These days, "link popularity" is the talk of the town in the search engine optimization community. However, the definition of link popularity, and how much effect it actually has on search engine rankings, is often misunderstood.
What is Link Popularity?
The theory goes something like this: The search engine powers-that-be, have decided that if other sites are linking to your site, it must be a winner, therefore, it deserves a boost in rankings (when all else is equal). If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. People link to good sites, not bad ones.
Most search engines are thought to place some emphasis on link popularity in their ranking algorithm. Some people believe that the number of sites pointing to your site is what determines your link popularity, and the more links there are, the higher your ranking will be. However, that is only partially true. The search engines (and those that program them) are not dumb. They are used to search engine spammers trying to cheat their way into getting a high ranking. Because of this, the search engines are not just looking for the number of links that point to a site, but the quality of those links.
There appear to be two types of links that get factored into the link popularity equation. Links from other sites that focus on the same keyword phrases your site focuses on, and links from relevant categories in major directories and industry specific portals. "Free For All" (FFA) sites, do not constitute quality links, so don't waste your $24.95 submitting your site to 500 of them. Links from sites that focus on topics that have nothing to do with your site probably won't help you win any link popularity contests, either.
How Does Link Popularity Work?
Here's an example of how I believe link popularity works:
Let's say that Bob's Pizza Palace Web site has a link to Joe's Men's Clothing store. This probably won't help Joe's link popularity for the keywords "men's clothing." However, if both Bob's Pizza Palace and Joe's Men's Clothing Store are both located in the city of Boston, and people are searching for "men's clothing in Boston," the quality of that link, may have just gone up a little. There's now a common thread (Boston) between the sites. It probably won't help for those people simply searching for men's clothing, but may help if they're searching specifically for stores in the City of Boston. A higher quality link for Joe, however, would be one from "Sam's Clothing Store Directory," which lists a whole bunch of clothing stores that can be found on the Internet. That is exactly the kind of link that the search engines would credit toward link popularity. The key is in having that common thread between the sites.
Do I need to worry about Link Popularity?
In general, there's no need for the average site to obsess over link popularity. From my experience, (and contrary to popular belief), link popularity constitutes only a very small element of most search engines' ranking algorithms. How much it actually boosts a site's ranking, is debatable. I have found that for most sites, simply having good representation in the major search Directories such as Yahoo!, Dmoz and LookSmart, can go a long way towards link popularity.
For sites that are trying to rank high with extremely competitive keywords, it may be helpful to actively search out links from other relevant Web sites. This doesn't mean you should go out and create a whole bunch of domains yourself and link them all together. It simply means you should look for sites that use the same keywords that your site uses, and see if they have a links page that they'd be willing place your link on. Industry specific portals/directories are also a great place to look for links.
Even if you don't care about link popularity, being listed on other relevant sites, is always a good idea. Very often, these types of links will bring more traffic to your site than a high search engine ranking will bring. Therefore, searching them out is often worth the time and effort.
How to get linked without even trying!
Interestingly enough, if your site is well written and provides a lot of useful information, you won't have to search out links at all. Other sites will link to yours of their own volition. We have seen this process in action with our Rank Write Roundtable site. Without actively requesting any links (other than the major Directories and a few sites that list email newsletters), many highly relevant sites have added Rank Write to their list of links. Each week, I find more and more sites that have added our link. This, of course, is the ideal, and isn't going to happen for every site. However, if done correctly, even some commercial sites might be able to benefit from this approach. If the commercial site adds some content, and if the content is unique and useful, other sites may want to link to it. You just need to be creative. For instance, Joe's Men's Clothing Store, could add some pages describing the latest trends in men's fashion. What's hot this season, and what's not. If Joe does a good job presenting this information, and updates it often, other fashion sites might add a link to Joe's site, because it adds value to their own site.
These are the types of things you need to think about when it comes to the link popularity of your site. How can you make your site so good that others will be only too willing to link to it, without you even having to ask for it? If you can figure that out, you won't have to worry about link popularity ever again!
Contact Jill Whalen by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jill Whalen of High Rankings is an internationally recognized search engine optimization
consultant and host of the free weekly High Rankings Advisor search engine marketing
She specializes in search engine optimization, SEO consultations and seminars. Jill's handbook, "The Nitty-gritty of Writing for the Search Engines" teaches business owners how and where to place relevant keyword phrases on their Web sites so that they make sense to users and gain high rankings in the major search engines.