Published: Saturday, August 14, 2004
By Jill Whalendel.icio.us
For years, "link popularity" and "Google PageRank" have been the talk of the town in the search engine optimization community. However, the definition of link popularity and how it differs from PageRank (PR), as well as how much effect these actually have on search engine rankings, is often misunderstood.
What is Link Popularity?
The theory goes something like this: The search engine Powers That Be have decided that if other sites are linking to your site, it must be a winner; therefore, it deserves a boost in rankings (when all else is equal). If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. People link to good sites, not bad ones.
PageRank Does Not Equal Link Popularity
It's important to note that Google PageRank is not the same thing as link popularity. PR is actually a subset of link popularity. Whereas PR focuses strictly on the quantity and popularity of links, link popularity adds a "quality factor" into the equation. Unfortunately, many people mistakenly use the terms "link popularity" and "PageRank " interchangeably, which has served to confuse the issue further.
All major search engines place some emphasis on link popularity in their ranking algorithms. There appear to be 2 main types of links that work best to increase your link popularity: links from other sites that focus on the same keyword phrases your site focuses on, and links from relevant categories in major directories and industry-specific portals. "Free-for-all" (FFA) sites do not constitute quality links, so don't waste your $24.95 submitting your site to 500 of them. Links from sites that focus on topics that have nothing to do with your site probably won't help you win any link popularity contests, either (although they may temporarily boost your PR).
How Does Link Popularity Work?
Here's an example of how I believe link popularity works:
Let's say that Bob's Pizza Palace Website has a link to Joe's Men's Clothing store site. If the link uses the keywords "men's clothing store" in the anchor text (the clickable part), it may help Joe's link popularity a little bit for those keywords. However, Joe would benefit a lot more if the same link came from a site that was more related to Joe's site than a pizza palace. For instance, a more related link might be from a woman's clothing store, a men's shoe store or any other type of store that relates to clothing in some way.
An even higher-quality link for Joe might be from "Sam's Clothing Store Directory," which lists a whole bunch of clothing stores that can be found on the Internet. That is exactly the kind of link that the search engines would want to credit toward link popularity. Again, the key is in having that common thread between the sites.
Where Do Reciprocal Links Come In?
The other popular misconception floating around is in regards to reciprocal linking. Since so many people think that exchanging links with sites is the easiest way to get them (it may or may not be), new people learning about link popularity are under the mistaken belief that they must have links that are reciprocated on their site (e.g., "you-link-to-me-and-I'll-link-to-you"-type links). Still others are saying that reciprocal links are dead and you won't gain any benefit from them.
Both camps are wrong. You certainly don't need to get reciprocal links, but you can if you want to. Remember, it's links pointing TO your site that are the helpful ones. Links pointing FROM your site to other sites are wonderful to have because they help your visitors find related stuff, but if your site doesn't lend itself to linking to other sites, then by all means, don't do it. You need to do what's right for your company and your site visitors, first and foremost.
Should I Care About Link Popularity?
In general, there's no need for the average site to obsess over link popularity. Yes, you'll want to keep it in mind, and yes you should make sure that your site is what I like to call "link-worthy." However, from my experience (and contrary to popular belief), link popularity constitutes only a portion of most search engines' ranking algorithms. Arguably, Google places more emphasis than most other engines on incoming links at this point in time. How much these actually boost a site's ranking is debatable and truly depends on the site. It also depends on the words that are placed in the anchor text. I have found that just a few highly relevant links with strong anchor text can go a long way towards link popularity for many sites.
For sites that want to take it to the next level and are trying to rank highly with extremely competitive keywords, it may be necessary to actively seek out links from other relevant Websites. This doesn't mean you should go out and create a whole bunch of domains yourself and link them all together because it sounds easier than getting others to link to you. (Yes, that trick has been tried before!) It simply means you should look for sites that are related to your site in some way, and see if they might be interested in promoting your site to their users.
Whatever you do, do not send automatically generated link requests to any site. Most Webmasters consider them a nuisance at best and sp@m at worst. Certainly, a personal email may be welcome, and it also doesn't hurt to pick up the phone and begin a dialogue with a potential link partner. Remember, very often these links from relevant sites will bring more traffic to your site than a high search engine ranking will bring.
How To Get Linked Without Even Trying
My favorite way to get links (but the most time-consuming) is to simply have the best site on the Internet in your specific niche. Interestingly enough, if your site is well written, provides tons of useful information and is constantly updated, you often won't have to seek out links at all. Other sites will link to yours of their own volition.
This has worked for me on my High Rankings site for many years. Without actively requesting any links (other than a few major directories), hundreds of highly relevant sites have added HighRankings.com to their list of recommended sites related to SEO. Some people link to my home page, others to the main newsletter page, and still others to my forum. Some will link directly to an article or newsletter they've enjoyed, and some will ask if they can republish some on their site, while also including a link.
This is the ideal, and not every site is going to have the time or inclination to get to this stage. However, I firmly believe that any kind of site in any type of business can use this method if they are willing to work at it. I know of no other method that can even bring links from direct competitors! Personally, I'd rather spend my time creating a link-worthy site than sending out repetitive reciprocal link exchange requests...but maybe that's just me!
Your homework for this week is to think about how you can make your site so good that others will be only too willing to link to it -- without your even having to ask for it. If you can figure it out and actually spend the time implementing the strategy, eventually you won't have to worry about link popularity, reciprocal links or PageRank ever again!
Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, a Boston SEO Consulting Agency.
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