Contextual links matter.
Lots of people spend an awful lot of time worrying about links. Some are more concerned about the anchor text, some spend more time worrying about the number of links on a page, if the link is at the top or bottom, or the domain authority of the link, the TLD (.com / .edu / .org), the author of the article, if the link is NoFollow or DoFollow, etc., the list goes on.
Personally, my biggest concern (with SEO clients) is getting a variety of natural links. Of course, with natural links, you have zero control over ANY of these above factors. And that is precisely what a natural backlink portfolio looks like (in case you’ve never seen one).
Link context matters
Not a week or two goes by without someone asking me “Len, should I become a member of my local Chamber of Commerce? I can get a link from them.”
I have seen it over and over again- context matters.
A contextual link is a link used for citations, for an explanation, or a link for further reading.
It is so significant, I would much rather have a link used in context from a topically relevant article than a random .gov link (but in a highly competitive niche, I’d want any link I could get my hands on).
Getting a link from your local Chamber of Commerce isn’t bad, and it helps, a little, but at the end of the day that is simple a link that you purchased. You’re just going to end up on a site with a link to a bunch of other random companies from people who offer plumbing, painting, pizza, home loans, and real estate. A link within a list of links simply shouldn’t be as valuable as a contextual link.
How do I know link context matters?
It only makes sense that as Google and other search engines move towards artificial intelligence that the context of a domain, article, paragraph, and sentence would be important in determining the value of a link. Anyone can sponsor a site or pay a few bucks and get a sidebar link.
Also… I know that it does. I am not out to prove to the world that they do, however, I can say with complete confidence that I have seen an increase in website’s rankings when they are receiving contextual links. This has been especially true since around 2010, maybe even earlier. I can’t share any great examples publicly but I’d bet my house on it. And heck, even if I am completely incorrect, there is no denying that creating valuable content which is naturally linked to on the web is great advice.
Proving this would be exceptionally difficult if not impossible. If you have a lot of time on your hands feel free to contact me and I’ll be happy to set you up with hosting and a couple of fresh domains to play with. If you simply need additional convincing, read on…
Good content uses links in context
In 1999 the W3C explained how to make web content accessible to people with disabilities in this document: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0. In a nutshell, the visually impaired use screen readers. Good websites (and content) are accessible by these readers. Section 13.1 explains that link text should be meaningful enough to make sense when read out of context. Think about it; these are general guidelines from 16 years ago… It’s just common sense.
Good content, accessible content, content which cites relevant articles, content which offers additional reading almost always uses contextual links.
Examples of Links used in context:
- Text preceding a link:
I wrote about Google taking action against robocallers here.
- Complete anchor text using a document’s title:
I recently wrote an article called Google may finally be taking action against robocallers.
A small nightmare for many business owners are robocallers pretending to be Google. Google is finally taking action against companies using robocallers by launching lawsuits against companies using them.
Filed in 2004 and granted in 2013, patent 8,577,893 was submitted by Google called “Ranking based on reference contexts”. The invention is obviously used to combat spam, but another aspect of the patent shows that link context matters. The field of the invention states:
Systems and methods consistent with the principles of the invention relate generally to information retrieval and, more particularly, to ranking documents based on the context of references associated with the documents.
SEO guru Bill Slawski has an excellent breakdown of the patent on his site here: How Google Might Use the Context of Links to Identify Link Spam.
In short, the patent states that Google could use the text before (and after) a link for ranking purposes.
Introduced in 1996, Google’s PageRank basically ranked pages higher based on the number of inbound links they had. Of course, that had to change.
Later, anchor text played a heavy role in links for quite some time and then along came google bombing. Around 2007, Google tweaked its algorithm to prevent this form of webspam. (If you ask me, they likely began paying closer attention to link context around that time.)
Usability, accessibility, and great content which is naturally referenced around the web to add value to other documents are ranking factors, and that is not changing any time soon.