Searching for Answers: Inbound Links (Part 1)

This post is excerpted from an upcoming issue of Identity Marketing magazine

If there is anything approaching a “secret sauce” to search engine success, most experts would probably agree that it is the inbound link. An inbound link is simply a link from some other site to your site. On the surface, it would seem simple to acquire these – trade links with friends, get a link on your brother’s blog, get listed in a local directory, etc. And it is superficially simple to build inbound links to your site (and even simpler, though often expensive, to pay someone to build them for you).

Building and acquiring good inbound links – that is, ones that actually benefit your search engine rankings – is an entirely more difficult proposition. There are a number of reasons for this, but first, let’s review what we’re trying to accomplish in the first place.

Our primary goal with search engine optimization is to improve our natural or organic search results – those results that come up in the middle of Google’s page (not the paid advertisements, which we’ve discussed in detail in a previous series of columns). Google is quite serious about making sure that the sites that appear in those natural results are truly popular and relevant – that is, that people who search for a given set of keywords actually visit those sites, and that those sites have genuinely relevant content. If you search for cats and wind up at a site about dogs, Google is clearly doing something wrong.

There’s a very complex formula behind all this, and that formula is a closely held secret. But there are a few things we can deduce from the way that formula works in practice. First of all, Google can’t just measure popularity and relevance by how users search; that would leave out all the users that get to sites other ways. Therefore, Google derives most of its information from crawling every web site in the world: basically, following every single link on every site to every possible destination.

Second, Google is focused on content – not just the content of the final destination (for instance, your web page about dogs). It’s also looking at the link that actually took it to your web page about dogs. If that link is on a page about dogs or pets or something of that nature, Google is going to give that link a higher ranking. If, on the other hand, that link is from a site that has nothing to do with dogs, Google is going to view that link as having lower quality.

Suddenly, obtaining inbound links doesn’t seem like such a simple process. To make things worse, there is yet another wrinkle that has substantial influence over the quality of an inbound link: the rank (or PageRank, as Google brands it) of the page the link comes from. PageRank is a ranking Google uses to determine the overall relevance and importance of a given page or site. PageRank actually refers back to the inbound link information above; the more quality inbound links and relevant content you have (and don’t forget the relevant content of the pages the links come from), the higher your PageRank.

Big sites like Amazon or the New York Times have high PageRanks, often 9 or 10 (10 is the highest, and only a few sites have such a PageRank). Your nifty website that you just launched probably has a PageRank of 1. Most successful small business websites fall somewhere in the middle, around 3 or 4, or sometimes higher if their content is very popular.

Next week: More about PageRank, and how to improve yours.