A couple weeks back I wrote a LinkWeek column here titled “Your Site’s Manifest Linking Destiny“. At the end of that column I closed with the following thoughts…
What if I told you that one of the sites was created, owned, and operated by a single mother who is an African American with locations in six cities across three southern states? None of these facts change the content of the sites. They remain nearly identical. But these facts can alter the manifest linking destiny of one of the sites dramatically, in a way that can impact everything from search rank to direct click traffic, for link builders who recognize why.
Among the feedback I received both publicly and privately (you caught me sza :) ), a theme emerged. Any links a person can pursue and obtain just because that person has certain defining personal characteristics should not be able to positively affect search rank. In essence, such links are irrelevant to the site and products being sold and are just another potential method for gaming link-based algorithms. An African American single mother in the South is no different than a American Indian senior citizen in the West, or any other person for that matter.
Yes. I agree, and to exploit such personal differences for linking benefit is opportunistic and spammy.
That is…right up to the moment a searcher is looking to do business with someone like them. And then it makes perfect sense to seek those individual and differentiating links, and it also makes sense for the engines to rank that site higher for specific searches related to those links. Let’s look at another example. If I am a disabled veteran living in California and I’m looking for graphic design services for my business, and I’d like to spend my money with a graphic design business owned by a disabled veteran in California, then my search might just look like this:
And I might find this site, which I may not have known about yet, and which I will be happy to learn about. And I will probably end up doing business with one of those companies.
In this example the pursuit of the link has nothing to do with gaming an SE algorithm. The link is a by-product. By virtue of a specific set of personal characteristics, the business owner is included, listed, and linked to by the California Disabled Veteran Enterprise Alliance directory web site. And for the right searcher and the right search terms, Google would be crazy to NOT consider such links as potential signals or differentiators.
Now, I totally accept and agree that some sites will look for and exploit any linking advantage they can find, and that’s their choice. I can see the white hat/black hat argument for any flavor of link. We can argue the blackest link nearly white, and the whitest link black as coal. The art of opportunistic linking depends on the intent of the link seeker. We know what’s in our hearts, and search bots don’t. Yet.
Here’s a better example of link opportunism. Have a look at all the companies offering discounts to University staff, faculty, and students. Follow some of those .edu links. Which of these companies have done so just so they can be listed and linked on a .edu human resources web site’s University Discount Program, and which of the companies were doing so prior to links impacting rank? It’s impossible to know for sure, but as I scan this page here, some of those vendors look, um, shall we say out of place? I hesitate to say which ones, because I don’t know the background and relationships between this particular school and all the companies listed and linked.
I’ll bet, however, that the person who handles this discount program is baffled as to why he/she is getting so many requests for participation, and now, will probably get even more.
Eric Ward has been in the link building and content publicity game since 1994, providing services ranking from linking strategy and private customized link building training. The Link Week column appears on Tuesdays at Search Engine Land.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.