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BACK TO BASICS: Evaluating Inbound Link Relevancy

By Fernando Chavez, January 15, 2009

How relevant are your site's inbound links?

Everyone knows that having external inbound links is a crucial component of SEO. With Google in particular, it is extremely difficult to rank well without high-quality inbound links to your Web site. But what is a high-quality inbound link?

In the past, people have generally considered a good link to be a link from a Web page with high PageRank (PR). Back before I started doing SEO, that may have been the case. However, Google got wise and has since enhanced their ranking algorithm to prevent inbound links from having the desired effect on rankings if they're coming from high PageRank pages with no keyword relevance. Although you will be getting more PageRank if you obtain links from high PR sites, the links will have little to no value if there is no keyword relevance outside of the anchor text to your site. Not surprisingly, purchased links now have much less influence on rankings than they had in the past.

So what has Google specifically done to combat paid links? In my opinion, they have drastically increased the importance of linking page relevance outside of the anchor text that links to your site. With that knowledge, you should be able to increase the SEO value of your existing links as well as know which sites you should try obtain links from.

PageRank = Link Importance

We have all heard about PageRank, and there are hundreds of sites out there that detail how it works on a more technical level. I've found a much simpler explanation that I find very interesting. On their Corporate Information Technology Overview page (http://www.google.com/corporate/tech.html), Google describes PageRank as follows:

  • PageRank Technology: PageRank reflects our view of the importance of web pages by considering more than 500 million variables and 2 billion terms. Pages that we believe are important pages receive a higher PageRank and are more likely to appear at the top of the search results.

    PageRank also considers the importance of each page that casts a vote, as votes from some pages are considered to have greater value, thus giving the linked page greater value. We have always taken a pragmatic approach to help improve search quality and create useful products, and our technology uses the collective intelligence of the web to determine a page's importance.

In essence, Google is trying to determine your relative importance on the Web. And that's all the PageRank algorithm is — a method for valuing that importance using links alone.

Keyword Usage and Google Rankings

On the Corporate Information Technology Overview page referenced above, Google also states the following:

The software behind our search technology conducts a series of simultaneous calculations requiring only a fraction of a second. Traditional search engines rely heavily on how often a word appears on a web page. We use more than 200 signals, including our patented PageRank™ algorithm, to examine the entire link structure of the web and determine which pages are most important. We then conduct hypertext-matching analysis to determine which pages are relevant to the specific search being conducted. By combining overall importance and query-specific relevance, we're able to put the most relevant and reliable results first.

We have bolded the most important points. In a nutshell, what Google is saying is that they utilize their PageRank technology to determine which pages are the "most important" on the Web. They then combine that PageRank algorithm with hypertext-matching analysis to determine rankings for a particular keyword. Presumably, the sites that are determined to be the "most important" and the most keyword-relevant will rank highest.

The description of Google's Hypertext-Matching Analysis is not specific and doesn't cover anything outside of what is standard SEO practice. However, the following sentence illustrates the importance of links as it relates to keyword usage:

We also analyze the content of neighboring web pages to ensure the results returned are the most relevant to a user's query.

"Neighboring web pages" is another way of saying inbound linking pages. A page that links to your site is a neighbor in the way that Google is using the term. Although internal pages also qualify as neighboring pages, we are focusing on external pages because they have a much larger effect on rankings.

This sentence has remained virtually unchanged since February 2002 (still love the Archive.org Wayback Machine, by the way), which means that Google has evaluated off-page keyword usage factors since the beginning. But based on recent changes that we have seen in rankings for various clients, I suspect that Google has expanded upon or changed the way they evaluate neighboring pages. The end result is that you need much more than optimized anchor text on the pages that are linking to your site if you want to achieve optimal rankings.

What's more important for a link — keyword relevancy or PageRank?

All other things being equal, the more PR a linking page has, the more value your landing page will receive from an inbound link. However, it is worth noting that the PR factor itself is not tied to a particular keyword. PageRank is an algorithm that is based solely on where a link originates and where a link goes. A link from a page with high PR is not necessarily going to improve your landing page's rankings for every keyword phrase that the page is optimized for. If the keyword phrase you are trying to optimize for is not used anywhere on the high PR page, then the PR you receive will not have the result you might expect. In fact, it is often more valuable to obtain a link from a lower PR page that actually uses the keywords you are optimizing your page for.

Google has made this change over the last several years to prevent Web site owners from manipulating search results with purchased links from unrelated sites. Before these modifications, it was very easy for site owners, webmasters and SEOs to pay for links from completely unrelated, high PR sites with keywords in the anchor text and see huge improvements in Google rankings. Nowadays, I would argue that relevancy is far more important than PageRank. So much so that I would rather get a link from a PR2 or PR3 site than a PR6 or higher site if the lower PR page had good relevance for the exact keyword phrase I am trying to target.

If you want to receive significant benefit from any inbound link to one of your landing pages, the linking page should be very similar in theme to the landing page. Ideally, the page will directly use the keyword phrase you are targeting. While links from similarly themed pages are more valuable than links from pages that are completely off topic, links from pages that use the exact keyword phrase you are trying to optimize for are far more valuable. The next-best case in terms of a link's keyword relevance is a page that uses some words from the exact phrase for which you are optimizing. For example, a link from a site that uses the one-word phrase "marketing" would be more helpful than a link from a site about "advertising" if I was trying to optimize for the phrase "search engine marketing".

Increasing Value of Current Links

The best way to evaluate your existing inbound links is to use two tools: Google Webmaster Tools and Yahoo! Site Explorer. You will have to verify ownership of the domain you are optimizing in order to have access to Google's information. Please note that we did not suggest using a Google link: command. This reports such a small percentage of the inbound links to a site that it is not worth your time. I have been asked many questions about this particular command, and I would strongly suggest not obsessing over it since there is much better information available to you.

In order to evaluate your external links, you will need to know which third-party pages are linking to the page that you are optimizing. Google Webmaster Tools provides you with this information in the Links section, which you can find by clicking on "Links" in the left navigation once you've logged in and verified your site. Here is a screenshot of the main Links page from the Webmaster Tools for BruceClay.com:

After you reach this page you will want to click on "Pages with external links". You will then find yourself on a page similar to the one below:

At the bottom of this page, there's a link that says "Download all external links". Download the spreadsheet and you will have a list that shows the pages on your site with external links. The columns have the page being linked to, the linking page and when Google last found the link. You can then visit all of the pages that are currently linking to your site and evaluate their relevancy.

Obviously, if your site has thousands of inbound links, it will be difficult to evaluate the relevancy of each page individually. If you have a good programmer at your disposal, you may want to create a program that visits the pages in the downloaded spreadsheet and captures every page's Title tag. It will then be easy to search and sort the data by keywords that you are trying to optimize your site for.

Yahoo! Site Explorer provides similar information to Google, but includes more information by default about the links you find with the tool. However, the data is less exhaustive. Typically, you will only be able to see the first 1000 results from an Inlinks search.

To reach Yahoo! Site Explorer Inlinks results, you can either query Yahoo!'s Web search with link:http://www.domain.com/ for the domain you want to research, or put the URL you want to research into the "Explore URL" search box on http://siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com/.

You will want to click the Inlinks tab on the results page if you did not automatically arrive on that tab. In order to eliminate internal links, select the "Except from this domain" option in the Show Inlinks pull-down menu. Here are the Yahoo! Site Explorer results for the Bruce Clay® home page:

You will find that one of the advantages of using Yahoo! Site Explorer is that the Title tags of the linking pages appear in the search results (the Title tags also appear in the exported TSV results). Title tags are an effective way to determine the topic of the linking page, which should help you quickly eyeball the most relevant inbound links to your site. If you have the highlighting feature enabled in the Google Toolbar, then you can enter your keywords in the search box and highlight the Yahoo! Site Explorer page.

One other advantage of using Yahoo! Site Explorer is that they seem to rank their Inlinks results. The top-ranking results generally have higher PageRank, which means that pages are probably ranked based on their inbound links. Since Yahoo! has their own algorithm for measuring link popularity, it's fair to assume that they order their Site Explorer results based on that calculation. This means that you should tend to focus on sites that are higher in the results if the keyword relevancy is roughly equivalent.

Once you find the most relevant pages that are linking to your site, you should visit the pages and determine what the anchor text of the link is. If the anchor text is not ideal from a relevant page, then you should try to influence it if at all possible. You may find that the external links are the result of a relationship or affiliation with another site, and that a change of the anchor text is possible. You should absolutely take the time to contact all sites who might be willing to update their links.

It is worth noting that Yahoo! might include links with a rel="nofollow" attribute. For example, the link to the BruceClay.com home page from TopSEOs.com has a rel="nofollow" attribute (unfortunately for us), yet it is still included in Site Explorer results. This does not make sense to me as an SEO, but that is how Yahoo! has chosen to build the tool. When evaluating pages linking to your site, you should also make sure that the links do not have a rel="nofollow".

Potential Link Evaluation

While it is useful to evaluate your existing links, new links are more likely to have a significant impact on your site's rankings. There are several ways to develop a list of potential sites.

We suggest putting your top competitors into Yahoo! Site Explorer and scanning the results for relevant pages. You may find that some sites that are linking to your competitors would also be willing to link to you. Directories and industry-related blogs are the most common sites that you will end up finding because those sites are generally a little easier to obtain links from.

Once you have a list of sites to contact, you must have a way of evaluating their potential value. Assume you're trying to improve the rankings for the phrase "LA Lakers gear". The most valuable inbound links for that phrase would be from pages with the following characteristics:

  • "LA Lakers gear" is used in the anchor text of the link.
  • "LA Lakers gear" is used in the linking page's Title tag.
  • "LA Lakers gear" is used at least twice in regularly formatted text (i.e., not part of anchor text) on the linking page, ideally in paragraph content.

The more of these characteristics that the linking page has, the more valuable the link will be if you are trying to improve your site's rankings for "whatever you'd like writing team". In general, the ideal link for a particular keyword phrase would be from a page that contains the phrase in each of the page elements listed above and has the highest PageRank possible.

Remember that some relevance is better than none. Sites that share some of the words from your targeted phrase in the page elements listed above are better than sites that have no relevance. In fact, you may have to rely on semi-relevant sites such as these, because sites that use the exact phrase you are targeting are competitors more often than not.

Going through this evaluation early in the link development process will allow you to easily filter out non-relevant sites and thus prevent time wasting. Link building is a painstakingly laborious process, as many of us know. You do not want to invest several hours of time developing a link that has no direct effect on your site for any of your top keywords.


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