Links Vs. Web References As Relevance Signals

For a long time, links have been the largest factor in search rankings. While (in my opinion) this is still true today, other signals are gradually growing in importance. One of the most interesting of these is “web references” or “citations”. A web reference refers to a mention of a brand, product or web site, which is not referenced in a link (or perhaps referenced as a no-followed link).

An analogy will help illustrate the potential of this concept. Many have referred to links as a voting process, where each link is a vote for the site receiving the link. Consider a medieval country where the nobles vote for the next king when the current one dies. There is an election process, but only the upper class gets a vote. This is an elitist process, as the great majority of people have no vote.

This is what the current link-centric ranking algorithms are. You need to have a web site to participate. No web site, no vote. What would happen if everyone who uses the web had a vote? This can happen as a result of the growing use of social media web sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, StumbleUpon and similar sites. Mentions of brands, products, or web sites on these social media sites can be considered as votes as well. For example, if Coca Cola gets mentioned more often than Pepsi (or vice versa), that could be used as a signal to elevate the rankings of the Coca Cola web site.

You can take this a bit further too. Let’s say that over time that Coca Cola has received 1.2 times as many mentions as Pepsi. Then say Pepsi starts growing its presence, and for three consecutive months Pepsi gets more mentions than Coke. This type of change might represent a short term marketing campaign by Pepsi, but if it sustains itself it could represent a shift in the importance of one company over the other. This may cause the search engines to start ranking Pepsi over Coke—even before the total mentions over all time of Pepsi exceed those for Coke.

Some current examples

The biggest issue in these signals is signal quality. To help deal with this, expect the search engines to start using the signals in select ways where the quality of the data is quite high. Here are some examples.

Web references are already known to be a ranking factor in local search. In David Mihm’s study of Local Search Ranking Factors the panel of experts surveyed put citations (or web references) as the second most important ranking signal, only behind that of location. These citations can as simple as a phone number, a street address, business name, product name or some combination of these.

These may show up on the web in yellow page sites (which often don’t link to the listed businesses), and in raw data provided by data aggregators such as InfoUSA and Acxiom. One of the experts, Ed Reese commented of the importance of “citation sources related to your industry (like associations and social networking groups).”

Another way that web references can provide a stable signal is when surges in activity occur. Consider a brand that is getting a dozen or so mentions a day across the web that suddenly gets thousands of mentions across a few days. This is a strong indicator of a hot news item. This type of signal could be used to discover news and rank it by comparing the signal strength of one item to another.

For my final example, I will speculate a bit. Early in 2009 Google pushed out an algorithm change that eventually got the label of the “Vince change” (named after the Googler who did the work). In February people started reporting that some Google update had taken place, as Aaron Wall did in this post on Google Branding. A common belief was that Google began to heavily favor brands over non-brands. Matt Cutts later came out and said that this was not so much about brands, as it was about an increase in weight on trust and authority.

While it is premature to state that brand mentions in social media sites were a significant factor in the Vince change, you can see how a long history of regular mentions across the web would factor into a trust algorithm. For example, if a brand gets mentioned hundreds or thousands of times per day over a long period of time, that could be treated as a positive trust ranking signal. You may be able to do a similar analysis with just links, but this is an example where the social media signals show ongoing stability, and this provides the search engines with more data—which is a good thing.

There are two big problems with search engines using social media signals today.

The first is that social media sites are a bit elitist too at the moment. While they are available to everybody, not everybody is using them. More ways to use their data will emerge as use expands, simply because the data is getting better.

Second, the “wisdom of the mob” is inherently quirky. Consider the surge in mentions for Stephen Colbert during the campaign to get him to rank number one for the query “greatest living American”. This was a fad that ultimately had little to do with Stephen Colbert. It faded over time, of course, but the search engines would prefer not to be fooled by similar surges in the future.

Expect ongoing efforts by the search engines to find good ways to use these types of signals. As a publisher of a web site, it means you should begin to get active in social media environments. While this will unfold over a long period of time, major new brands are being created within social media environments today. It is OK to begin with some experiments to determine how you want to engage, but the time to start those experiments is now.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Industrial Strength


About The Author: is the president of Stone Temple Consulting, an SEO consultancy outside of Boston. Eric publishes a highly respected interview series and can be followed on Twitter at @stonetemple.

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  • Jill Whalen

    Interesting theory.

    What do you think about negative references? What if a company sees a surge in people saying that they suck, for instance?

    Do you think Google would know the difference and not count those as something good, or even more so, count them negatively towards the company in question?

  • Andrew Goodman

    Just riffing here, but it’s maybe worth going back to the whole concept of peer citation – from which this experimental web-based version (HITS, PageRank, etc.) grew – and asking just what the heck was *it* supposed to accomplish in the first place?

    Garden variety academic citation analysis:

    * Made no distinction between positive and negative mentions

    * Generally made no distinction between “top” journals and books, and second-rate ones

    * Counted the total number of citations

    * Only counted publishers and journals that were on the radar (peer-reviewed, accredited publishing houses, sometimes a major periodical); did not count other mentions.

    What would a scholar get for being well-cited?

    If they were an absolute superstar: probably bargaining power in the marketplace, and promotion to a University Research Chair or some similar superstar position with a high salary and little or no teaching.

    Advanced citation analysis might have worked a bit more like PageRank, in that you also count the authority score of those doing the citing.

    In the end, though, no big prizes for being well cited. Everyone gets to work in their career and there is no winner-take-all economy.

    For ranking well in SERP’s on the other hand, the rewards can be substantial. But there is no real gatekeeping process of any kind, just this free-for-all of different kinds of actors (millions of them) free to exhibit “recommending” behavior.

    Chaotic, frequently gamed behavior resulting in sometimes huge rewards for the winners.

    Which sometimes makes you wonder.

    It’s an interesting, emerging science, but in spite of all the data coming from real people out there and despite the use of human “SERP satisfaction” raters, most of us don’t get a vote on the principles the search engines use to decide rank order.

    We as an industry just sort of bumble along, assuming there are good reasons for everything.

    Eric offers the wise understatement of the year in his point that “the wisdom of the mob is inherently quirky.” And not only can social networks be elitist, we want them to be (and we will perhaps continue to rely on that customized elitism will return better recommendations to us from peers). Pushing someone else’s (everyone else’s) peer system across to the general search results seems like a recipe for misusing those signals.

    The problems are not completely intractable, but it’s high time our industry started having intelligent conversations about the principles behind information retrieval. I think we frankly did more of that back in the day, 10-15 years ago. And why not – there were far fewer dollars to chase back then, and a lot less data and signals to drown in.

  • Eric Ward
  • Eric Ward

    Sorry about that, my a href tag broke the post…Trying again below.
    I remember making an off-hand remark during an SMX session in NY in 08 or 07 that links don’t have to be links. That URLs without an a href=”" tag which were not even clickable could in fact be a helpful signal, or citation. And it makes sense as you describe. Imagine someone with true subject expertise mentioning a site’s domain, in print and online, but without it being coded so as to be clickable. How is that any less valuable? Answer: It isn’t, and could even be more useful than a clickable link, depending on the author. And as acadmic journals migrate more and more to the web, many archives come along with URLs that aren’t clickable links either. Dig through Google Scholar and you’ll find plenty. It’s the presence of a URL on a page of merit that matters, whether clickable or not.

  • Webmaster T

    Eric, citations have likely been used in content discovery for some time based on the patents Google has and the fact Google basically will use any app or mention in it’s quest to index/discover every page on the web. There have been discussions of this among SEO’s for quite some time. I have used a citation search rather than link search on Google for over six years because IMO, it has always provided more info then the link: operator on either Yahoo! or Google. However, that said I do not see any indication these are suddenly more valuable… IMO most people just didn’t bother looking for them. Jill is right about the discovery of negative stuff and potentially people selling info they don’t want you to find or doing things they don’t want you to find during analysis of IBLs.

  • http://glager glager

    How would search engines handle more ambiguous ‘brands’ such as people’s names? Would all the hype around Kanye West right now get his site to rank higher or his wikipedia entry? Which is more relevant to “Kanye West?” Would a buzz around Danny Sullivan help to improve the rankings Search Engine Land, Sphinn, SMX, or Daggle?

    I agree that this is the way things are headed but it seems there are very difficult problems to overcome at this point.


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