Let’s Talk About Links

The search industry seems to have been fairly dominated by two major topics this year: the introduction of universal/blended search results and Google’s heightened alert regarding the issue of buying links to artificially inflate PageRank.

From time to time, I’ve been known to play devil’s advocate over the paid links issue for the purpose of good debate. But my honest opinion is Google is right to take the hard line it does. As are other search engines.

At Search Engine Strategies (SES) Chicago a couple weeks back, there was a “Are Paid Links Evil?” panel. And during the summer SES in San Jose, at a similar session, I watched as poor Matt Cutts faced the equivalent of an SEO firing squad.

I’ve heard and read a lot of discussion on the matter. “Who does Google think it is telling me how to market myself online?” seems to be the general gripe. I’ve said that before myself. But it’s usually swiftly followed by the realization that if you want to keep yourself in Google’s index, you’d better do as Google says.

But a major aspect of this issue never quite seems to get addressed: Why do so many sites rely on paid links to get ranked in the first place? Are they that desperate?

If your search engine performance is based purely on your link-buying efforts, there’s probably something fundamentally wrong with your business.

One thing I do with new clients is sit them down in front of their Web sites and ask them to write down 10 reasons someone should link to them. Rarely do people get past seven or eight.

It’s a short exercise intended, in the main, to get the client thinking about not just differentiation but also the actual business model. Face it: if you can’t think of dozens of reasons people would want to link to your site, you may want to ask yourself why you built it in the first place.

Forget about search engines for the moment. The natural algorithm of the Web is all about linking. That’s why Tim Berners-Lee invented it. So if you build a Web site you don’t think stands a chance of attracting some natural linkage data around it, it’s probably a waste of time to even open your FTP client.

The search engines want to provide the best end user experience they possibly can. That means providing the most relevant results. It seems obvious to me that Web sites that can’t attract natural linkage data and are forced to fake it probably aren’t the most relevant sites for any given query.

“What about the small guy, Mike?” I hear you saying.

What about him? The notion that the small guy can’t attract natural linkage data suggests only one thing: he needs to become more realistic and a better marketer.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this at conferences: “We have to buy links because we’re small and we’re competing against Giant Brand X.” That’s where the problem lies. If the small guy wouldn’t dare to compete with Giant Brand X offline, what makes him think he has a chance online?

I have a fascination with the way network theory and social network analysis are applied to the Web’s growth and structure, as well as search engine ranking mechanisms. It’s all about links nodes and associations.

If you think about the way network theory is applied by search engines, it’s pretty much a reflection of life offline. Real life isn’t always fair, particularly in matters of wealth and success. The rich always seem to get richer, usually at the expense of the poor.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. In the Bible, Matthew observes: “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath” (Matt 25:29). In the context of networks, the “Matthew effect,” as coined by the great 20th century sociologist Robert Merton, equates to well-connected nodes being more likely to attract new links, while poorly connected nodes are likely to remain poor.

This then poses the question: how did the well-connected nodes get to be so well connected? If you start to figure that out, you start to get better connected yourself. Pretty soon, you may find you’re not breaking Google’s guidelines and risking being banned. Instead, you’re actually attracting good natural linkage.

If nothing else, Google did online marketers a favor. If paid links are a no-go, it forces us to be smarter marketers to get those juicy editorially chosen links.

Personally, I like the great marketing story about the two college kids who started their business in a garage. Within a few short years, they were the most talked about brand online and had linkage data coming out their ears.

Then again, they had a great product and a beautiful, clean, white interface to their site. They never bought a link and they never bought an ad. Now that’s inspiring!

Happy holidays to all, and see you in the New Year.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

Related reading

Brand Top Level Domains