Want to improve your website’s ranking performance on Google? Before you build an understanding of the technical aspects of Search Engine Optimisation, or spend hours trying to find SEO blogs offering a magic ranking formula to crack the Google code (this doesn’t exist by the way), it’s worth trying to understand the core structure behind Google’s success. Billions of people use Google’s free search engine service to find high quality websites which are relevant to the type of content they’re looking for. Because Google has so many people spending time on their search engine, the company can make billions of dollars by selling advertising slots to businesses that want to access these web browsers. The better Google’s search engine is at producing the finest, most relevant websites for your search, the more likely you are to use Google next time you want to find an online resource. Equally, if you regularly find that the search engine produces poor quality sites, you’ll stop using Google, and fewer users means less advertising revenue for Google. It’s in their interest to weed out the poor sites and reward sites that produce great content with high ranking sites. Great content is therefore the key to SEO success.
Before reading further, let’s clarify that this article is aimed at helping SEO beginners and getting to know the core factors behind Google’s success. That starts with inbound links and anchor text which are currently critical to SEO success. Understanding why that is the case will help you move forward with your SEO strategy. To understand what links and anchor text are and why they’re important, let’s review Google’s path from technology start-up to global giant.
Search engines were around before Google became a major player in the market. In the late 90’s, it was Yahoo and Alta Vista that were leading the way (The Link Building Book by Paddy Moogan). At the time, search engines like Yahoo were reliant on keyword frequency and placement on a webpage to determine it’s ranking on a search page for a given search term.
As this wasn’t a complicated formula, search engine optimisers (or commonly referred to as SEO consultants) figured out how to manipulate search engines and edit a web page in such a way that it would rank well on search engines. Many high ranking pages were stuffed with keywords, knowing that the page would rank highly for the given keyword. The Google algorithm and its use of links blew away the competition and gave browsers a better user experience than they’d previously had with the likes of Yahoo. The result was that many search engine results displayed websites with terrible content that nobody wanted to read. Google’s approach addressed this issue and produced much better quality sites as a result.
At its origins, Google was exclusively available within the Stanford University campus, but as its availability began to expand, it started to attract new users who preferred Google over search engines. As Google usage expands, businesses start to pay attention to the company. When businesses become interested, so in turn do search engine optimisers who start making attempts to discover how Google works and which metrics it uses to rank websites. In time, the significance of links and anchor text in Google search results becomes apparent.
Behind the importance of links was and still is Page Rank (PR), which plays a big part in the Google website ranking formula. Each web page was (and still is) assigned a PR from 0-10. The higher the PR that a web page was valued at, the greater the impact an inbound link had from that web page to your site. As a result, a value could be placed on each link and they were easily monetised.
Why did Google introduce PR?
PR is named after it’s inventor, Larry Page (co-founder of Google), and is used to numerically weight each webpage according to the number and quality of links leading to that page. The role of PR and links in Google played a massive role in improving their results pages over competitors and in the company’s overall success.
“Many search engines at the time were fully aware of how links may help provide a better, more relevant set of search results. But it was Larry Page who made the breakthrough that would eventually lead to search results that were far more relevant and useful to users than they ever had been”. (Moogan 2013:26)
Page believed that links between web pages were like citations and references in academic papers. Citations credited and highlighted academics whose work deserved mention, and certain academics and scientists would become high profile and influential due to their work and citations. A Nobel Prize winner, for example, will have citations from tens of thousands of essays and journals (the Google Story by David Vise).
Page used this principle, an assumption that the most referenced (or linked to) online content will deserve the greatest recognition (or ranking), and applied it to the Google search engine to find the best content. He recognised that not all citations, or in this case links, should be equal, so those pages with more links pointing to them should have a greater weighting when sending links to other sites. This weighting is PR (http://infolab.stanford.edu/~backrub/google.html).
PR allowed Google to make a quick judgement of a webpage and apply that judgment accordingly in search results pages.
The Role of Anchor Text
Google didn’t just use links to determine ranking. Anchor text also played a major role. Whilst PR helped to determine the quality of a web page, it did nothing to measure the relevance of a web page to the search term that a browser was looking for. Existing metrics were used by other search engines to determine relevancy, but Google decided more was required to provide users with better quality results. They realised that keywords within the anchor text of a link could be used to determine the relevance of a page being linked to (The Link Building Book by Paddy Moogan).
“The text of links is treated in a special way in our search engines. Most search engines associate the text of a link with the page that the link is on. In addition, we associate it with the page the link points to.” (http://infolab.stanford.edu/~backrub/google.html)
So for example, if Google finds a link from the BBC website pointing to a web page with the anchor text “French translation”, the page being linked to is more likely to display in the Google search engine results when the browser searches for “French translation”.
What happens when SEOs Discover the Importance of Links and Anchor Text?
SEOs soon figured out the importance of links and anchor text. Directory and article submission sites began to appear, selling hundreds or thousands of links and giving buyers the chance to decide their anchor text. Many businesses and SEO agencies started using the option of buying links. The tactic was simple and scalable. Most importantly, it worked! Google allowed this to happen for many years (we won’t go into why). The reality is and was that Google didn’t want this to happen. Google wants the cream to rise to the surface. They want PR to reflect the quality and popularity of a site. If the searches don’t produce great, relevant content, Google starts losing users, and subsequently advertising revenue drops.
Google starts introducing Penalities
Google have constantly updated their algorithm to improve their results for users. They began issuing penalties in the early 2000s which reduced the value of certain link types (i.e. reciprocal, low quality link exchange between unrelated websites).
However, it was in 2011 when Google became more aggressive in dealing with ‘spammy’ behaviour with its Panda update. Many websites got caught up in the penalty and many links were devalued and penalised. Subsequent updates have followed which attempt to stop websites from cheating the system. Google wants links to be natural. They want sites to link to material when it’s relevant and good quality. Updates have helped to uncover unnatural links and punish sites that use them.
Fast Forward to 2014
The way that all search engines rank sites today is similar. Google have gradually weeded out spammy behaviour and their algorithm becomes more sophisticated on a monthly basis. Are links and anchor text still important? Yes, links are still the most important element to determine ranking factors. Anchor text still plays its part too. This research by Rand Fishkin at Moz shows that anchor text still carries significant weighting when it comes to determining relevancy. However, Google can detect when you over optimise anchor text (i.e. 50% of links contain a keyword match rather than a brand name). Whilst links are still the most important element in SEO, there are many other factors now that influence ranking, around 200 in fact.
Here’s a survey conducted by Moz demonstrating all of the factors that SEOs consider to be important in SEO and a weighting of the importance for each element. You’d never get that kind of information from Google, so this is the next best place to look.
Treat SEO as a form of marketing
SEO is a form of marketing. The days when tricking the system and using shady tactics to rank quickly are over. Even if there are some tactics that still work, Google will pick them up sooner or later and you’re site will be penalised. If you view your website as a long term marketing tool, you need to take a holistic approach to SEO.
Google wants the best user experience for its users. That means using real links and social signals to judge website quality. You can’t buy links and you can’t make websites link to you. You need to persuade other sites to share your website, which is why the term ‘link building’ is somewhat outdated. You can’t build inbound links; you can only attract them by creating great content that relevant sites and individuals like and want to link to. Take a good look at your site. Why would anyone share your site? What content and material do you offer that provides value or interest to the online community? If you’re struggling to find anything, maybe now is the time to start considering a content marketing strategy.