Once upon a time, in the heady, early days of Google’s PageRank, links on a site were counted as votes. These votes were more or less weighted equally, with pages receiving more votes perceived as being more important, and these more important pages casting higher-value votes. Fast forward more than two decades, and links are by no means created equal. PageRank is only one of many algorithms used to evaluate websites and order search results, and with more than 3,000 algorithm updates in 2018 alone, the landscape is constantly changing.
Google uses a variety of ranking signals that play into the “value” of links, which determine the weight of the link, or how much it counts. The factors that affect ranking signals are broad, and no one (except Google) knows the true extent of how many there are and exactly how they work. Luckily, there is enough information to understand a series of best practices for link placement and visibility. This post focuses on link placement on a page, including links in the navigation bar and main content, and how those links appear.
If you’re working with VELOX Media, we’ll provide you with a keyword ranking report, breaking down your rankings and which keywords you should target with your blog. To get the best results from our recommendations, factor in link placement on a page when you internally link from your blog to your conversion pages as part of your content strategy.
Based on Google’s Reasonable Surfer patent filing, links in the main body of a piece of content carry more weight and pass on more ranking signals than navigation links. This may be because, in part, content management systems often automatically add navigation links to a page. Google’s logic makes sense, as adding links to content is a conscious decision. This hearkens back to the idea of a link as a vote. Putting a link in an article means having confidence in what is at the other end of the link. If you point to an internal URL, such as a conversion page, from a blog post or other informational page, it helps crawlers navigate your website, and the algorithms can better understand your intentions and the flow of content.
Links in the main body of a piece of content carry more weight than navigation links.
Writing relevant articles with targeted keywords can be a challenge, and creating SEO content is an ongoing effort. Continually optimizing pages and articles takes time, consistently working to keep ahead of competitors. A comprehensive SEO strategy will involve acquiring external links that point back to your website, and a consistent schedule of new content published on your website to maintain authority and relevance to your target keywords.
Placement of the link in the content can also matter. A link near the beginning of the article, such as a link featured in the introduction, may carry more weight than a link near the end of the piece. A reader is more likely to click on a link higher up in the content than one buried near the end, thus giving it more value to you. Plus, when a page gets crawled, links that appear first in the HTML get crawled first. This applies both to internal and external links. The Reasonable Surfer patent contains hints to this valuation but doesn’t use definite language. The main takeaway is that you should be thinking about placing links in ways that increase the likelihood a user will click on them, and visibility is a key factor.
Navigation links, as well as footer links, do not carry the same weight as content links. These links are often on most, if not all, pages of a site. Navigation and footer links assist users in navigating the website, but they don’t contain links that are contextually relevant to the page. Since search algorithms prioritize editorial, contextual links, they won’t generally assign much weight to links that may have been automatically generated. Both navigation and footer links pass ranking signals, but not nearly as much as content links.
Beyond placement, a user’s ability to find a link likely affects its ranking signals. Small fonts, for example, are harder to see, and thus it is less likely a user will click on the link. Remember, links that readers are more likely to click carry more weight. The visibility of text and links is also an accessibility issue, and Google continues to emphasize accessibility as an essential website feature. Search algorithms can take into account the font size, text color, and background color of elements on a page. Small, low contrast text and links may carry less value than those that are accessible to colorblind, vision-impaired, and elderly users.
Links that readers are more likely to click carry more weight.
Brand references, even unlinked ones, can play a role in a website’s Expertise, Authority, and Trust score (EAT). Search engines can parse the text and make associations between the content and the reference. Mentions of a brand, business, website, or person, when they’re relevant to the content, can have a positive impact on that entity’s authority in the eyes of search engines. Links are obviously more desirable for actual ranking signals, but these mentions can send authority signals that have supplementary benefits. A great early step in an external SEO strategy for quick wins is to keep track of other websites that mention your brand or products. Then reach out to them and ask for a link, but be sure to thank them for the mention, because it does help, even without the link.
For a long time, there was speculation about whether redirected links carried the same weight as non-redirected links. In recent years, Google has clarified that redirects do, in fact, pass ranking signals without loss, though there are many issues that improperly implemented redirects can cause. Notably, redirect chains cause issues, which occur when one URL redirects to another URL, and that target URL also makes use of a redirect to a third URL, and so on. When using redirects, make sure that the target URL is contextually relevant to the original. If the new page is deemed to be irrelevant, it may be devalued.
Using redirects is a necessity during a site migration. Domains change, companies rebrand, and sites move. Redirects carrying full weight help minimize ranking disruptions. Be aware that generally you should use 301 permanent redirects over 302 temporary redirects if possible. If you do need to use a 302, for example, when rebuilding a page, remember to remove it. If you end up choosing to redirect a page permanently, always use a 301.
Links with the NoFollow HTML tag do not pass ranking signals, though thanks to a recent update, this could be changing. Using the tag is a vote of no confidence, allowing the content publisher to indicate that they do not necessarily endorse the site at the other end of the link.
The tag was designed to empower webmasters to combat forum and blog comment link spam. It is also commonly used with sponsored content to indicate that a link has been paid for. It’s not unusual for site owners to have a blanket NoFollow policy on all user-generated content such as blogs and articles, though this is not the intended function of the tag. Content that does pass editorial muster should be endorsed! That’s part of being a good internet citizen.
Up until now, in an external SEO strategy, all other ranking signals were overridden by a NoFollow tag. The use of NoFollow tags, however, is about to change.
In Sept. 2019, Google announced that NoFollow will change in March 2020 to be a “hint” rather than the previous declaration of no confidence. The announcement could mean NoFollow will pass some ranking potential after the update.
Google also introduced two new HTML tags in the post: “sponsored” for paid content and “ugc” for user-generated content. The two new tags help Google better analyze links, understanding if a post is sponsored or, for example, a blog comment.
The ranking signals that pass through a link based on its placement and visibility are just some of a wide range of factors that influence how much weight it carries. These best practices can help you get the most out of internal links and recognize quality external links, but they aren’t the only determiners of link weight. The relevance of the anchor text to the URL, the relevance of the pages to one another, the quality and authoritativeness of your content, and other contextual clues also factor into how Google and other search engines value a link.
Your specific link placement strategies should be based on experimentation and data about how users prefer to interact with your content. Improving user experience is the golden rule of SEO.
Google uses a variety of ranking signals that play into the “value” of links, which determine the weight of the link, or how much it counts.
Dominating the SERPs is difficult. Outranking competitors is a never-ending task because everyone is always trying to get to the top. If you have ambitious SEO goals, consider working with a team of SEO experts. They can help you keep up with Google’s latest updates and changes, as well as perform in-depth keyword research and do the legwork of continual site optimization for you.
Whether you choose to partner with a leading search marketing agency like VELOX Media or handle SEO in-house, use these link placement and visibility best practices to improve your content strategy.