Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Link Singularity: Propensity

The term “the Singularity” is borrowed from maths and science. It’s used to describe that point in time in which computers become superintelligent. The singularity is the moment at which working out what happens next becomes almost impossible to predict. Life will be very different after the singularity and drawing on past experiences to work out what it might be like will not help. You can guess what happens next, sure, but you can’t predict.

In this blog post I want to write about the Link Singularity with a focus on propensity. By propensity I mean the likelihood of a site linking to you. If you run the world’s best cute kitten picture discovery site then Buzzfeed has a high propensity to link to you.

Let’s get some background on links and SEO.

Google used to recommend link directories. Recently, Google stopped mentioning links in its basic guidelines to webmasters. These days the search engine recommends creating sites that users will want to engage with and share.

Links still have great SEO value. They’re probably one of the strongest signals the search engine considers when evaluating sites.

Bad links result in bad SEO. Sites with unnatural links can be punished. These unnatural links could have been built or bought by SEO agencies and in-house teams. These links might also have happened naturally. If Google can’t see other qualifying signals for the link signals then the search engine gets suspicious.

Good links result in good SEO. One of the challenges that SEOs face today is that the threshold for “good link” is creeping higher. Yesterday’s acceptable link is today’s bad link.

Guest posts are a case in point. The concept of directories lasted nearly a decade and article based link building lasted nearly five years. Guest posts were hot just a year and a half ago but now it seems like the heat is very firmly on the tactic.

Guest posting is in danger of being the next article marketing.

Some SEOs will disagree with that sentence. There’s no danger, they’ll claim. Google’s just blowing hot air to scare SEOs off. Even if that is true – it’s taken Google a lot less time to talk about the dangers of guest posting than it did to crack down on article submission and directories before that.

To get good links you need to earn successes from increasingly high quality sites. The challenge? The higher the quality the site the harder it is to get the link (indeed; any interaction).

For example, for this post about links and digital marketing, the BBC news site has a low propensity to link to me, Search Engine Land has a mild propensity to link to me and Twitter has a high propensity to link to me. I can count on Twitter because I’ll tweet this myself.

Let’s graph this. With apologies to those who work in analytics; let’s bubble graph this.

The x axis shows units of time. They might be months, quarters, years or Google update cycles. All that matters is that they show time moving forward.

The y axis shows the quality rating of the site. Once again this is an arbitrary rating. If you’re reading this post you’ll have an idea of what is meant by a quality site and a low quality site.

The size of the bubble shows the link propensity and the placement of the bubble shows the quality of site necessary for a link to count.



What the smear-like graph shows is that over time the sites you need to get links (and other signals) from in order to assist with your SEO become higher in quality and less likely to link to you. I’ve charted the linear average and you can see that eventually there are no more easy targets.

What does this mean?

This is a time factor in the link singularity. Once we cross that line then SEOs will need to think about their link strategies in ways we find hard to predict today. We can only guess.

Give me some actionable insight, damnit!

Intentionally this is an “academic” post. I’m using inverted commas there since the word academic seems poorly used to describe any of my thoughts. That said, there is one clear, actionable message.

You may believe there is some truth in the supposition above. You may believe Google became unhappy at guest posting more quickly than it did on article marketing and more quickly than it did on directories. You may believe high quality sites are less likely to link to you than splogs.

If you believe any of these points then I’d suggest you spare some thought for the link singularity. Now is the time to be trying new tactics and testing means to engage with the highest quality sites in order to earn signals (and not just links) for your site or your clients.

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