A quick compliment to all you ClickZ readers. In the previous link-building column, I said to email your questions, and boy did you. More than 60 so far. The questions fall into three primary areas, and one of them is the focus of today's column.
Specifically, what is "link popularity," and what is the real role it plays in search engine rankings?
Assessing link popularity is a new technique that several search engines use when they rank sites for searchers. The most well-known search engine to factor link popularity into the search results rankings is Google.
At its most basic level, link popularity refers to the number of other web sites that have links on them pointing to your site.
Measuring link popularity is a method that has some flaws. It assumes that sites having many links pointing to them must be better than sites that have few links pointing to them. In many cases this is probably true, but I can think of many instances where it isn't. For example, if DiscoverySchool.com launched a site today with 25,000 pages worth of lesson plans, teaching tools, student homework help, etc., it would not have one link to it because it would be brand new. This would translate to zero link popularity. Fortunately, DiscoverySchool launched its site long ago and has hundreds of links pointing to it, which I still help build.
The people who run the search engines aren't stupid. They know that not all links to your site carry the same weight or value, and they can give more credence or weight to one link pointing to your site than another. That's why most free for all (FFA) links pages have zero effect on link popularity.
This is where things can get confusing. My advice at this point is to focus on three key points.
First, a link to your site from a major directory like Yahoo! is often seen as far more valuable than a link to your site from the personal home page your kid built at GeoCities. This is a fair judgment, I believe, and why you need to be certain your site is linked via a listing at the major portals, with all major site reviewers, and especially at the Open Directory Project.
Second, you must also do a diligent search for the topical directories, engines, and web guides that are specific to your site's subject matter. For example, if you have a site related to sports, then just because you've never heard of SportSearch.com does not mean it isn't a great niche engine used by tens of thousands of people every day. In fact, it is. Go get your free listing. I am certain that as time goes on and the portals show search results only for a favored few sites, these niche engines will become more and more used and important.
Third, and this is a tricky but crucial point: A link to your site that search engines do not know about is worthless from the standpoint of link popularity, but it still can be a very important link nonetheless. Not all people will use a search engine on the way to your site.
How would a search engine not know about a link? Well, what if I place a link to your site on my site, but I place it beyond the second directory level on my site? Since most search engines don't spider beyond the second level, they'll never even know that link to your site existed and won't factor it into link popularity measurements. Even if the page I placed your link on gets 100,000 hits per day, to the engines, that page -- and thus your link -- doesn't exist.
But if, in fact, that page does get 100,000 hits per day, I bet you'd like to have a link on it, wouldn't you? Yep.
And therein lies a more important lesson for building links. Whether the search engines ever work out the kinks with link popularity measurements, if you have built a nice network of links pointing at your site, you will still benefit from surfers' discovering you. I'd rather have 1,000 links pointing to my site that no search engine ever finds than only 10 links that they do find. (It would be better, of course, to have both the 1,000 uncounted links and the 10 counted ones.)
In future columns I'll be discussing link density, link specificity, link tracking, and link requests.
Until next time, I remain,
Eric Ward -- The Link Mensch
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