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SEO Basics – Incoming Links

Search engine optimization is a complex topic, but the basics are still pretty simple: you need to optimize each of your pages for a particular topic or phrase that you want to rank for, and you need relevant incoming links. This article is about the latter.

An incoming link is a link from someone else’s site to your site. To search engines, especially Google, this acts like a vote for your site. It means that someone else thinks your site is worth linking to. In general, the more incoming links you have, the better you’ll rank in search engines–but not all links are equal. Links from sites that are similar in topic to your own site carry more weight, because Google is trying to figure out not just how popular your site is in general, but if other people think it is an authority on its topic.

Google PageRank

Google assigns each page a number called PageRank, and uses this (among other things) in determining how high your page is ranked for any given search term. You can see the PageRank of any page by installing the Google Toolbar and enabling the advanced features.

The PageRank (PR) of each page is determined by the number and PageRank of pages linking to it. For example, if a page with PR 7 links to another page, it will pass PageRank on to that page and the linked-to page will usually end up with a PR of 6. If you have a lot of PR 5 pages linking to a page, that could also bump it up to a 6. PageRank is a logarithmic scale, so it is much easier to go from a 2 to a 3 than from a 6 to a 7.

It’s easy to get carried away with this and think that all you need is a bunch of incoming links. However, PageRank is only one factor in how high you rank for any particular search. The other factor is relevancy—how closely one of your pages matches the particular search term someone types in.


The search engine’s job is to provide the most relevant results for their users. This means that when any user types in a phrase, the search engine wants to list the 10 individual pages on the entire internet that are most about that phrase. Consider that for a moment. This will help you realize how important it is to have a lot of pages and focus each page on a particular phrase you want to rank highly for.

Google uses incoming links (among other things) to help determine what your page is about. The idea is that if ten people link to your site and their sites are all about fruit baskets, and the text of their link says “Buy Fruit Baskets Here”, then it’s likely that your page is also about fruit baskets. Google also looks at the text of your page itself, but it places a surprising amount of weight on incoming links. It’s that voting idea again–if lots of people think your page is about fruit baskets, chances are it is.

The factors Google considers in its algorithm are always under hot debate, but we can make some general observations. The most important things Google looks at are:

  • What the page linking to your page is about (ie the text contained on that page)
  • What the link text is (what words are actually underlined and you can click on)
  • How popular the page linking to you is (i.e. that page’s PageRank)

Please note that I am talking about individual website pages, rather than your web site as a whole. Since links go from page to page, and search engines list individual pages in their results, it’s important to think of optimizing your site on a per-page basis. This means getting relevant links to the exact page you want to come up higher in the search engines for a particular term. Often you want that to be your homepage, but it’s good to get links to other pages in your site too (this is called deep linking).

It’s also very important to have good internal linking within your site. Interlink your pages with text links (rather than image links), paying attention to what words you use in the links so that you are matching the keywords in the link to the content and title of the page you are linking to. Don’t rely only on meaningless link text like “click here” or “read more”.

Besides establishing the topics of each page, good internal linking also distributes PageRank evenly throughout your site.

Natural Linking Patterns

There are lots of people trying to deliberately make their site rank higher (like you and me), and this is something search engines constantly try to counter. They want to rank all the pages on the internet their way, not your way. One thing they are looking at recently is the pattern in who links to your site. What is a natural linking pattern? The theory is that if you have good content, people will naturally want to link to you. These links will grow steadily over time, be mostly one-way and not link exchanges, and be from sites about related topics. Search engines are developing sophisticated ways of determining if a link is likely to be a natural one or one that was pursued for the express purpose of increasing rankings.

What this means practically is that you want to build our links in a way that is as natural as possible. This means don’t pursue links from unrelated websites, build incoming links gradually over time instead of all at once, and try to get one-way links more than reciprocal links.

How do you get one-way links? Provide good content—something that people will naturally want to link to. Another good way is through blogs – blogs have RSS feeds build in that get picked up by feed aggregators which then provide links back to your site. Other strategies are to submit articles to article banks, submit your site to niche website directories, and add your site to your social media profiles.

Learning more about SEO

There is a wealth of information about search engine optimization (SEO) and related topics on the web. However, it is not all reliable as the landscape changes constantly as the search engines change their algorithms.

Practical Ecommerce has an SEO section that is invaluable. Their writing is very accessible.

Another place I recommend to learn is the Google Search forum at Webmaster World. If you really are interested in the topic, purchase the membership and read the Supporter’s Forum. Some of the top names in the search engine field spend a lot of time on that forum (including representatives from Google).

Another newer forum is the Pro Webmasters forum.

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