What Search Engines Want

From the search engines’ perspective, they want to understand some other things about a link, before they can decide the answers to your questions.

Why Does This Link Exist?

The primary question for search engines is why a given link exists at all. For your internal links, those that they find in the body copy, with a visible (blue and underlined) link, are most likely there to help your users.

What about links that are concealed (no visible indication that it’s a link), buried (tiny text in the footer of the page), or both? Isn’t it likely that you only put those links there to influence your rankings?

Which link do you think they trust more?

Why Was This Link Given?

So it goes with links from other sites. At the core of any search engines efforts to fight “link spam” will be an effort to determine the intent of each link. When it comes to external links, the question is the same; it’s just asked a little differently.

When you find a link from one web site to another, there are only a few ways that it got there. I break them into five main categories:

  • Stolen links exist because some web applications (blogs, directories, and many insecure scripts) allow users to add links to a web page. For example, when blogs were new and nofollow didn’t exist, spammers could easily create links to a site simply by adding worthless comments to blog posts.
  • Bartered links are more of a gray area for search engines. Aside from link exchanges, this category also includes signature links in forums, and those found on social networking sites like Squidoo. Depending on the value of the
    contribution to a forum or social network, these may be more like stolen links. Bartered links aren’t necessarily endorsed by the site owner, but they’re allowed because the site owner gets something in return – usually content or a return link. When a link is given in return, search engines can detect this relationship and discount the value of the link.
  • Manufactured links mostly exist because someone has gone out of their way to create entire web sites and web pages so that they can use this content for linking purposes. This is known as “link farming” and it’s difficult
    for the search engines to detect. Another type of manufactured link exists, though, because there’s a whole
    class of web sites that are creating by “screen scraping” search results, stealing content, modifying RSS feeds, and other nonsense. As a side effect, websites that are present in search results usually pick up a slow but steady stream of manufactured links that they didn’t really ask for.
  • Purchased or rented links are not really a gray area for the search engines. These links may be legitimate and profitable advertising for the buyer, or they may be created solely for the purpose of influencing search engine rankings.If search engines get better at detecting and filtering out these links, their effectiveness will decline. SEO people are a resourceful bunch, so there will always be new schemes designed to avoid detection. Personally, I buy links when it makes sense because of branding or direct traffic value.
  • Given links or editorial links are what the search engines value the most. If they could rank pages based on the natural links that are created because one person actually likes and recommends another site, they’d be able to
    deliver the best possible search results.

Within the last category, what search engines really want are the “natural links of pure love,” as I described. But there are other types of editorial link.

Every time an online news story talks about Apple and the iPod, there’s a good chance that those words will be linked to Apple’s website. This is just an editorial reference, but it still sends a little link juice their way.

If I link to the Microsoft web page with the words “evil empire” I am probably not recommending Microsoft’s products… but I would be sending them some PageRank nonetheless.

Search engines would probably like to be able to tell the difference between these types of links. They’d like to be able to break links down into even finer categories than I have.

For most readers, your approach to building links will depend, to an extent, on what you think search engines are capable of doing today, what they may become capable of doing in the future, and how you expect them to respond to different types of links.

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