Topical SEO: 7 Advanced Concepts of Link Relevance & Google Rankings

Topical SEO: 7 Advanced Concepts of Link Relevance & Google Rankings

Google — and other search engines — use these votes to rank web pages in search results. To rank in Google, it’s not simply the number of votes you receive from popular pages, but the relevance and authority of those links as well. It talked about anchor text a lot: “Thus, even though the text of the document itself may not match the search terms, if the document is cited by documents whose titles or backlink anchor text match the search terms, the document will be considered a match.” In a nutshell, if a page links to you using the anchor text "hipster pizza," there's a good chance your page is about pizza — and maybe hipsters. Google’s own SEO Starter Guide recommends a number of anchor text best practices, among them: Use (and seek) descriptive anchor text that describes what your page is about Keep anchor text concise - no more than a few words While some Google patents discuss ignoring links with irrelevant anchor text, other Google patents propose looking at the text surrounding the anchor text for additional context, so keep that in mind. How to leverage Authority Pages for SEO: A common practice of link builders today is to seek links from “Resource Pages.” These are basically Hub/Expert pages that link out to helpful sites around a topic. How to leverage topic-sensitive PageRank for SEO: The concept is simple. What's important to understand is that phrase-based indexing allows search engines to score the relevancy of any link by looking for related phrases in both the source and target pages. In the example below, the first page with the anchor text link “US President” may carry more weight because the page also contains several other phrases related to “US President” and “John Adams.” In addition to ranking documents based on the most relevant links, phrase-based indexing allows search engines to consider less relevant links as well, including: Discounting spam and off-topic links: For example, an injected spam link to a gambling site from a page about cookie recipes will earn a very low outlink score based on relevancy and would carry less weight. How to leverage phased-based indexing for SEO: Beyond anchor text and the general topic/authority of a page, it’s helpful to seek links from pages with related phrases. These include sites that rank well for your target keyword and "expert" pages that link to many authority sites.

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Links matter for SEO. A lot.

Most marketers understand that links to websites count as “votes” on the web. Google — and other search engines — use these votes to rank web pages in search results. The more votes a page accumulates, the better that page’s chances of ranking in search results.

This is the popularity part of Google’s algorithm, described in the original PageRank patent. But Google doesn’t stop at using links for popularity. They’ve invented a number of clever ways to use links to determine relevance and authority — i.e. what is this page about and is it a trusted answer for the user’s search query?

To rank in Google, it’s not simply the number of votes you receive from popular pages, but the relevance and authority of those links as well.

The principals Google may use grow complex quickly, but we’ve included a number of simple ways to leverage these strategies for more relevant rankings at the bottom of the post.

1. Anchor text

In the beginning, there was the original PageRank patent, which changed the way search engines worked. It talked about anchor text a lot:

“Thus, even though the text of the document itself may not match the search terms, if the document is cited by documents whose titles or backlink anchor text match the search terms, the document will be considered a match.”

In a nutshell, if a page links to you using the anchor text “hipster pizza,” there’s a good chance your page is about pizza — and maybe hipsters.

If many pages link to you using variations of “pizza”— i.e. pizza restaurant, pizza delivery, Seattle pizza — then Google can see this as a strong ranking signal.

(In fact, so powerful is this effect, that if you search Google for “hipster pizza” here in Seattle, you’ll see our target for the link above ranking on the first page.)

Anchor Text
Anchor Text

How to leverage Anchor Text for SEO:

Volumes could be written on this topic. Google’s own SEO Starter Guide recommends a number of anchor text best practices, among them:

  1. Use (and seek) descriptive anchor text that describes what your page is about
  2. Keep anchor text concise – no more than a few words

While some Google patents discuss ignoring links with irrelevant anchor text, other Google patents propose looking at the text surrounding the anchor text for additional context, so keep that in mind.

A word of caution: While optimizing your anchor text is good, many SEOs over the years have observed that too much of a good thing can hurt you. Natural anchor text on the web is naturally varied.

Check out the variety of anchor text to Moz’s page on Domain Authority, illustrated here using Link Explorer.

Link Explorer Anchor Text
Link Explorer Anchor Text

Over-optimization can signal manipulation to Google, and many SEOs recommend a strategy of anchor text variety for better rankings.

Additional Resources:

2. Hub and authority pages

In the early days of Google, not long after Larry Page figured out how to rank pages based on popularity, the Hilltop algorithm worked out how to rank pages on authority. It accomplished this by looking for “expert” pages linking to them.

An expert page is a document that links to many other topically relevant pages. If a page is linked to from several expert pages, then it is considered an authority on that topic and may rank higher.

Authority Pages for SEO
Authority Pages for SEO

A similar concept using “hub” and “authority” pages was put forth by Jon Kleinberg, a Cornell professor with grants from Google and other search engines. Kleinberg explains:

“…a good hub is a page that points to many good authorities; a good authority is a page that is pointed to by many good hubs.”
Authoritative Sources in a Hyperlinked Environment (PDF)

While we can’t know the degree to which these concepts are used today, Google acquired the Hilltop algorithm in 2003.

How to leverage Authority Pages for SEO:

A common practice of link builders today is to seek links from “Resource Pages.” These are basically Hub/Expert pages that link out to helpful sites around a topic. Scoring links on these pages can often help you a ton.

Additional Resources: Resource Page Link Building

3. Reasonable Surfer

All links are not created equal.

The idea behind Google’s Reasonable Surfer patent is that certain links on a page are more important than others, and thus assigned increase weight. Examples of more important links include:

  • Prominent links, higher up in the HTML
  • Topically relevant links, related to both the source document and the target document.

Conversely, less important links include:

  • “Terms of Service” and footer links
  • Banner ads
  • Links unrelated to the document

Because the important links are more likely to be clicked by a “reasonable surfer,” a topically relevant link can carry more weight than an off-topic one.

“…when a topical cluster associated with the source document is related to a topical cluster associated with the target…

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