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Understanding Ranking Lag Time For New Links
This may seem like a simple subject, but it’s a question most link builders hear sooner or later. That question is “How long does it take for new links to help my site’s ranking improve?”
Like most questions related to links and search rank the truth (and easiest answer) isn’t very helpful. That answer is “It depends”. Depends on what?
Let’s dive a little deeper into several factors that can influence the ability of new links to positively affect the search rank of your site.
When you tweet a link or share a link on G+ or Facebook, that link nearly instantly appears to your followers, friends, circles, etc. Links shared socially can result in a flurry of traffic that can happen within moments.
If I tweet a link to this column to my followers or share this link with those in my G+ circles, chances are a certain percentage of them will see that link and click it.
This can happen in near real-time, or for those who don’t watch their social stream all day, it could happen later, or not at all. Not every shared link gets clicked.
But these socially shared links do not have that same “instant” impact on organic search rank. You can’t necessarily tweet a link today and expect it to affect where you rank for a keyword search today, or tomorrow, or ever. Imagine the flood of social link spam if that were the case.
This doesn’t mean socially shared links are useless for organic rank over time, but there are many algorithmic variables to that process, and I discussed a some of them a few years ago in an article here titled How A Twitter Reputation Algorithm Needs To Work.
Contrast the process of social sharing with the process that takes place when someone links to a page on your site from a page on their site for the very first time. Just like a tweet, like, or share, it’s a new link. Readers are seeing it. People are (hopefully) clicking it.
However, none of the search engines know that link exists…yet. Even so, it’s surprising how many people assume Google instantly knows that a new link exists and that link should affect search rank nearly instantly, or very quickly.
The reality is a little more complex.
A search engine has no idea a new link exists on a page until one of its crawlers visits that page and crawls it. And the search engines may or may not crawl that new link as fast as you wish they would. A great example would be a page that is not frequently updated, but which has earned some degree of credibility based upon it’s own inbound link profile, or social shares, etc.
A real life example would be this fossil of an article I wrote ten years ago titled Linkability – Why Do Some Sites Have It While Others Don’t? The only update I’ve made to that article over those ten years was to slap a few social widgets on it. According to Google’s cache of that page, it has been at least 18 days since Google crawled it, and it could be weeks before it crawls it again.
From a linking perspective, this also means if I insert a link on that page to some another site/page, that new link will have no organic search rank value until the bots come back and find it. And even then, there are no certainties about the value of such a link. It’s logical to assume that Google can assign link value to old pages in different ways.
Classic examples are college faculty pages devoted to courses they teach, where in a addition to an online syllabus, they included a curated list of links and resources that are meant to augment the material being taught in the classroom. There are thousands of pages like this.
I remember working on a project for a site that sold small business payroll software. I was able to find many pages just like those described above, created by faculty members or business/accounting departments, all with tightly curated link lists that had the rankings part of my link building split personality drooling (yes, I just made an admission that probably shocked a lot of readers).
The unfortunate thing about those pages was that because they were so infrequently updated, Google’s bots did not crawl them as frequently as they would crawl a page like the CNN homepage, or SearchEngineLand, where there’s new content posted almost hourly.
Most crawlers learn over time how often a page is updated, and if after a few attempted crawls over the course of several months, it’s obvious a page is only updated every 8-10 weeks, then the crawler could easily dial back how often they crawl those pages. Put simply, there’s no reason to crawl a page every day if that page has shown historically that it’s only updated once a month.
Even though the engines have crawlers canvassing webpages 24 hours a day, they don’t crawl every single page of the Web every single day. They have a crawl schedule that’s actually remarkable. The crawl schedule for any page is based on several factors like the one I just explained.
A simple way to explain this to clients is to ask them why we don’t check the mailbox in front of our house on Sunday? We don’t because our own internal crawler has learned there’s no new content from the post office on Sunday, so why crawl to the mailbox?
My experience is that the engines work in a similar way. But even so, once a page that contains a link to you has been crawled, Google does not instantly adjust their algorithms in real time to reflect that new link. Google runs a number of calculations for every page it crawls, and it can take anywhere from a few days to several months before new links affect search rank.
Vetting Takes Time
Here’s another real life example. Many public library Web guides are updated once a month, after a committee of staffers and librarians meet to discuss which sites should be added and removed. After these meetings, the person in charge of the site edits the pages to include the new links, remove dead links, update any other content that needs updating, etc.
That means if I contact a library for a link today, and they love the site and reply that yes, they will link to it, it could still be a month before they actually physically add the link to the page.
Now, couple that fact with the crawl rate. If Google has determined that historically the best crawl frequency for that page is once a month, then it could be as long as 60 days from the day I am told I’m getting a link before Google even knew the new link was there. That also means it could be at least that long, if not longer, before that new link had the opportunity to affect the search rank of the site that obtained it.
But again, it’s still not that easy.Google may do further analysis of any new links to determine if there are any signals that might indicate the link is not “earned”. This is a tricky bit of analysis, and the easiest way to understand it is to say that Google knows every day people are looking for ways to get links from trustworthy pages, and some of those ways are violations of Google’s quality guidelines.
So, it seems like it would be a smart move on Google’s part to do a little mathematical “vetting” to validate whether or not the new link should affect search rankings, whether those new links are on webpages, plussed, tweeted, or shared.
The takeaway here is when a client asks you how long it will take for your link building efforts to show up in the form of higher rankings, you can share this post with them, or simply tell them Google has a process it goes through that can happen as quickly as a couple days, all the way to a couple months, depending on the credibility and update frequency of the sites where the new links are appearing.
Some of the most brilliantly curated subject specific Web guides are not updated that often. That does not diminish the power and credibility that links obtained from those pages provide.
Image attribution: Image: ‘slow‘ by Peter Shanks
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