Updated February 1st, 2024 — version 336

The UnFair Advantage Book
Winning the Search Engine Wars

 Chapter Eight
Off-site, External Ranking Signals

In the last chapter we discussed internal, aka, on-site ranking signals where everything was all about you!

  • Your Title
  • Your Meta Description
  • Your Keywords
  • Your Headlines
  • Your Anchor Text
  • Your Content
  • Your Images
  • Your URL Structure
  • Your Mobile Compatibility
  • Your Page Freshness
  • Your Geolocation Signals
  • Your Website Architecture
  • Your XML sitemaps
  • Your Robots.txt file
  • Your URL Redirection
  • Your Canonical URL

YOU have control of all of those elements because they exist on your site.

In this chapter we'll discuss all of the ranking signals that are NOT on your site — the external off-page elements that you typically do not have any direct control over.

These are important because Google tends to weight these off-site elements higher as ranking signals compared to the ranking signals they find on your site. That's because Google places more value on what others think about your site than what you think about it. The more Google likes what it hears and sees, the better they'll rank you in the search results.

So let's discuss your opportunities to rank higher by focusing on the following external ranking signals which, collectively, can have a huge impact on the success of your website.

  • External Links
  • Anchor Text in External Links
  • Link Diversity
  • Domain Trust
  • Domain Authority
  • Geolocation Signals
  • Traffic and Quality Signals
  • Citations / Reviews
  • Social Signals

External Links

External links are the links coming from other websites that are presumably out of your direct control. Google places stronger relevance value on external links because they are hard to manipulate. They rightly figure that websites typically will only link out to other websites when their content is valuable, relevant and unique.

Therefore, your goal is to produce content that compels other sites to link to it.

As you've already learned, anchor text is simply the text found within a link. Search engines view anchor text as a strong relevance indicator.

They figure that, what others think your page is about – based on the anchor text — is more important that what your page actually says it's about.

Therefore, external link anchor text is more important, ranking-wise, than any of your on-site ranking signals. After all, if an outgoing link on an external page says: Green Canyon Whitewater Rafting Adventures then Google can be pretty sure about the content of the page it's pointing toward.

Take note that naturally occurring incoming links will typically contain one relevant keyword in the anchor text. That keyword could be your brand or company name, or it might be the URL to your website.

If your inbound links contain too many keywords, they'll look unnatural and may trigger a penalty. A natural incoming link profile will look something like this:

  • Green Canyon Whitewater Rafting Adventures
  • Whitewater Rafting
  • Rafting Adventures
  • www.greencanyonrafting.com
  • Green Canyon
  • Green Canyon Adventures
  • Green Canyon Rafting
  • Rafting Green Canyon

Notice that none of the links are identical. This is what Google would expect from external links that occur naturally. That's why they're so much more likely to favor them with rank value.

It is ok, however, if some of the incoming links occasionally repeat from time to time, but if most or all of the links were: Green Canyon Whitewater Rafting Adventures then Google would believe the beneficiary site (i.e., Green Canyon) was in control of those links and would therefore discount them or even penalize the site for having an unnatural incoming link profile.

So, to maximize the value of links pointing at your site, the anchor text should be variable and NOT appear to be reciprocal or paid for. Working your best keywords into your domain name and company name, however, can be advantageous because Google attaches relevance to domain names and LOVES company names and brands. Such a strategy gives other sites a legitimate reason for using your targeted keywords in the anchor text of their outgoing links

Link Diversity

The more diverse your incoming links, the better. To use a simple example, let's say that all of your links are coming from only a few sites and they're all pointed at your home page. Since there isn't much diversity, and because they aren't linking to your sub-pages, these links won't help your rankings much all on their own.

Non-diverse Links

On the other hand, if your site has a variety of external sites all pointing at your site, with many of the links pointing at sub pages, then your rankings will be helped considerably based on your link diversity. The screenshots above and below illustrate a simplified representation of non-diversified vs. diversified incoming link profiles.

Diverse Links

The more diversified your incoming links, the more Google is likely to trust your site. Therefore you should:

  • acquire a diversified incoming link profile from a diversified variety of sites.
  • make sure your links are coming from a diversified variety of locations.
  • encourage those linking to you to vary (diversify) the anchor text whenever possible.
  • attempt to diversify the sources and content of those who reference you — social media, news sites, reviews, directories, blog posts, trade articles, etc.,
  • diversify the authors and publishers who link to you.

As you can see, the more diversity, the better. Search engines really like diversified incoming link structure. It fosters trust and is therefore a very strong relevance indicator.

Domain Trust

Domain Trust is a very important element of the ranking algorithm. Your goal should be to acquire links from domains with a high Trust-rank. Conversely, you should avoid getting links from sites with a low Trust-rank.

Obviously, you need links, but even more important is getting links from the right places. For example, if your company sells nutritional supplements, having a link from NASA.gov (a site with a high Trust-rank) will help your rankings FAR more than having a link from a site like cheap-acai-berry.com. The NASA.gov link will add trust to your site while the cheap-acai-berry.com link may even subtract trust.

Earlier you learned about seed sets. These are starting places for search engine robots that crawl the web. The bots start there because seed-set sites are highly trusted. Therefore, a link from a trusted seed-set site is an excellent link.

But if you can't (yet) get a link from a seed-set site, then having a link from a site that has a link from a seed-set site is a very good link to get. It's not as great as a seed-set link, but it's a good link because it carries a fair amount of trust because it is linked-to by a seed-set site. Such a site will also pass along to you a fair amount of trust.

As you move farther away, link-wise, from a seed-set site, trust decreases because Google thinks the likelihood of spam increases with each hop.

Reverse Trust-rank is also a reality. That's because search engines measure how many links away from a bad site you are. The closer, in links, your site is to a bad site, the more trust your site loses.

Therefore, you need to know that linking to bad sites can decrease your own site's trust. So the take away message here is:

Be careful who you link to!

To a lesser degree other Trust-rank elements include:

  • Domain age; the older the better - Search engines tend to trust established domains with a track record of playing by the rules.
  • Google Analytics - Your website server stats give Google an abundance of information about your site that can indicate your trustworthiness.
  • Hosting Company - Some website hosting companies have a reputation for sleaziness that will hurt your Trust-rank. You should avoid hosting with companies that host sites of questionable trust, just like you should avoid living in a bad neighborhood.
  • Postal Address - Search engines can easily determine a quality, upscale address from a skid row or drop-box address. It's better to use a good neighborhood's physical address than a post office box or demographically questionable address location in your company contact information.
  • Phone Numbers - Remember that phone numbers are unique identifiers. They are easily connected with everything they have ever been associated with. If a phone number is associated with business dealings of dubious endeavor, this can hurt your site's Trust-rank.
  • Interconnectivity - Always remember that search engines are in the business of connecting all of the data-dots. If your business is mentioned, cited, reviewed, associated, reprimanded, and so forth, the engines "see" this. The esteem, or lack thereof, associated with your website, regardless of where it occurs, does not go unnoticed. Who your website and company is associated with tells much about the trustworthiness of your website. All these interconnectivity signals can and will factor into your Trust-rank.

Domain Authority

Domain Authority is somewhat like PageRank, but on a domain-wide level. Signals that contribute to Domain Authority include:

  • High Link Diversity
  • Rate of Link Acquisition
  • Lots of Deep Links to a variety of pages

A domain with high Authority can quickly get a new page highly ranked using only a few internal links. For example, CNN.com can rank a fresh page immediately based on their Trust and Authority.

Geo Targeting Signals

Geo Targeting is another element that is factored into the search engine algorithm for reasons that, in many cases, are simple to understand. For instance, someone in Seattle searching for a restaurant is probably looking for a local result. It's unlikely that a Boston restaurant would be relevant to this specific search for this specific person.

Therefore, as you might expect, the search engines look for geo-targeting signals that assist them in determining what's relevant for any particular search request. Such signals might include:

  • Top Level Domain Name (.com, .de, .co.uk)
  • Language
  • Geolocation of incoming links
  • Host / IP Address
  • Webmaster Tools' Geo-Targeting Setting
  • Domain Registration Postal Address
  • Location of Visitors / Google Analytics and other sources.
  • Images that are Geocoded

Traffic Factors and Quality Signals

Google and Bing are known to monitor the aggregate behavior of searchers after clicking a link in the search results. And there is every reason to believe they factor such behavior into their algorithm. Specifically, they utilize the tools at their disposal — Google Analytics, Google Toolbar, Bing Toolbar, Crome browser, etc. — to determine relevancy based on:

  • Time On Site — The more time a visitor spends on a site, the more relevant that result is to the search that brought them to that page.
  • Bounce Rate — If a searcher clicks a link in the search results but quickly returns from the site (bounces), then Google assumes the result was NOT relevant to the search. And, any site with a consistently high bounce rate is assumed to be an irrelevant site.
  • Click Through Rate (CTR) — If a particular search result is frequently clicked, then it has a high click through rate (CTR) which adds relevance to that page.
  • Conversion Rates — If visits to a page consistently lead to conversions (i.e., sales, sign-ups, registrations, etc. as measured by Google Analytics), then obviously the page is relevant to the search.
  • Return Visitors — If a high percentage of visitors return to a page, then the page is considered relevant to the search that originally brought the visitor to that page.


Citations are external site references to your business, address, phone number or other unique identifiers. They aren't links. Instead they are mentions that can be distinctly tied to your website and/or company name and used to identify some aspect of quality or association related to your operation, service, product, or people.

In the screenshot below you see mentions about Cicero's Pizza from Yelp, Tripadvisor, Grubhub, Urbanspoon, and Allmenus with the actual link to the Cicero's homepage listed at the bottom.

citations Ciceros Pizza

Citations are currently influencing the rankings in the Local Search results as much as Reviews and on-page content. That's makes them very much worth getting.

Use the following resource for guidance on the best way to go about building citations.

Social Signals

Social Media (i.e., Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, etc.) can be a very powerful traffic generator and brand building tool. Although Google has made it clear they don't use social signals within their algorithm, evidence shows that increased traffic to a page coming from social media sources does indeed boost a site's overall authority.