John Mueller: Links and Website Ranking Factors
Links are a means of transportation to your web pages. There is much talk about the role of backlinks in SEO and how to establish a successful long-term link building strategy – and the reason is that getting it right is so important.
Getting your understanding of website ranking factors and how you manage your links wrong may mean a devastating penalty. That is why your business deserves a full backlink audit.
When conversing among SEO professionals, conversations about the importance of backlinks continues to baffle many. Simply put, backlinks are when another site posts a link to your site. SEOs largely co-concur that backlinks are important to a domain because they do help drive traffic to your website, but additionally, they offer signals to Google that a website provides content that others value and consider as worth linking to.
Considerable discussions have followed several Google hangouts after John Mueller, of Google, answers questions that offer insights as to whether or not marketers should focus on building backlinks. When embarking on the task of building a healthy backlink profile, “how” we go about this task involves a good understanding of technical SEO and Google’s SEO and Ranking Guidelines. Before dedicating time, energy, and funds to developing a high-quality backlink profile, read this post and many posts from others, then request a backlink audit from a trusted source. The reality of recent penalties has rendered link building a high-risk activity and has left some afraid to try. The good news is: a website’s rankings previously impeded by previous link building legacy issues, can recover.
After participating in several Webmaster hangouts, we can conclude that Mueller is urging webmasters to use ethical SEO link-building practices, focus on the intent of the Internet searcher, and to avoid using illicit tactics to build backlinks. One example would be participating in, ‘I link to your site, you link to mine’ backlink schemes.
While there are several industry experts whose opinions are trustworthy, who can claim to know Google’s latest algorithms for sure as they continually update and improve? For example, there are several algorithm updates that seem to impact healthcare sites. This makes it challenging to put your finger on what’s behind a site’s improvements, website ranking factors, or a drop in ranking at any given time. However, we all need some guiding principles from which to work from. Tried and tested applications from the past, which still seem relevant, shed a beacon of light on the path before us. What really helps is when Google speaks out on the subject. So, many thanks to John Mueller for doing so.
QUESTION: What are Website Ranking Factors?
ANSWER: Website ranking factors are determined by search engines at work by using evolving algorithms to assess a websites by topic, trust, usability, page load speed, and relevance. This resulting evaluation is used for indexing and to determine which pages to offer in search results to best match user queries. Multiple factors are considered to offer the best possible ranking pages in SERPs. Google is adding ways to use your Google Business Listing more to reach people, which may ultimately reduce levels of dependence on backlinks for page rankings.
John Mueller: It Takes More than Backlinks to call a Page “Good”
Digital Marketers and SEOs still hot of the topic of external backlinks and how they influence ranking factors, gained a big answer last Friday from John Mueller, an engineer in the search quality team at Google, during the English Webmasters Hangout. Here is how the conversation happened:
Do links within the page to other pages influence the quality of that page? How can you tell that the user found what he was looking for when he landed from the search results of the page containing links to other pages?
Sometimes links on the page can improve the quality of a page, but I think that’s something where you wouldn’t want to see that as kind of an artificial factor. Just because there are links on a page doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good.
We saw that, I don’t know, way in the beginning, when people would put links to Google, or Wikipedia, or CNN on their website, and assume that search engines would be naive and think, oh, they’re linking to these well-known websites, therefore, the content itself must be good.
And that’s definitely not the case.
So you can add value to your website by having links on those pages, but it’s not the case that just because you have links then we’ll suddenly see your website as being higher quality.
Inbound links are 302 instead 301s, do both get the same value?
“With any redirect, we try to figure out which URL we want to index. And we will index that UR and that URL will get all the signals. So it doesn’t matter if that URL has a 301 or a 302 if we pick that one to index that will help the signals.”
Do I need to wait for the next Algorithm Update to check Links?
Panda essentially rolls out regularly. You don’t have to do anything specific. You don’t have to wait for a Google algorithm update.
Would the recent redirect changes effect chained redirects? How is link juice being affected now? Would page rank be distributed at the final destination or across the redirects?
In general, with redirects and also with links what we look is the origin, the canonical URL where started and the final destination. And essentially, this is a connection between those two. So what happens in between is less of an issue.
From a user point of view, if you have multiple redirects that you are chaining then that adds latency – especially on mobile devices that could be a lot of latency. When we crawl those redirects, we tend to crawl, I think, 5 redirects in a row, and then if you have more redirects which are kinda chained to each other, then we would have to reschedule that and have to look at then again at a later step. So, that really delays how we pick up new content. As much as possible the existing best practices still remain valid. Any time you add redirect chains there is extra complexity and things can go wrong… it also adds a lot of latency, depending on the set-up and the user. Ideally, keep things simple and direct between the origin and final destination.
How Google Handles Follow and No Follow Links
How I understood the conversation with John Mueller about on-page linking.
When a link is no-followed, Google doesn’t pass link juice.
When a link is followed but is no indexed, in this case, Google does pass page rank because they are aware of the page.
When a page is no indexed and the link is no follow, Google essentially sees it similar to a 404 page and skips it will flag to the spiders that this page is now relevant and to re-crawl the page.
CONCLUSION: When conducting a link audit, reviewing the link risk and considering factors currently ranking sites, the need for SEOs to understand NoFollow links is still necessary. Bundling various statements from Google, it is best to presume that any link can potentially lead to a Penalty and therefore, each one needs to be assessed.
Previous Advice from John Mueller on Links
Here’s some comments about links from my earlier notes that I took from a Google Webmaster Hangout with John Mueller*** as streamed live on Oct 24, 2014.– Webmaster Trends Analyst in Switzerland
Sitelinks– “No way to completely remove a URL from the site links, apart from putting a noindex on it.“
*Hreflang markup – “To help Google better understand different language and country variations for accurate sitelinks.”
*Https Status – “When changing from HTTP to HTTPS make sure that you have both variations listed in Webmaster Tools” and “essentially just set up the (301) redirect, set up the rel=canonical.”
*Affiliate Links – John says on affiliate links not to obfuscate from Googlebot and “just use the rel=nofollow there.”
In our experience, too often businesses go about executing and looking to build a strong backlink profile incorrectly. It is common for John to reference better priorities, like aligning better with people’s search intent and offering better in-depth articles that cover the questions people are asking most. Many SEO’s know the value of a healthy backlink and what it does to establish a website’s domain authority, so they go about trying to acquire backlinks when the proper way and most powerful ones are organic backlinks. Let other individuals link to your site because they CHOOSE to. That is easier to have happen when you have superior content or a topic of value that is in high demand and viewers believe should be shared. Focus on building good content that your readers delight in.
Separating Anchor Text within an External Link from the Link Itself
When you want to be the number on ranking site in your niche, the little details about links can count a lot.
In the January 26, 2016, Google Webmasters Hangout*, participants had to listen closely to decipher the “yes” and “no” application differences when John discusses if external links are among website ranking factors. At the 19 minutes 53-second mark into this hangout, his answer to how external links impact website ranking factors could be summed up as “no”. This response addresses when someone is linking out to different sites, which doesn’t benefit rankings. There are several specifics to pay attention to here. The text within the link anchor is content, and therefore, that content is a ranking signal. It is the link itself that is not a ranking factor. But, yes, the anchor text part of the link qualifies as a “yes” answer.
While links and how you sue them remain importing, remember to add JSON markup to your content and product pages for improved sales volume. To improve your website ranking factors, your digital marketing strategy must remain current and adheres to Google’s guidelines.
External linking from your own pages to other sites seem to be one of the 200 ranking factors. Does Google consider external links even if they are nofollowed? Or does “nofollow” eliminate this small ranking factor for pages which only have no-follow links?
Our point of view, external links to other sites, so links from your site to other people’s sites isn’t specifically a ranking factor. But it can bring value to your content and that in turn, can be relevant for us in search. And whether or not they are not followed, doesn’t really matter.
Google is Closer to the Next Algorithm Update
John Mueller says they are getting closer and closer to the next algorithm update. A huge task for Google is fighting spam and by improving its algorithms. Its tireless efforts benefit both Internet users and legitimate website owners.
The fact that each day, millions of inept spam pages are generated created for a ton on online rubbish. What a lot to sort through when your job is bringing Internet users relevant and high-value search queries. Muller talked in the last English Webmasters hangout about the valiant spam fight that is carried out through combined means of computer algorithms and manual review.
New algorithm updates are not always about website ranking factors.
They focus on the user experience and surfacing quality content and answers to user’s questions. Spam sites are getting caught more often in their game to try stealing top search results through illicit SEO tactics like keyword stuffing, buying links only for the purpose of passing PageRank or placing text on a web page that the human eye cannot see. This hurts legitimate business that adhere to best practices in search, that sometimes feel “ buried” due to negative SEO or spam.
The good news is that Google’s algorithms can detect and isolate the vast majority of spam and demote it without your needing to do something (expect to keep up with healthy ethical SEO standards). The Google search team manages the task of manually site review when something seems to slip through the algorithm. Google notes where this happens and then its engineers continually work to improve and make future algorithm updates even more effective.
Here is a direct quote from +John Mueller during the May 3, 2016, English Google Webmaster Central office-hours hangout.
“Penguin, from our point of view, is basically a webspam algorithm that looks at issues around web spam. Essentially it tries to look at that on a site-wide level and to figure out what kind of action it should take here. Theoretically, it is possible that you had some kind of a manual action on issues that the algorithms picked up on. That might take more time to settle down again. We don’t have a specific date for the update of the Penguin algorithm. But, ah, in talking with the team they feel like they are getting closer and closer. So I am hoping that will not be too far in the future.”
Now on to sharing some of my own thoughts and lessons learned about links. I love the learning curve. What you will read below comes from a combination of personal experience and learning from other marketing experts.
Avoid Damaging On-site Link Redirect Chains
At Hill Web Marketing, one thing we make sure of, is that our clients avoid redirect chains inside web content. Plan for an on-going effort to keep on top of any changes someone has made; all links need to point to a current correct URL. As the number of a site’s web pages grows the importance of maintenance routine increases too. Without it changes in a site’s URL structure can be challenging and leans toward escalating out of control. Links are critical for every site but for e-Commerce sites struggling with technical SEO issues, this area is key to audit and find solutions.
“It is mostly a problem of latency, …. we recommend less than 5 redirects prompts… or we just say there are too many probably, so we will just crawl this site later. Either remove redirects or update them,” advised Mueller.
A Full Backlink Audit Covers Both Internal & External Links
A backlink SEO audit is like a risk assessment from a Google Search point of view.
Building both internal links and external links is extremely helpful and vital. Establish long-term link-building techniques that go hand in hand with both. You need a linking plan and the guidance of a seasoned SEO expert; even little changes can trigger a big difference.
The concept of a healthy link profile and authoritative citations in search is built on solid and steady progress. By its very nature, it is never an overnight achievement, which leads toward many putting the task of overseeing a site’s backlink structure into the camp of “challenging SEO tasks”. While a straightforward strategy is clean and easiest, many have strayed efforts across gray lines when it comes to some link acquisition SEO tactics while striving for faster gains. The Penguin algorithm brought about many manual penalties which forced a realignment of strategies, yet others remain oblivious to evolving “legitimate” SEO best practices.
Co-citation and the correlating the relationships between websites, how they rub shoulders online, and industries connections are identified as among Google’s chief strengths. If your business depends on online search for new business, understanding how Google crawls and evaluates your site’s links is a vital component to success. According to www.momentology.com, “The old school link “building” roux of discovering who links to your competitors and trying to get those links still holds true.”
Consider two basic strategies for your internal link building.
1. Create high-volume, endorsement-type content that links to your homepage.
2. Create topic links that target deeper pages that are more tightly themed.
Some SEOs make lilke to focus on their main page when a sites deep links may produce even better traffic to web content that is well optimized. Your brand keywords typically link to your home page while the deep links are more ideal when you want to rank for long tail keywords. This strategy will support your brand equity and brand visibility.
Every time you write a new article, include the sources and references that you used to create it. Find your style; you may include then inline along with the relevant topic or list them at the end. Both your readers and Google will be able to see that you are well read on the subject before posting about it. Being well-versed on a topic includes knowing what others are saying about it.
There are lots of ways to be creative to add value on your website to users. You may not need a full marketing team, but you will need to be creative. The best way is to have a deep understanding of your clients and go above and beyond others to offer them solutions. The best way to reach digital shoppers is to focus on their needs and wishes first. Link out generously when the outbound link offers high value on your topic to the person on your web page.
How Backlinks Attribute to Visibility Online
Literally hundreds of Google ranking factors go into “who gets visibility” decisions, many of which are drawn directly from your backlink profile and site content. Services of tried and tested content search engine optimization tactics are a necessity. When weighing in on your priority tasks to increase relevant traffic to your business goals, it is necessary to take a deep look at links; however, given recent Google algorithm updates, we’re focusing more on adding as much structured data to content as fits.
Whom and from where your inbound links come from helps provide external relevancy and third-party trust that GoogleBot relies on to determine SERP positions. They offer independent complementary signals for RankBrain when considering the broader task of how and where to displaying your content most effectively.
What Counts when Garnering Links to your Website:
1. Consider if the link offers your audience more information on subjects that matter to them.
2. The quality of the site’s content more than its size.
3. If the backlink is coming from a page that is relevant to the topic.
4. Domain Authority counts.
Think of it this way, as Seth Godin* says, “don’t find customers for your products, and find products for your customers.” Likewise, don’t seek incoming links just to rank; rather, think of what linking structure makes it easy for your clientele to get the critical information that they need.
Build Links after Establishing Great Content worth Linking to
You can mitigate the risks of incorrect link building by focusing on the end user and creating the best content available on subjects they want. Google’s role can be summed up best by saying it wants to give those who search for content on the Internet the high-value results that keep them using Google Search. Thus, content is king. For those who are seeking content rich with relevant answers, there is little worry of “content shock.”
As Neil Patel said***** in a July 7, 2015, Forbes article, “The proliferation of content is, in fact, its strength. If you publish a great article, chances are someone else will link to that great article. The more people writing articles, the more likely it is for your awesome article to get passed around, shared, emailed, looked at, read, and…linked.”
Excellent content marketing skills naturally produce the opportunity to gain links. It shines through the pile of artificially glittery content and spammy links. Marketers who consistently publish high-quality content on subjects in demand can then ask for links and enjoy a higher rate of success.
The “Quality” Factor is Essential for Backlinks and PageRank Scores
Creating a strong Link profile is still an important part of search engine optimization and needs to be incorporated into your overall marketing plan. The link structure of a website is used to assess a site’s relevance to search terms found in users’ search queries. A page that has established healthy and relevant sites linking to it is viewed as trusted by those sources for having content of value. This helps GoogleBot feel that the user will be pleased if they navigate to that webpage and therefore is more will to prominently display it in the search results.
The quality of such inbound links is taken into consideration. Google Discover prioritizes sites with links from high-quality sources over those that have links from poorly rated websites, regardless if they have a higher number of links coming in. For example, if Business A has a link from a good quality website such as a .gov, .edu., or national newspaper link, and Business B has multiple external links from poor quality sources, Google will favor Business A’s website in SERPs.
When I participate in these Webmaster hangouts, we often hear the word “quality” or a reference to it. The quality of site to users can never be mentioned too much; likewise, the quality of its backlinks is paramount. “Who”, or which URL, points a backlink(s) to your website is an indicator of you and the quality of your site’s content. Don’t forget that negative SEO is on the increase. These links pointing to your site are intentionally low-quality spammy backlinks and have the intention of hurting your site’s rankings. That may not seem fair, but today, it is what every SEO professional must deal with.
While links remain cornerstone to helping consumers find your content, today adding product schema with correct syntax helps in many ways. rAdditionally, it is wise to request an audit to find new ways to improve your website’s performance.
SEOs are always Asking About Link Building Strategies
SEO Powersuite reports on research that found there is little difference in how professional and beginner SEOs view backlinks. Marie Haynes’s article on How SEOs Did Link Building in 2017. Finding an effective SEO strategy is more complex the borrowing someone elses. What works like beautifully for one SEO team may produce deadly results for a small business. Here are a few stats from their survey across multiple channels and SEOs of varrying caliber:
- 72% of SEOs believe backlinks are a significant ranking factor
- 24% of SEOs think backlinks are still somewhat important
- 4% of SEOs assume backlink have little influence on rankings.
However you see building inblound links as a task, even as other factors play a part in Google’s ranking algorithm, this one cannot be missed and keep a competive edge.
Bing Says Links will Becomes Less of a Ranking Factor
James Murray, EMEA product marketing manager at Microsoft Bing, and Laura Hampton of Impression indicated that Bing plans to lessen the sway that links play in their general search ranking algorithms. No doubt that they are still a significant contributing factor – just maybe less so.
Here is a quote directly from that interview by Murray, in the interview conducted in Paddington, London:
“We’re still not at the stage where links are going to go away, and so they will continue to be a factor that we look at. What we might see is that links start to decrease in importance that they have in the general context of the various factors that we use to determine relevance.”
Backlinks to Older Content May be Lost
Cyrus Shepard, a founder at Moz, tweeted* on May 11, 2016:
“Love all of your ‘old’ links? Google can/likely will discount links on stale pages.” His advice is sound. New links to a document can be taken as a signal of fresh content, which viewers love. Google evaluates the number of links to a page or document if they increase notably within a recent period of time when compared to the number of links accrued since the document first went live. “Alternatively, search engine 125 may determine the oldest age of the most recent y% of links compared to the age of the first link found”, states a United States Patent Application on October, 20, 2011.
Conversely, when the number of links to a page drops off, the content may slip into a rating of stale. This may signify that it appears to no longer be updated, carries less significance, and is now superseded by another document or for a similar reason.
Link Based Trust is Essential to Online Marketing
In my opinion, today, a site’s links remain the very essence of Google ranking system. Your on-page links help users get around. Link building is the process of earning inbound links that come from other websites and has a significant role in 2018 SEO tasks. That happens much more naturally when your site contains useful content that others what access to. It is a mistaken misconception to think that link building is no longer needed, but as the scope of what goes into a site ranking successfully by offsite factors increases, replacing the term with “signal driving” may help marketers align priorities.
Stay informed and listening to sources from Google or that you can trust. How links are a driving signal of your site’s trust factor depends on what type of ‘link’ is talking about. We anticipate that using links for a relativity rating, such as is used in Rankbrain, will continue to be more than just using link authority and number counts.
“We’re always working to increase the update frequency for your verified sites’ data, such as crawl, index, and search analytics stats. Much of this data depends on the content of your site and is a close approximation of the status of your site. Our internal systems are always changing, and the web itself is an ever-shifting ecosystem. In addition, there may be a lag between when the numbers are calculated and when they are visible to webmasters – although data gets published in intervals, we are continually collecting it. If your content doesn’t change very often, or if you’re not getting new links to your site, you may not see updates to your data every time you sign in to Search Console.” – Google Support
Your Link Health Check May Yield Insights of Pure Gold
Once a backlink audit for your website is completed, it may be clear why your business is experiencing a drop in organic search rankings. It is important to distinguish your links and web ranking factors. If many of your web pages that were once ranking are found to be resolving improperly, fixing issues can lead to recovery. When delaying the process of addressing site linking issues, problems may show up in bulk, and involve more extensive work asking Google to lift a site penalty.
When pages don’t resolve properly, have spammy backlinks, or broken links, they have little chance of maintaining strong rankings over time. This can lead your business in the other direction from the digital success on that your company wants to experience. Proper link building requires a dedicated effort. It should be regarded as a long-term play best accomplished by a sound content strategy!
In a Webmasters Hangout**** on Friday, July 8, 2016, some confusion was generated when Mueller talked about having a mobile site might suffice for search ranking factors. He seemed to imply that at this time going mobile-first or mobile-only wouldn’t hurt a page’s rank, even in desktop search results. Top search factors that Google really cares about are clearly mobile-first related. The key takeaway, for me, is that web content SEO factors should begin with a mobile prioritization versus a desktop first approach.
When small businesses are strapped for time and funds, needing a desktop site may not be as important anymore, which is different from suggesting that there is no value to building one. Chuck Aikens at Denver SEO Volume Nine, understood Mueller’s comments as, “if a mobile site can render in a way where the content is visible to desktop users, it should be fine. I guess if you have a site that is exclusive to mobile and the vast majority of users are mobile, then you probably don’t care much about the desktop-ranking performance anyway, so why build a site?”
A important questions webmasters need to be asking is how to how to get their site’s attributes ideal for the Google Mobile Search algorithm and what needs still exist for desktops versions. As well as onsite, there are offsite opportunites to communicte with consumers using Google Posts.
Tools for Checking Your Site’s Backlink Profile
• Open Site Explorer by Moz
• SEMrush – Use to locate 404 links and determine the impact of 301 redirects
• Majestic SEO – For discovering both new and lost backlinks.
• Ahrefs – Great way to gain a detailed backlink profile report
• ScreamingFrog Broken Link Checker – Tool often used to locate broken on-page links
• Google Search Console – “The Links to Your Site report lists links that Googlebot discovered during its crawling and indexing process, as well as the most common links sources and the pages on your site with the most links,” says Google.
• SEO SpyGlass – Use to locate, monitor, and analyze backlinks, created for safe and effective link building
• SpyFu****** – Great for discovering where to gain trusted backlinks
• Kerboo.com (formerly LinkRisk) – Often used when detoxing a site
• Monitor Backlinks – Run a competitor’s SEO analysis and learn from discovering their backlink profile
• Powerdrill.com – Determine the difference between a legacy spammy backlink profile and a high quality backlink profile
• DeepCrawl – Use to find redirected links and internal broken links
“Google ranks websites (relevancy aside for a moment) by the number and quality of incoming links to a site from other websites (amongst hundreds of other metrics). Generally speaking, a link from a page to another page is viewed in Google “eyes” as a vote for that page the link points to. The more votes a page gets, the more trusted a page can become, and the higher Google will rank it – in theory. Rankings are HUGELY affected by how much Google ultimately trusts the DOMAIN the page is on. BACKLINKS (links from other websites – trump every other signal.) – hobo.com
“Getting a real link from a Google News approved site isn’t easy. You have to spend time working journalists or HARO for weeks before getting your link. But that’s a link that can change your life.” – backlinko.com**
“The handshake is a backlink. When one site links to another, they are publicly vouching for the content on that page. They have reviewed the information and found it to be in line with what they believe about the topic at hand. They trust that when they send their page visitors to that website, the users will be able to obtain useful information that will help them answer their questions. Backlinks should not be something that you ever have to trick the other website into doing.” – printfactory.com
“On any given page of a website, a set of links defines where else in the digital property users can go.” – Gary Angel
Analyzing Your Website’s Linking Networks
Gain new visibility in Google Search by identifying areas for on-site improvements in site structure, internal linking, and information architecture to offer an excellent user experience. Digital marketing success isn’t about optimizing for search engines. While we must keep in mind the ever-changing muscles of Google’s algorithm evolutions, how well a search query turns out for the end user is what it is all about. Repeating a single query numerous times on a single web page isn’t sufficient to please search engines. By keeping your customers as your focus, higher engagement naturally follows.
I work and live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, providing both on-site and digital marketing services.
Google watches to see how users respond after being sent to your website. Whether or not they engage your content, find sufficient information, fill out forms, move from one page to another, your click-through rate, and social engagement, all play a role in gaining a spot on the first page. How fast your site loads and getting it indexed fast is critical. However, to answer Google’s intent to know if your business domain is trustworthy, you must have a link profile that tells that story.
Whether your site is small or large, e-commerce or non-profit, serves a local community only or is national, backlinks are a key element to digital success. We are well practiced in what to look for. By analyzing your industry, we discover what it takes to establish a strong backlink profile and will execute a plan for you.
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