Over the course of a Web site’s existence, it will earn a certain amount of link equity, which in simpler terms, is the collection of the links that point to a site at any moment in time.
It’s fair to say that in some cases, no matter how fantastic a site’s content is, the links pointing to that content are more important than the content itself. One could argue that a Web site without any links is like the tree that falls in the forest when nobody is present to hear it. You can’t click a link if no link exists.
It’s true that some domains and/or URLs can generate significant traffic without any links. Buy a few TV ads during the Super Bowl, or put URLs on billboards across the country, and even a brand new site can get type-in traffic galore. But most sites can’t afford that, and even for those that can, you can’t buy traffic forever. At some point, your earned link equity will bring you traffic in enough ways to sustain you, or it will not. Remember the dotcom bubble?
As a site matures, it often continues to attract new links, sometimes in spite of itself. But without intervention, a site will reach a point where whatever new links it is attracting will not have enough impact to sustain click traffic or search rank. Many of those sites are doomed, but in an odd parallel, others may find themselves in an enviable linking sweet spot, where whatever content they have is strong enough for their particular niche to be able to sustain high rank regardless of whether they try. This can be seen most often in non-competitive verticals, non-profits, and associations.
For example, I’d be willing to bet that the site seniorsoftball.org has ranked #1 for the phrase “senior citizen softball“, since the day it launched in 1999. I doubt this site worries much about getting new links, and it’s not surprising that visually it isn’t exactly cutting edge. No blog, no social features, no tags, no “share this” or “digg” that. Not even a “link to us” page. This site has all it needs from a link equity standpoint to accomplish what it needs to accomplish. It’s in the linking sweet spot.
But change the search phrase from “senior citizen softball” to “softball equipment“, and everything, and I mean EVERYTHING changes. The link equity needed to earn -and more importantly sustain- high rank for that phrase will be quite different. Sites in this vertical can’t be complacent about linking strategies.
It’s pretty easy to know where you are in terms of your link equity. The search results and your traffic logs tell you. What’s far more difficult is knowing what to do about it. Do you need an aggressive new link building strategy? Possibly, but not always. There are variables at play. What is it about your link equity that is so different, better, worse, or similar to other sites in your niche? Are the measurable differences truly the reason a site ranks higher than yours? Not always. Maybe all you need is a subtle tweak to what you are doing, or maybe you need to sell your site and cut your losses.
Likely what you need is something in-between. And the in-between is where link equity gets so fuzzy. What you do or don’t need. Sustainable linking for your site does not mean the same thing as sustainable linking for my site. As infuriating as this can be, it is also where opportunity exists. Think about all the sites that had their high rankings blown to bits because too much of their link equity came from directory links the engines finally realized were meaningless. Think about the sites that had high rankings for years based only on paid links, now discovered and blown up.
What can you do if you aren’t one of the lucky sites in the link equity sweet spot? The best advice I can give you is to study the links in your niche thoroughly before you execute any new link building strategy. Links tell you an amazing story if you know how to read them. If you are confused, get a linking strategy expert and have them help you. If you don’t have a link building plan, work with them to create one.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.