Changing Existing Links: Perfectly Normal — Except When It Isn’t
You may have recently read Links That Change Are Trusted Less By Google’s Algorithms, which was sparked by a recent tweet from a former Google employee regarding changing links:
Did you know Google is less likely to trust a link once it has changed from the 1st time it was seen?
— Pedro Dias (@pedrodias) July 1, 2014
As this topic bounced around the SEO community, it took on a life of its own. Run a search on the phrase “Google May Trust Links Less,” and you’ll see how quickly a ten-day-old tweet can erupt online.
There’s been no official comment from Google about this, nor would I expect there to be, but let’s take a step back and think this through before we panic.
There are many perfectly legitimate reasons why a link would change. At the same time, there are many algorithmic-driven reasons why someone would make changes to links. Like so many other linking related issues, the devil is in the details and intent plays a large part in it.
What Exactly Changed?
Think for a moment about the term “changed link.” What exactly does that mean? It could mean many things. What changed? Why did it change?
Did you contact a site that was linking to your homepage and ask them to change the link to an internal page? And if so, why? Was it a more relevant page, or an attempt at improving a deep link ratio?
Was there anchor text associated with that link that was in any way descriptive of what was being linked to? Did you ask for a change to that anchor text as well? Or, was the change to the anchor text only, while the underlying URL remained the same? And how many times did you do this?
What about reverse changes? Have you been over-optimizing anchor text with your money keywords for years and now are chasing them down — asking for the anchor text to be changed to “click here,” your company name, or your URL — before you receive a unnatural links warning?
It gets worse. What was the scope of the link changes?
A change to 100 anchor text links so they no longer read “borrow money” but instead read “payday loans” is far more suspicious than a change to the anchor text of 100 links that used to read “2013 Hearing Loss Association of America Conference” and now read “2014 Hearing Loss Association of America Conference.”
The URL is exactly the same for both years, so should the hearing loss association site be less trusted because they wanted their links to reflect the current year’s conference? That’s just silly.
Sites and pages change and go away all the time. I’ve had to change links. You know that Danny Sullivan guy? Back in the day, he gave a shout out about my astounding link building and promotional prowess on his SEW site.
You may not know I was his very first paid subscriber. I helped generate some buzz and links for that site, and I linked from my site to his SEW site. When Danny launched Search Engine Land, I changed the testimonial link to point to this new site because… that’s exactly what makes logical natural sense to do! Why would I link to a site he no longer worked with?
More Link Change Minutiae
Let’s make it trickier. Say you’re that hiking news site owner and you notice there’s a dead link on your resource page to a map of the Smoky Mountains. So you find a new map from another site and edit out the dead URL and insert the new URL, leaving the anchor text intact. Is that link now less trustful? Why?
And if it is less trustful, does that mean you’d have been better off leaving the dead link on your site, or removing it completely? Both of those options seem extreme, since a nice map of the Smoky Mountain hiking trails is a helpful resource for your hiking readers.
The reality is dead links get replaced all the time — some by diligent webmasters, some after outreach by broken link building services, and some (likely) with a payment under the table.
Unmentioned thus far is the on-page content that all these links point to. What if there’s no change made to the URL or anchor text of the link, but changes are made to content of the page those links are pointing to?
I’ve had many discussions with people who have pages they don’t want to kill off because those pages rank well, but they do want to repurpose the content on those pages to take advantage of those high rankings. I’ve done some of that myself.
At what point does content on such pages change enough so as to be less trustworthy than the original content? And if you add a few products onto what used to be a pure resource page, haven’t you technically altered the original reason (content) for whatever links that page earned? The old “earn the link, then change the content” technique?
Google Smart — Me Not
We can what-if link-change scenarios all day long, but one thing is certain: Google has Ph.D’s. Lots of them. They are way smarter than I am. If I can think of the above scenarios, I’m sure Google can, as well. And one last thing. Google holds the ultimate trump card by having years and years of backlink statistical data. Couldn’t this data be used to create models of what a normal vs. abnormal link change rate might look like?
Should some sites be worried? Yes. Should yours? That’s impossible to say without some analysis into how and why you got those links in the first place.
There is no one-fits-all scenario where a change to a link automatically means less trust.