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Just When You Thought You Had It Down...

Posted on December 17, 1999

by Tony L. Callahan

While many of us have been tweaking our META tags and refining our web site copy to improve our search engine standings, our friends at the search engine companies have been working on means to make these manipulations less relevant.

Consider the issue from the search engines' point of view. A search engine's primary function is to take a user's search request and provide the most relevant results it can, base on the request. Up to now, the search engines have had little choice but to trust web masters to accurately depict their content. This depiction has been accomplished using tags and text and a variety of algorithms to determine a site's relevancy to particular keywords. We all know that not every webmaster has been scrupulously honest in the way they describe their sites utilizing these "self indexing" tools.

In an effort to reduce the occurrence of these "optimized" (read "misleading") self indexing techniques, the programmers and architects who work for the search engines have been burning the midnight oil. Their focus has been to develop algorithms that give higher relevance to "off page criteria" -- that is, information that can be obtained from a source other than your website.

Enter Alta Vista, the first major search engine to seriously employ off page criteria in their raking algorithms. Their actual algorithms are, of course, closely guarded secrets, but they appear to be utilizing "link analysis" as a heavy weighting factor for placement.

So what is "Link analysis" and how does it affect my web site's placement in a search engine's results? Simply stated, link analysis is evaluating what sites link to yours, who links to them, link density and what terms are the sites highly to? Clear as mud, right? Let's look at each of these items in detail:

Link Density

Link density is the term used to refer to how many sites link to your site. Most are familiar with the idea of a reverse link lookup. For those that are not, a reverse link lookup is asking a search engine "How many web sites, other than my own, are linked to mine?". To perform a reverse link lookup in Alta Vista, type a simple query like:

+link:www.hotmail.com -host:www.hotmail.com

This query will result in around eighty four thousand pages being found. This is an outstanding number of web pages, all linked to Hotmails web site, and a very good example of link density. Now will your site stack up against Hotmail? Probably not, but you are probably not in direct competition with Hotmail anyway. To get an feel for more down to earth numbers, do a search for "web hosting". Take the first site you find and plug the URL into our query above. When I did this little test I got nine hundred sixty nine pages found.

But what if Hotmail decided to go into the web hosting business? From the standpoint of link density, this would be bad news for our example company because, based on link density alone, Hotmail would be nearly eighty seven times more relevant.

Link Popularity

Clearly, link density alone is not enough to make a reasoned decision about a web sites placement. The next element of off page criteria to be considered is link popularity. When you are considering what sites to approach for reciprocal linking, which would you prefer: A) a link from a site hosted on a free web host like Angelfire; or B) a link from Yahoo.com? Obviously, most of us would prefer the link from Yahoo. So we have determined that not all links are created equal. The algorithm to analyze link popularity utilizes third level linking to determine a site's popularity. In other words, the algorithm looks at who links to the sites that link to you. For off page criteria algorithms, it is not just the quantity of links but the quality of the links that counts.

Crosslinking

It's a fact that sites that have to do with a particular subject have a higher density of crosslinking to other sites that are relevant to the same subject. This is where the entire concept of the Internet as the "web" originates. As it pertains to off page ranking criteria, high density crosslinking indicates a "cluster". These clusters are assumed to be highly relevant to the same topics. Take the search keyword "nuclear energy". The first site listed in Alta Vista is the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA). Now do a reverse link lookup on the NEA. Several sites are listed. Doing reverse link lookups on the listed sites produce the same sites, over and over again. Therefore sites belonging to this "cluster" would be determined to be highly relevant to the search keywords "nuclear energy".

So what do you do about this new direction in search engine algorithms? My advice is to continue doing what you should have been doing all along.

  • Continue to ensure that your title tag is catchy and appropriate.

  • Continue to make sure that your description tag is accurate and that it utilizes your main keywords.

  • Continue to research and maintain your keywords tag.

  • Continue to use your keywords early and often in your web site page copy.

    Does this mean you should do nothing different? The answer to that depends on whether or not you have been soliciting reciprocal links from similar sites. The recommendation to do reciprocal links is not a new one, just more important in light of off page ranking criteria. A few specific recommendations:

  • Trade links with other web sites that focus on the same topic as yours.

  • Identify and get listed in topic specific portals.

  • Participate in topic clusters, such as web rings.

  • Use reverse link lookups to track not only your popularity, but also the popularity of the sites you trade links with.

    It is too soon to tell for certain if other search engines will follow Alta Vista's lead in using off page criteria for determining relative position. The move will largely depend on whether the users of search engines feel that these factors really improve the relevancy of their searches. If Alta Vista's traffic jumps markedly you can bet your bottom dollar that we will see a lot more of these algorithms utilized by the major search engines.


    Tony L. Callahan is president of his own Internet marketing company, Link-Promote, http://www.link-promote.com He also publishes Web-Links Monthly, a newsletter full of tips, tricks, tools and techniques for successful web site promotions. To subscribe, send e-mail to: Web.Links-subscribe@listbot.com Copyright 1999 Tony L. Callahan All Rights Reserved

     

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