The impact of links and link text on search engine placement

Inbound links and link text can have a huge impact on a site's placement in search engines such as Google--sometimes more impact than the actual contents of the page itself. Here are some lessons learned from one high-profile example.

While listening in on a teleconference about search engine optimization, the speaker, Peter Kent (author of Search Engine Optimization for Dummies), relayed a story that graphically illustrates how much impact inbound links and link text have on search engine results.

Whether it's a prank or a political statement, a group of Web-savvy individuals set out to make George W. Bush's biography on the White House Web site come up in response to a Google search for the term "miserable failure." They succeeded; it's been in the top position (or close to it) consistently since last fall.

What's interesting is how the miserable failure project managed to achieve this stunt, as well as the implications it has for your site's search engine ranking.

Deconstructing the "miserable failure" success

According to conventional wisdom, a search term should appear prominently in the page title, keyword and description metatags, headings, or page text in order for the page to achieve a high ranking for that term. However, the term "miserable failure" doesn't appear anywhere in the Bush biography.

The miserable failure project didn't hack into the White House Web site and alter the target page in any way. Instead, developers working on the miserable failure project created links on other Web sites that point to the Bush biography. The links appear on a wide variety of Web sites (though mostly blogs). These inbound links give the page its high ranking for the search term. As the number of links pointing to the Bush biography grew, the search engines ranked it as a popular page. Because the link text of all those links is "miserable failure," the target page gets a high ranking for that search term even though the term doesn't appear anywhere on the page.

One of the surprising things about this phenomenon is that the miserable failure project achieved its initial success with relatively few links to the Bush biography (reportedly less than 150). As the project gained momentum and notoriety, the number of links grew large enough to stave off counterinitiatives.

This was possible, in part, because "miserable failure" is not a common search term. It would probably take significantly more links to skew the page ranking for a more common term that appears on many Web pages and in many links.

The other factor contributing to the success of miserable failure is that many of the links are from blogs, which are heavily cross-linked to each other. When the search engine finds lots of links to a page, it considers that page popular and increases its ranking. In turn, links from a popular page to another page carry extra weight in ranking the destination page. In other words, the search engine considers blogs to be popular sites because of their numerous inbound links, and outbound links from those popular pages have added clout in determining the page ranking of the pages they link to.

Lessons learned

Regardless of your opinion about the political statement being made here, there are lessons to learn about how search engines work and how to achieve higher rankings on those search engines. These lessons include the following:

  • Incorporating keywords into your page text may help page rankings some, but other factors may be even more important. A Web page doesn't have to contain a keyword in order to be ranked highly for that search term.
  • Selecting a keyword or phrase for your search engine optimization is critically important. Achieving a high ranking for a common term may take many thousands of hits, but you can get a top ranking for a less-common term with relatively few links and other references.
  • Inbound links to a page have a huge impact on page ranking (well, at least they do on Google and similar search engines).
  • The link text of hyperlinks is highly significant. So, don't use a generic phrase, such as "click here" as your link text. Instead, use a word or phrase that describes the target page.
  • The popularity of the page where a hyperlink appears adds weight to the link in determining the ranking of the target page. Therefore, soliciting links from popular Web pages should be an effective search engine optimization technique.
  • Guerrilla marketing techniques, such as creating a buzz among other Web authors (particularly bloggers), can be an effective way to manipulate search engine rankings.

Another important lesson is that you cannot always control how search engines will rank your pages. Outside factors, such as inbound links from pages you don't control, can, and sometimes do, overwhelm your best efforts at optimizing your page's search engine placement.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox