Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re going to chat a little bit about on-topic and off-topic links. One of the questions and one of the topics that you see discussed all the time in the SEO world is: Do on-topic links matter more than off-topic links? By on topic, people generally mean they come from sites and pages that are on the same or very similar subject matter to the site or page that I’m trying to get the link to.
It sort of makes intuitive sense to us that Google would care somewhat about this, that they would say, “Oh, well, here’s our friend over here,” we’ll call him Steve. No we’re going to call him Carl, because Carl is a great name.
Carl, of course, has CarlsCloset.net, CarlsCloset.net being a home organization site. Carl is going out, and he’s doing some link building, which he should, and so he’s got some link targets in mind. He looks at places like RealSimple.com, the magazine site, Sunset Magazine, UnderwaterHoagies.com, Carl being a great fan of all things underwater and sandwich related. So as he’s looking at these sites, he’s thinking to himself, well, from an SEO perspective, is it necessary the case that Real Simple, which has a lot of content on home organization and on cleaning up clutter and those kinds of things, is that going to help Carl’s Closet site rank better than, say, a link from UnderwaterHoagies.com?
The answer is a little tough here. It could be the case that UnderwaterHoagies.com has a feature article all about how submariners can keep their home in order, even as they brunch under the sea. But maybe the link from RealSimple.com is coming from a less on-topic article and page. So this starts to get really messy. Is it the site that matters, or is it the page that matters? Is it the context that matters? Is it the link itself and where that’s embedded in the site? What is the real understanding that Google has between relationships of on-topic and off-topic? That’s where you get a lot of convoluted information.
I have seen and we have probably all heard a ton of anecdotal evidence on both sides. There are SEOs who will argue passionately from their experience that what they’ve seen is that on-topic links are hugely more beneficial than off-topic ones. You’ll see the complete opposite from some other folks. In fact, most of my personal experiences, when I was doing more directed link building for clients way back in my SEO consulting days and even more recently as I’ve helped startups and advised folks, has been that off-topic links, UnderwaterHoagies.com linking to Carl’s Closet, that still seems to provide quite a bit of benefit, and it’s very had to gauge whether it’s as much, less than, more than any of these other ones. So I think, on the anecdotal side, we’re in a tough spot.
What we can say is that probably there’s some additional value from on-topic sites, on-topic pages, or on-topic link connections, that Google has some idea of context. We’ve seen them make huge strides with algorithms like Hummingbird, certainly with their keyword matching and topic modeling algorithms. It seems very unlikely that there would be nothing in Google’s algorithm that looks at the context or relationship of content between linking pages and linking websites.
However, in the real world, things are almost never equal. It’s not like they’re going to get exactly the same anchor text from the same importance of a page that has the same number of external links, that the content is exactly the same on all three of these websites pointing over to Carl’s Closet. In the real world, Carl is going to struggle much harder to get some of these links than others. So I think that the questions we need to ask ourselves, as folks who are doing directed marketing and trying to earn links, is: Will the link actually help people? Is that link going to be clicked?
If you’re on a page on Real Simple that you think very few people ever reach, you think very few people will ever click that link because it just doesn’t appear to provide much value, versus you’re in an article all about home organization on Underwater Hoagies, and it was featured on their home page, and you’re pretty sure that a lot of the submariners who are eating their subs under the sea are very interested in this topic and they’re going to click on that link, well you know what? That’s a link that helps people. That probably means search engines are going to treat it with some reverence as well.
Does the link make sense in context? This is a good one to ask yourself when you are doing any kind of link building that’s directed that could potentially be manipulative. If the link makes sense in context, it tends to be the case that it’s going to be more useful. So if Carl contributes the article to UnderwaterHoagies.com, and the link makes sense in context, and it will help people, I think it’s appropriate to put it there. If that’s not the case, it could look a little manipulative. It could certainly be perceived as self-serving.
Then, can you actually acquire the link? It’s wonderful when you go out and you make a list of, hey, here’s the most important and relevant sites in our sector and niche, and this is how we’re going to build topical authority. But if you can’t get those links, hey that’s tough potatoes, man. It’s no better than putting a list of links and just sorting them by, God knows, a horrible metric like PageRank or Alexa rank or something like that.
I would instead ask yourself if it’s realistic for you to be able to get those links and pursue those as well as pursuing or looking at the metrics, and the importance, and the topical relevance.
Let’s think about this from a broad perspective. Search engines are caring about what? They’re caring about matching the content relevance to the searcher’s query. They care about raw link popularity. That’s sort of like the old-school algorithms of PageRank and number of links and that kind of thing. They do care about topical authority and brand authority. We talked about on Whiteboard Friday previously around some topical authorities and how Google determines the authority and the subject matter of a site’s authority. They care about domain authority, the raw importance of a domain on the web, and they care about things like engagement, user and usage data, and given how much they can follow all of us around the web these days, they probably know pretty well whether people are clicking on these articles using these pages or not.
Then anchor text. Not every link that you might build or acquire or earn is going to provide all of these in one single package. Each of them are going to be contributing pieces of those puzzles. When it comes to the on-topic/off-topic link debate, I’m much more about caring about the answers to these kinds of questions — Can I acquire the link? Is it useful to people? Will they actually use it? Does the link make sense in context? — than I am about is it on-topic or off-topic? I’m not sure that I would ever urge you to prioritize based on that.
That said, I’m certainly looking forward to your feedback this week and hearing about your experiences with on-topic and off-topic links, and hopefully we’ll see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.
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