Search engine optimization (SEO) has historically been a tricky game filled with speculation and increasingly abstract tactics to keep up with Googleâ€™s ever-more-sophisticated algorithmic changes. While Google always keeps the exact details of its updates under tight wraps, experts in the industry can make reasonable assumptions about the nature of each change based on information provided through public updates and details found in recent patents.
One of the most recent patents filed in March of 2014 has been tied to Googleâ€™s Panda algorithm, and specialists everywhere have been trying to decipher exactly what it means for companies trying to improve their search engine ranks. Overall trends in the world of SEO have indicated an increasing favor for high-quality content strategies, and it looks like this trend will continueâ€”but link building is still important because inbound links remain the most important factor in Googleâ€™s ranking algorithm. Combining content marketing with link building was the subject of my article, â€œThe Two Things You Need to Boost Your Search Results.â€
But the way Google defines a link is changing;Â the way Google views and uses links in its ranking algorithms is undergoing a major shift which could impact the search visibility of every site on the Web.
The Problem with â€œAuthorityâ€ and Old-School Link Building
In order to rank highly for a search query, your site needs a high level of â€œauthority,â€ an abstract and subjective term for how credible and influential your site is compared to others in your industry. Many SEO companies have defined this differently, calling it â€œdomain authorityâ€ or â€œbrand authority,â€ and have calculated a number on an arbitrary scale to measure how much relative â€œauthorityâ€ a given site has at any given point in time.
In theory, authority is a brilliant way to determine how highly a site should rank in a search engine results page. Search engines want to give users the most relevant, trustworthy content possible, and using authority as a primary determining value is a surefire way to give people authoritative content. The problem, of course, is that authority is subjective (some would say incalculable), and using a mathematic algorithm to define it will lead to unpredictable results and numerous strategic holes that can be exploited.
Link building, as a tactic, rose to prominence because having more links pointing to your site once meant instantly having a higher authority. Since Google caught on to these â€œblack hatâ€ schemes, those old school link building tactics are now harmful to your authority. Instead, modern link builders are careful to ensure links appear natural, from a diverse range of sources, and preferably those with high authority already.
But even this approach may no longer be enough to serve as a viable link building strategy, especially in the long term. From the latest information we have, it appears as though Google is changing the way it looks at links entirely, closing the door on some link building strategies while opening a door for new ones to develop.
Reference Queries and Implied Links
â€œLinksâ€ used to mean explicitly posted URLs that lead back to a page on your website. They could be posted in full, like https://www.google.com/, or be embedded as hyperlink anchor text, like Google. Either way, a link was a link, and the more links you had, the better. As you can imagine, this led to a lot of people spamming links to their own pages with reckless abandon, polluting the web with self-serving fluff and compromising the entire authority system used by Googleâ€™s algorithm.
Now, as outlined in the recent Panda patent, Google is differentiating between what it identifies as â€œexpress links,â€ or conventional links, and â€œimplied links.â€ Implied links are references or mentions of a brand and/or website without an explicit link. These references could be in the body of a blog post, citing out another brandâ€™s expertise on a specific subject, in a comment referring to another brandâ€™s coverage of a topic, or in some other form so long as the siteâ€™s name is specifically mentioned.
Implied links, also called â€œbrand mentionsâ€ or simply â€œmentions,â€ are becoming relevant to brand authority in new ways, calling the entire link building system into question and demonstrating another major technological breakthrough in the sophistication of Googleâ€™s measurement of authority.
Adding to this complexity in calculating authority, Google appears to also be placing a higher emphasis on what it identifies as â€œreference queries.â€ Reference queries are historical instances of individuals using a specific query and ending up in a specific locationâ€”giving Google some indication of whether a given site offers what a user is searching for. Reference queries help build an understanding of a siteâ€™s popularity (or authority) compared to similar results for a given query. In other words, the better your site is at giving people what theyâ€™re looking for, the better youâ€™ll rank for relevant searches.
Links to Mentions
Itâ€™s clear that brand mentions are becoming very important to a siteâ€™s authority, but it appears as though traditional links are not obsolete. Both express links and implied links are now used to calculate authority, so itâ€™s important to include both in your link building strategy. Even though, as of now, there is no precise ratio of links to mentions that has been demonstrated to be ideal for building your authority, here are a few thoughts to consider as you split your link building strategy between express links and implied links:
- Having a high link-to-mention ratio could imply a level of spamminess, possibly reducing your authority
- Viral content, especially through visual pieces of content like infographics, could be an easy way to facilitate a natural ratio of links to mentions, and natural is always better in the eyes of Google
- Guest blogs are a perfect opportunity to build your mentions (especially if your guest blog is syndicated). For help getting started with guest blogging, see my article, â€œThe Ultimate, Step-by-Step Guide to Building Your Business by Guest Blogging.â€
While it would be easy to purchase brand mentions the same way many companies purchase external links now, the better long-term strategy looks to be producing high quality content that can facilitate both links and mentions on its own. As described in 10 Reasons Your Content Strategy is More Important than Link Building, a solid content strategy has far more long-term potential and immediate value than any gimmick that relies on taking advantage of a perceived hole in the system.
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