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Looking Into Why Search Engines Like Links

Thousands of site owners have experienced the frustration of not being able to get search engines to index their sites. You build a Web site, you do your best to optimize it for the search engines, you register in the search engines, and then nothing much happens. Little or no traffic turns up at your site, your pages don't rank well in the search engines, and in some cases, you can't even find your pages in the search engines. What's going on?

Here's the opposite scenario. You have an existing site, and you find a few other sites to link to it. You make no changes to the pages themselves, yet all of a sudden you notice your pages jump up in the search engines.

There's a lot of confusion about links and their relationship to Web sites. Most site owners don't even realize that links have a bearing on their search engine positions. Surely all you need to do is register your page in a search engine and it will be indexed, right? Maybe, maybe not. And if it is, it may not be ranked highly.

Using link popularity to boost your position

A few years ago, pretty much all you had to do to get your site listed in a search engine — and maybe even ranked well — was to register with the search engine. Then along came Google in 1998, and that all changed. Google decided to use the links pointing at a site as another factor in determining if the site was a good match for a search. Each link to a site was a vote for the site, and the more votes the site received, the better a site was regarded by Google.

To rank well today, you need to use links to vote the site up in the search engines. Links pointing to a Web page do several things:

  • Links make it easier for search engines to find the page. As the searchbots travel around the Web, they follow links. They index a page, follow the links on that page to other pages, index those pages, follow the links on those pages, and so on. The more links to a page, the more likely the page is picked up and indexed by the search engines, and the more quickly it happens.
  • Search engines use the number of links pointing to a page as an indication of the page's value. If lots of pages link to your page, the search engines place a greater value on your page than pages with few links pointing to them. If you have lots of links from sites that are themselves linked to by many other sites, search engines conclude that your site must really be important. (Google calls this value the page's PageRank, but Google is not the only search engine to use links as an indication of value.)
  • Links provide information to the search engines about the page they're pointing to. The link text often contains keywords that search engines can use to glean additional information about your page. The theme of the site that is pointing to your site also gives search engines an indication of the theme of your site. For example, if you have links from hundreds of rodent-related Web sites, it's a good bet that your site has something to do with rodents.
  • Links not only bring searchbots to a page, but also bring people to the page. The whole purpose of your search engine campaign is to bring people to your site, right?

Links are very important. Sometimes they mean the difference between being indexed by a search engine and not being indexed, and between being ranked well in a search engine and not being ranked well.

Getting back to link basics

Backlinks are an integral part of the optimization of your Web site. A backlink — this may surprise you — is a link back to your site. Search engines look at backlinks to figure out what your site is about and how important it is. Links aren't something detached from your site; they're an integral part of your site. Think of your Web site in terms of a regional map: Your site is the major city, and the backlinks are the roads bringing traffic into the city. A geographer looking at the map wouldn't regard the city and roads as separate entities; they are all part of the same economic and social system. So don't think of the links pointing to your site as something "out there;" they are a critical part of your site. Here's an indication of just how important Google considers links to be: The original name of the Google search engine, in January of 1996 (before it was officially launched), was BackRub, so named for its ability to analyze backlinks.

The search engines are trying to figure out what site or page is the best match for a search. Search engines use links as one way to determine this. As with content though, using the number of links to and from a site to measure significance is an imperfect method. A page can conceivably be the best page on a particular subject, yet have few links to it. Just because you publish a page today, doesn't mean it's worse than a page that was published five years ago and now has many links to it. However, search engines have difficulty figuring out what the searcher needs, so they have to use what information is available to them. Using links is a way of recruiting Web site owners to help point out useful sites and pages. The strategy is imperfect, but that's the search engine world we're living in.

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