Link Issues And Google

I've had several different link-and-Google related issues come up recently, so I thought I'd roll them all up in one article.

The first involves the link: command at Google. Many webmasters know this is a way to discover all the web sites that are linking to you. However, I recently got a letter from a reader who was puzzled about why this search at Google found no links for his site only days after 200 or more were shown. What happened?

I checked on this with Google, and the reason why came back. The site was "in the penalty box" for spamming violations. As a result, it was being punished by having the link: command disabled for its domain.

Given this, should you run a link: command on your site and discover no links, you're probably in trouble. The solution is to get in touch with Google and see if they'll tell you what you did wrong, promise not to do it again and hope that you'll be forgiven. Use the "Report Spam" form below, to do this.

It's a tiny bit disturbing to see this command disabled selectively, from a searching perspective. There are some searchers who use it to find sites related to ones they like. However, chances are there won't be much overlap between the quality sites that searchers might want to backwards link check and the sites where link: has been disabled for spamming.

There are also much better options for finding related pages than the link: command. For any page listed in Google's results, there will be a "Similar pages" link. Selecting that brings up pages that seem similar to the page that was listed, according to Google's algorithms. Another option is to use the "Category" link, when this is shown. It will bring up other pages on the same topic as the one listed, as classified by editors of the Open Directory.

For webmasters, link: is often used as a way to begin link building. For example, you might see a top ranking site at Google, so use link: to run a reverse link check and find out the sites that YOU should get links from. However, this is a bad way to perform link building.

The problem in doing this is that link: doesn't rank the links in order of quality. You could get back thousands of links and never know which are the really important ones, the ones with a high enough PageRank to benefit you.

An ideal solution to this would be for Google to list pages found via link: in order of PageRank. Don't get your hopes up. It's been considered and rejected as possibly creating link spam.

"Weve talked about making link: order things by PageRank," said Matt Cutts, a software engineer at Google who deals with submission issues. "We already know that this is used by a webmaster crowd, so theres potential for abuse."

Fortunately, there is a very easy way to discover the links that are important. As I've said many times before, search for the terms you want to be found for. Review the pages that come up first. These are the pages important for those terms, so getting links from them will transmit both importance to you and context. The tutorial below explains this process in great depth.

Another way of determining the quality of a page is to use the Google Toolbar. It has a little graph that shows the PageRank of any page you are viewing. By holding your mouse over the PageRank graph, you can see a page's exact score on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being best. (Got the toolbar and don't see the graph? Click on the Google logo, then choose "Toolbar Options," then check the PageRank display option).

Something surprised me recently about the graph, however. I was doing a search at Yahoo, on something extremely rare. The results page came up and was given a fairly high PageRank score. But how could this be? This page never existed before I did the search, and virtually no one would have thought of this search and hard coded a hyperlink to it. This page should have no PageRank at all.

It turns out that if the toolbar can't find an exact PageRank, it will try to guess at one based on a site's overall domain.

"The toolbar has fallback mechanisms. If it can't come up with a score, it relies on other things," Cutts said. "I wouldnt rely on the toolbar as the on high gospel of what that PageRank is."

This only happens with the Google Toolbar, Google says. It is NOT the same as the idea that Google assigns a PageRank to an entire web site. PageRank operates on a page-by-page basis -- all the links pointing to a particular page influence how that page ranks. It gains nothing just by being in the same web site as another page that has a good score (unless that page links to it).

Finally, I've been meaning to revisit the issue of inbound, outbound and internal links. Every time I moderate the Looking At Links session at the Search Engine Strategies conference, this always comes up as an element of confusion.

Inbound links are links that point to your pages. They can help boost you in the rankings. However, "bad" inbound links are really unlikely to hurt you, the search engines have said time and time again. The reason for this is that you don't have control over who links to you. It would be unfair for you to be penalized if, say, a porn site was to link to you.

Outbound links are the opposite. Outbound links are those that lead out from a page to other pages. Having outbound links to "good" sites doesn't really help you in link analysis systems, the search engines say. That's understandable -- all someone would need to do is link to a Yahoo or a Google and they'd boost themselves artificially. In contrast, linking to "bad" sites can hurt you. If you are linking to something like a porn site, then a search engine can reasonably decide that you are benefiting that site and decide to take action against you.

As for internal links, they do get counted in link analysis systems. Internal links are those that link to other pages within your own web site. For example, if your home page had a really high PageRank score with Google and you in turn linked to five of your internal pages, then those five pages would get a boost. In additional, internal linkage is always good because it helps you ensure that a crawler can find its way around your web site.

Now here's a twist that combines outbound and internal links. Let's say you have a high ranking page. You link from that internally to other pages in your site. These internal links are also technically outbound links, in that they lead off of the page. With Google, the more outbound links you have on a page, the less credit each link can transmit.

This means that ideally, you should limit the amount of internal linking you do from high ranking pages. If you are selective about the pages you link to, then you are able to transmit more authority to them.

It also helps to ensure your links are descriptive. Think of the terms you want your other pages to be found for and include those terms in the hyperlink text of the links to them. That helps to establish the context of the pages.

My last warning would be not to go overboard. The more you play around with your links, the more likely you're going to end up looking like you are doing something artificial and possibly be downgraded.

Instead, stay out of trouble by doing what make sense. Link internally to your own pages, in a way that describes them well for your users, and you'll probably be pleasing the search engines, as well. Link out to other good sites that will benefit your users, and this will naturally result in you pleasing link analysis systems.

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