Google’s John Mueller shared in a Webmaster Hangout an insight into how Google uses links. What John Mueller shared may change how we think about links in the context of ranking content.
The Link Graph and Ranking
The link graph is the map of the Internet as seen through how web pages link to each other. Just as a city can be mapped through the roads that link to each other, the entire Internet can be mapped through how web pages link to each other. This is called the link graph.
When you remove spam sites from the link graph, this is called a reduced link graph.
The question was asked in the context of sites converting all outbound links to nofollow and how that might affect ranking for those sites and for the web in general.
Google’s John Mueller said that this isn’t a problem at this time, that sites, including news sites, nofollowing all their outbound links does not disrupt the link graph or how Google finds and ranks websites.
Mueller explained there are more signals beyond links used to rank web pages:
“… with regard to looking at the link graph, we do look at a lot of different signals.
So it’s not just links that make it so that we can pick up content and show it in search.”
John then shared an anecdote of sites not ranking and the reason isn’t because of links but because of the content.
“It’s not that rare that I run across a question in the help forums or somewhere else where people say… my site is not ranking anymore…
I look at it with the team and links are not a problem with that. …but rather everything else around the website or on the website being more of a problem. Sometimes it’s as simple as… you don’t explicitly mention what you want to rank for on your pages.”
How Much Google Relies on Links for Rankings
John Mueller then shared an interesting insight about how links are used by Google for ranking. He introduced the concept of links playing less role in rankings depending on factors such as user intent and other contexts.
Here is what he said:
“With regards to does Google rely more or less on links, I think that’s really hard to say and it really depends from case to case.
It’s not the case that we have like a fixed weight and say this factor plays 10% of the role and this factor plays 10% of the role and those 10% are going to be the same across all queries and intents and across all websites.”
If you are you are trying to figure out how to rank a site or why a site does not rank, then understanding the context of the search query may be an important factor to look at.
Inbound/Outbound Links and Ranking
I know there are publishers who believe their ranking declines are due to low quality spam links that keep appearing every month. So they engage in monthly disavows in an attempt to halt the ranking declines and in almost every case the disavows solves nothing.
The reason it solves nothing is because ranking is not just about who links to you. It’s about your place in the link graph which is determined not just by who links to you but more importantly by who you link to as well. There are two parts to the link graph, inbound links and outbound links.
John Mueller shared:
“…we do look at a website overall to see… how it’s embedded within the web and we try to figure out where we should show this based on… how you’re positioning your website in the web.
But if you choose to not link to other people’s websites that’s kind of up to you. It might be that other people choose not to link to your website…”
In my opinion, there may be so many high quality links coming into a big site that it doesn’t matter for ranking purposes if all outbound links are nofollowed. Or it could be that those sites are ranking less well.
Does Nofollowing Links Help Rankings?
In the summer of 2018 many top news sites like Huffington Post and Inc.com stopped linking out. Did that affect their rankings? According to Google Trends, the Huffington Post had been on a five year downward trend. Adding no follow links did nothing to halt that decline.
Interestingly, the trend line shows a steep drop in searches during the first week of July. Was this related to adding nofollows to outbound links? When was the last time you noticed sites like Huffington Post, Inc. and others in the search results?
The Ranking Role of Links Varies
Here is where Mueller discusses interesting facts about how links are used for ranking. He says that factors such as user intent can influence how much weight links are assigned for ranking purposes, even in competitive niches.
“These things vary quite a bit. So… obvious use case is when something happens in the news… if you search for it in the last couple of days you probably will find a lot of articles that don’t have a lot of links yet because they’re so fresh and they’re so new. But they’re extremely relevant for this particular query.
So even there you can see that… the weights of the individual factors that we have, they can vary quite a bit.
…that’s kind of also why I sometimes when people ask me all of these detailed questions about links something I’ll say well maybe you’re focusing too much on links. …we do use links in our systems but links are definitely not the only thing and they’re definitely not the only thing that you really need to be focusing on, even if you’re in a fairly competitive area.”
Many people have been noticing that sites with few links have been able to rank. Is it because Google is using content factors to rank them?
Google has said that links continue to be a major ranking factor. John Mueller seems to suggest that focusing too much on links can be less productive than focusing on content. So it may be that the role of links for ranking can be context-sensitive and that finding a balance between focusing on links and content may be a good approach.
Watch the Webmaster Hangout here.
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