Ask many search marketers what the holy grail of link building is, and their top answer may likely be: .edu links.
Golden, right? Ranking rocket fuel. Not quite. You see, not all .edu links are treated equally, both by those who link to them, and by engines that examine those links.
It’s hard to believe after so many years we continue to have confusion about the potential impact of certain types of links.
I recently updated my post titled .edu Link Strategies, Fallacies and Other Confusion, but I wanted to add to that and reach a larger audience, so please give me a few minutes here to give you a run down of the realities and myths about links that originate from universities. This is a topic close to me, as back in the day, I worked as a university webmaster for several years.
Any of you who went to college from 1996 and later know that at most major universities, every student is allotted web space. This space usually exists in a path such as students.StateU.edu/eward, or StateU.edu/~eward.
I wont get too deep into the “tilde” (~) character, other than to say it’s a UNIX admin method to create a large number of directories quickly, which they often need to to do for students, or even faculty.
These types of web pages can be used for almost any legal purpose the owner chooses. Some students post a resume and some post links to YouTube videos of last night’s beer pong contest, and some might post both, perhaps because they are hoping to land a job at Anheuser Busch after graduation.
.Edu Link Evaluation In Practice
Now, for the remainder of this column, please put on your Google quality control goggles. Your job is to evaluate link profiles.
Starting with an easy one, is a link to or from a student’s personal homepage as valuable as a link to or from a biology professor’s page? Both originate from .edu’s, so what’s the difference? The difference is huge, and it’s pretty simple to understand why.
Think of the types of sites that would link to each of these example pages.
Do you trust the sites linking to the biology professor page more that the links pointing to the student’s page, and given the fairly obvious answer, which of these two pages will you then trust more? You will likely trust the one that has the more powerful inbound link profile, and that would be the biology professor’s page.
Why? Let’s have a look:
Now let’s say you are Nebraska Scientific (not a client, no relation, so enjoy the traffic). You sell Biology supplies. Of the two sites above, if you are Google, which one will you trust more? A faculty member or a student? Is it fair? maybe not, is it the best way to assure the most accurate results across millions of university based web pages? You bet it is.
Remember that my example above is just a single example to illustrate the point. Multiply that example across a few thousand faculty members and a few thousand Biology students, and the link profile starts to take shape, and tell a story.
Looking through those Google goggles, which story do you trust? One last thought: throw out all those faculty and student pages, and just look at the University library site about Biology. Are your Google goggles working?
Please note, as a former college student with my own personal web space, I am not implying that every college student’s web page is useless. Far from it. What I’m saying is specifically related to a search engine algorithm analyzing links across a collection of university web servers.
You see, within any university, there are perhaps 50 or 100 or more individual web servers in operation. At larger schools, every single department has there own server, so do administrative offices, so do academic majors.
We can find content created by everyone from students to faculty to staff to librarians to sports teams to clubs and other organizations. Here’s proof to drive the point home. Even college landscaping offices have websites.
And this means each of these pages (and servers) has a unique inbound link profile.
This is the crux of the matter. From a linking perspective, it’s easier to scam up links on student created pages than a librarian’s research links page. But such links are useless, because student pages often don’t attract (m)any links from sites of merit in the first place.
For example, Mary’s personal school page page links to Timmy’s Facebook page, which has a wall post with a link to Wally’s tweet that has a link to Eddie’s YouTube video.
A vast web of interconnected noise and links which are of interest to Mary, Timmy, Wally and Eddie, but those same links mean little, if anything — to a search engine trying to answer a query about the communication habits of dolphins. Well, unless Wally is an marine biology major, then maybe.
If I can go “Linkmoses” on you for a moment, there are black hatters that buy links on .edu’s from students or school newspapers. Those spam links have been failing for years.
A librarian isn’t likely to be bought, and links from academic departments, professors, and other administratively run sites are far more likely to be trustworthy and of high content value, thus any links on such pages were earned, and the source and link can be trusted. Engines know this and tweak algos to get it right.
Now, just for fun, look at the below inquiry I received. It’s real. FAIL.
Dear Mr. Ward, We are a manufacturer and seller of high end childrens playgound equipment designed for municipalities. Our site is http://xxxxxxxx. We would be very interested in a quote from you for the following… - obtaining 100 .edu based inbound links
I know you could make the argument that perhaps on some college campuses there are preschool facilities or other relevant locations, where they could (repeat could) have playground equipment, but you tell me, why do you think the folks above wanted those 100 .edu inbound links?
Higher Link Education
The reality is, .edu domains are not alone here; these problems exist with .gov, .org, .us, or any TLD. Any TLD has crap, and any TLD can have gold. Any website’s IBL profile or “link transcript” or “link signature” needs to percolate over time, becoming something that looks natural and trustworthy.
I see evidence every day that the links that help me rank for the phrase Link building expert (like that one might), will not help every site rank 1st, because they don’t have the historical link graph to back it up like I do — a 15 year old website that has a few hundred pages of content on only one topic, link building.
In closing, what works for one site will not work for every site, which is the reality of link building and the reason why it’s such a challenge. In the end, a human still has to make some very tricky decisions about whether or not any link is worth pursuing.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.