the more likely it will get links.

Stop and think about this: How did the big boys get so big? They didn’t all start big. Most big companies started small and grew.

In a similar manner, this is what small companies online need to do. You need to set goals for growth (a large dose of patience is also required).

I once asked a guy from a search engine how a small business online can attract links. He gave me this great analogy based around network theory. He said to imagine moving to a new town where nobody knows you. What’s the first thing you do? You start to introduce yourself and meet new people. And then pretty soon you’re part of the community and you’re building up your reputation. Who’s to say that one day you won’t be mayor?

My best advice for getting links has always been: “Stop thinking about links.” Start thinking about promoting your business with a smart marketing strategy and links become a byproduct of that.

Develop a niche and a reputation for yourself as providing the best customer service or the fastest delivery times — whatever it is you do to differentiate from your competitors. That is where the linking advantage is.

One exercise I always go through with clients (big and small) is to ask them to write down 10 reasons why I should link to them. Sit down in front of your own Web site, alone or with your team, and ask what compelling reasons there are for other people to link to it.

I haven’t actually seen anybody get beyond five or six. But it’s a good way to assess the strength of your value proposition, whatever it is. If you can’t get beyond why your friends and family should link to your site, you may want to ask what the purpose of building it was in the first place!

Join us for Search Engine Strategies San Jose, August 10-14, 2009, at the McEnery Convention Center. Spend Day 1 learning about social media and video strategies with ClickZ.