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  The Five Major Flaws of Link Popularity

by Eric Ward

More links mean a site must have good content, right? And more links mean more site visitors, right? And surely more links mean better rankings in search engines, right?

Wrong. None of the above is true. In some cases each could be true, but only if you delve a little deeper into the realities of linking in the online world. If a year ago search engine optimization was all the rage, nowadays it's link popularity, and this new kid in town is a mighty popular one.

But while you go about the process of building links, thinking people will beat a path to your site and your search engine rankings will improve, think again. As a measure of quality, rankings improvement, and traffic, link popularity has five major flaws, which explains why search engines can't rely on it too heavily, if at all.

1. New Sites Have No Links

Assume that tomorrow we launch a medical-information site with the deepest and highest quality content of any other site in existence. I'm talking "written by the hand of God"-quality content. The only links we can be assured of are the ones we pay for at Yahoo!, LookSmart, NBCi, and Inktomi. The rest we have to get online and make happen. You know the drill -- submit to other engines and ask for links on similar sites or topical directories, engines, and site lists. This is what I do every day for a living. Believe me, all of those medical sites with a few years' head start and 1,500 links are going to be ahead of us for a long, long time, even if our content is better. This example alone proves why links are both a weak metric to use as an indicator of quality and why they're prejudiced against new sites.

2. Links Below Site Level Two Don't Exist

Most search engines index only content in the top two levels of your site. They have no idea that links exist beyond the secondary level simply because they don't search beyond the secondary level. Let's say you have links built to your site from other sites. If these links exist beyond the spiders' allowable depth of travel, they will NEVER be counted. In other words, if you have 5,000 links pointing at your site, but all of them exist on pages beyond the second directory level, a search engine will determine that your site has zero links.

3. Email Links Can't Be Counted

Users spend more time using email than they do surfing the Web. If my site is reviewed in a newsletter that is emailed to 500,000 readers, a search engine doesn't have a clue about it. But I'll take that review and the 100,000 or so new site visitors it sends me any day. Wouldn't you?

4. Spoofers, Free-for-Alls, and Link Schemes Abound

Any time a search engine comes up with a new way to rank pages, someone comes up with a way to trick the search engine. There are already countless links page generation scams and link pyramid schemes where everyone agrees to add your link, and you agree to host the same links page as everyone else.

Forget the quality of the sites themselves, just add the links page to your server. Silly. Any search engine can spot this scam through simple sniffer scripts. Add your link to 6,000 pages in 30 seconds? Ooh, the quality of that content must be something to see.

5. Unauthorized URLs Are Submitted to Search Engines

When the search engine folks first decided to count links, I don't think they ever thought it would inspire people to begin submitting more links than they ever had, including other people's pages. For instance, a marketer has a site and finds a link to his site on another site. In an effort to be sure the search engines know that site has a link to his site, he submits that site to the search engines through the "Add URL" form. Now multiply this marketer's actions times a billion and that's exactly what's happening every day -- people submitting other people's links page to the search engines. This is actually counterproductive because if I found out my links page was being submitted by others I had linked to, I'd pull it from my server.

I've just scratched the surface on the shortcomings of link popularity. Some of them can be fixed, others cannot. And remember, I love the link. I am 100 percent pro-link. The link is literally my life and livelihood. But that's why I study this crazy stuff because there are right and wrong reasons to pursue links, right and wrong ways to ask for them, right and wrong reasons to want them in the first place. Links, in the right places, will determine your ultimate success. And the right places will not be search results.

Until next time, I remain,

Eric Ward,
The Link Mensch

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