Updated September 1st, 2018 — version 268

The UnFair Advantage Book
Winning the Search Engine Wars

Chapter Eight, Off-site, External Ranking Factors

Chapter Eight
Off-site, External Ranking Factors

In Chapter Six we covered the ON-site ranking factors. You should always remember that each of the on-site ranking factors should be included and optimized in order to achieve a baseline ranking advantage over your competitors. If you neglect the on-site ranking factors, your web pages will be disadvantaged out of the starting gate in terms of ranking well.

Regardless, you should also remember that it's the OFF-site ranking factors that will give your web pages the biggest ranking boost. So, once you've optimized the ON-site elements that you actually have direct control over, you must shift your focus to the most important OFF-site ranking factors that include:

  • External Links - links coming from other websites
  • Anchor Text in External Links
  • Link Diversity
  • Domain Trust & Authority
  • Author / Publisher Identification
  • Geo Location Signals
  • Traffic Signals (Toolbars/Browsers/Tools)
  • Quality Signals (Bounce rate/Time on site, etc.)
  • 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 a lot of relevance 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 and unique. Therefore your goal should be to create and provide content that compels other sites to link to it. Here's a great place to start looking for ideas:

  • Anchor Text in External Links

As you have 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 relevance factors. 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 link profiles will typically have only a small number of keywords in the anchor text. Most will simply include the URL or domain name or company name or brand. If your inbound links contain too many targeted keywords, they'll look unnatural and may trigger a penalty. Using our example above, a natural incoming link profile might look something like this:

...and so forth. Notice that none of the links are identical as one would expect from links that occur naturally and without compensation or other mutual considerations. 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.

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

Suffice it to say that you should strive to acquire a diversified incoming link profile from a diversified variety of sites, coming from a diversified variety of locations, using diversified anchor text, referenced by diversified content (social media, news sites, reviews, directories, blog posts, trade articles, etc.), by diversified authors and diversified publishers. 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 based on the fact that 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 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. All of 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. Factors 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 often get a new page ranked very well, very quickly with 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 probably is 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
  • Geo-location of incoming links
  • Host / IP Address
  • Webmaster Tools' Geo Targeting Setting
  • Google Places Registration
  • Domain Registration Postal Address
  • Location of Visitors / Google Analytics and other sources.
  • Images may be Geocoded
  • Traffic Factors and User Behaviors

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, Internet Explorer, 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). This is a good thing and adds relevance to that page.
  • Conversion Rates — If visits to a page consistently culminate in 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 must be relevant to the search that originally brought the visitor to that page.
  • Citations

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.

Citations are currently influencing the rankings in the Local Pack as much as Reviews and On-page content. That's why they're SO worth getting. Use the following resource for guidance on the best way to go about building citations.

  • Social Media

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

The following tutorials will help you efficiently leverage the power of social media and save you a lot of trial-&-error time. (requires SEN Membership login).