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Linking: It's Not Just for Search Engine Optimization
Friday, July 16, 2010
Eric Ward wrote a great piece on a Google patent that contained some commentary specific to links and insight as to how Google leverages links on a page. Eric summarized it nicely into five points which can be seen here (I've left in Eric's commentary as well):
1. The earlier in the content the link appears, the better. No surprise, but… a second link to the same site from the same document is not always devalued, as some in the SEO biz say.  (claim 12). 
2. In claim 17, where I read “the topical cluster with which the source document is associated, or the degree to which a topical cluster associated with the source document matches a topical cluster associated with a link”, I interpret this to mean keyword based anchor text does not have to be present for Google to do its thing, nor does the presence of keywords within the anchor mean the link is more valuable.
3. In Claim 18, I read that the color of your links matters. If this is to help with identifying hidden links, that’s a no brainer and makes sense.  But, if it means something else…hmmm.
4. User behavior and interaction with links on a page may be used to determine importance of the page being linked to, but this is not treated the same way for every page on which links exist.
5. The value of a link is independent of the type of document or file within which it is found. As stated, “A ‘document,’ as the term is used herein, is to be broadly interpreted to include any machine-readable and machine-storable work product”.  I interpret this to mean a link from a document other than an HTML file has as much potential to impact the algorithm as a link from a plain old web page. To put it another way, Google is filetype agnostic. If you earn links from a document that’s produced as a PDF, or even in MS word, if it’s linked to and accessible to users on the web, it’s a link like any other link.
These are all points that I've assumed in whole or in part.  Re: the color of links mattering, we agree with Eric's commentary entirely in that if it's meant to identify "hidden links" then it totally make sense.  However employing good linking tactics is not just for SEO.  The value of a link is not just from an SEO perspective, there is value from a usability and traffic perspective as well.

The Value of Links from a Usability Perspective

We could get into great detail here, but let's keep this high level.  If we think about the origin of hyperlinks, links were used to "marry" one document to another that were somewhat related.  As Wikipedia illustrates, "...A hyperlink has an anchor, which is a location within a document from which the hyperlink can be followed; that document is known as its source document. The target of a hyperlink is the document, or location within a document, that the hyperlink leads to."  Linking was established to cross reference material (i.e. documents or pages). 

When it comes to usability and linking, there is great value in applying what we'll call proper linking habits.  These habits include:
  •  Link Placement - ensuring that within page copy, where it makes sense to, a link is placed to a relevant document where required.  Do not "over-link" pages.  Leverage links when it makes sense to do so from a user perspective.
  • Making Links Conspicuous - Users shouldn't have to guess or spend a lot of time on the page to find out where they can click.
    • identify links in a different color
    • consider underlining links (although this is optional)
    • avoid underlining text or copy that is not a hyperlink
  • Use different colors for visited and unvisited links - as a user, I find this a most useful practice.  It is an obvious one, but I still come across sites that do not leverage this tip.
  • Use Multiple Links when it makes sense to do so - As Shari Thurlow pointed out in the comments of Eric's article, "When you only give access to a web document with 1 link only, depending on where you place it and how you format it, you make that link (and content) less findable.".  All this discussion about pagerank sculpting.  Again SEO should rarely come first over usability.
  • Keep link text the same size - again, there are SEOs that have used linking practices solely for the purposes of SEO (and deceptive SEO at that) and have put the needs of the user second, quite often by making link text smaller that the rest of the text on the page. 
The Value of Linking from a Traffic Perspective

Linking also provides a benefit to site owners by helping drive users to key areas/pages on their websites.  Using linking to help navigate the user to key areas of your site can, and most often does have a positive impact on user engagement.  Perhaps from a repeat visitor perspective or from an overall traffic perspective as you want users to visit your most important content, preferably the content that will help them through the conversion process and help them find what they are in fact looking for.

We get that link popularity is a key piece of  the search engine algorithms, so the need to employ effective interlinking and external linking strategies is important.  However, there is more than SEO value when it comes to linking.  Effective linking practices are not just for search engine optimization.

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posted by Jody @ 8:16 AM  
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