How Search Engines Determine Ranking for Keywords
Of the billions of pages online, Google and the other search engines have taken on the monumental task of trying to rank each page for the billions of searches performed every day. Over the last twenty years they have refined their algorithms to the point of understanding the intent of the questions (even if it is just a one word query), and providing us with the most relevant results.
Search engines are just algorithms though. They can index a page of content and determine the overall subject of the information but do not always have a strong grasp of the nuances of language or context from the text. Beyond this, they certainly can’t tell just from reading it how accurate or authoritative the page is. Because of this, they also rely on signals from backlinks to provide them just what they need for this insight.
What Are Backlinks?
When one website mentions another website and creates a clickable link that takes you to it, this is considered a backlink. It is not merely referencing the website or it’s web address. It is the difference between:
https://ahrefs.com and Ahrefs.com
Even though the first example displays a URL, the search engines do not register this as a backlink, whereas the word that has a link (often underlined and in a different color), actually is a backlink.
How Do Google and Bing! Determine The Quality And Value?
Since so much research and testing has gone into this evaluation process by the engineers, you can imagine the complexity of their valuation of these ranking signals. They definitely have lots to work with since pretty much every website in one way or another links to at least one other website.
A few years back, Google came out with what could be considered an overall guiding principle for people to get an understanding of their seo evaluation process. It is called EAT – Expertise, Authority, Trust.
There are plenty of websites that break this concept down and give lots of great insight, but for the purposes of this discussion, it is just useful to know the terminology and have a basic understanding.
Ranking Signals For Backlinks
I am not saying the following is the order in which a search engine evaluates a backlink, I just find it useful to describe it in this way so as to make it a little easier to understand and remember.
Anchor text – This is the text within the sentence that links to the other website. Does it have any relevance to the target website? Is it generic, such as “visit website” or is the actual URL used to link? https://ahrefs.com
In the case of an image or other element linking to the site, does it have a description in the alternative text? For instance, since an image does not have anchor text, alt text is used in its absence. (Yes, images linking to a website are considered a backlink by search engines)
Surrounding text – To gain more context, nearby content is taken into account. Like the days in school, it is not just knowing the definition of a word, but whether you can use it in a sentence. Think of the algorithm working backwards from there. Also, is it in the footer, sidebar or right there in the middle of the page content itself?
The page itself – Are the topic of the linking page and the target page similar? Does it make sense that this page links to that one? Does the linking page have other websites linking to it building up its own authority?
The website as a whole – Having a website that links to yours that has authority from many other websites, especially if those are also in your industry, provides a backlink that carries a lot of value and conveys expertise to yours. If Google has confidence in those other websites, then their linking to yours, sends trust signals as well.
Not All Links Are Created Equal Though
As in so many industries, marketers can also overdo and misuse tactics. Years ago, links were simple and they were all more or less, equal in value. Because of this it became a matter of quantity and not quality. In a very short period of time, the race was on to build as many links online as possible. In doing so, the internet was flooded with backlinks just for the sake of these ranking signals. Scripts and bots were written to find any available opportunity to build backlinks including directories, comments sections, forums, etc. In doing so, the quality of the content was diminished and the search engines needed to figure out a way to discern which were useful and which were not.
For all of the webmasters out there managing websites, Google provided a link attribute designated “nofollow”. This meant that the backlink was created utilizing this tag, would not factor into the algorithm thereby deterring marketers from creating links just for the sake of numbers and easing the SPAM that was produced on the website managers.
Although it did not instantly stop these spammers from creating these valueless links, it did begin to reduce the amount. Websites had less irrelevant content and search engines now had a better gauge for evaluating links.
Google found this to be valuable enough to offer a few more such as “sponsored” and “ugc” to further refine the links. Recently, Google has seemed to have had a change of heart and hinted that No Follow links can be used to a limited extent as a ranking hint or signal. What those details are they have kept to themselves, as they often do.
Beware Of The Easy Link
Search engine engineers have figured out a lot of ways that some marketers try to outmaneuver algorithms and utilize easy, unnatural link building techniques to win their website that coveted first position in the SERP’s. What few people outside of the industry realize is that the search engines have seen a lot and let us know that we can be subject to penalties for these practices.
Some are complex while some are very straightforward. It could be as simple as the algorithm downgrading your results or as overt as a manual action implemented by an employee who sees activity counter to guidelines set by the search engines.
Anywhere from purchasing links for the sole purpose of link building to setting up server farms with thousands of websites for the singular objective of having lots of backlinks from numerous websites. Needless to say, a good rule of thumb is if someone is telling you they can easily build you a lot of backlinks, it will likely end up being a waste of time, effort and investment. It probably would not be worth the risk of having your entire website removed from Bing!
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