OFFPAGE SEO GUIDE
This is the ultimate guide to understanding off page SEO.
All the elements. All their implications.
This isn’t really a “Here’s how to do off-page SEO” guide...
It’s a “Here’s every single factor about off-page SEO explained, analyzed and dissected for you… so you’re able to come up with your own informed conclusions. The tips and advice included are bonuses.”
Because in this industry, things change MASSIVELY from year to year (in terms of what’s effective and what isn’t). The factors and principles, however, remain very stable. Understand those and you’ll work your way through the SEO Matrix like NEO.
Before we start...
There's a bunch of SEO lingo here, and while we'll define some of those terms, I suggest you keep this SEO terminology guide open on another tab so you can reference new terms quickly.
Right, let’s jump right in!
In this first section, we're going to cover the different types of backlinks according to their nature, regardless of where they’re placed or how.
Ever wonder if it’s worth getting a nofollow link?
How about if a 301 redirect will help or harm your rankings?
Let's find out:
1) DoFollow: This is a regular backlink. Search crawlers will read the page, find the link to another target page, and because the link says “follow me” (or more accurately said, it doesn’t say “don’t follow me”), the crawler will then go through that “door” and visit the linked page, read and crawl it too.
A dofollow link essentially vouches for that outbound link, saying “this is a legit resource i’m linking to here, go and check it you little spider”. Hence they pass link juice to it, as well as an anchor text backlink.
2) NoFollow: This is an html attribute that looks like this in the code “rel=nofollow” and it instructs the Google crawler not to go through that link to the target page.
They serve to differentiate from legit resources from other pages that we don’t necessarily “vouch” for. Hence, they only pass a fractional amount of link juice from what the identical dofollow counterpart would do (No link juice according to Google. Though independent SEO tests prove different). NoFollow only passes the "anchor text."
3) Redirects: There’s a few different kind of redirects. Here’s what each one means and does for SEO
301: This means the page that’s "301 redirected" has permanently moved to a different location. URL A now is URL B. Forever.
Hence, all the properties from the page are transferred: Referring domains, anchor text, link juice (there’s some loss here though), keyword’s it is ranking for* and perhaps, penalties**.
EVERY anchor gets transferred, so be mindful of how that affects your anchor distribution.
* Once the new page (where the 301 points) has been crawled and indexes, keyword ranks may change.
** Penalties may follow through a 301 if the original url/domain that got redirected had any. There’s examples of double (meaning, one 301 chained after another) redirects getting rid of penalties. Learn how here.
302: This is a temporary redirect, meaning the page that got redirected to another one will eventually be back live with its content and all. Hence these don’t pass any values to the target page. This is typical to do for a “coming soon” kind of page. However, as the 302'd page isn’t accessible, if the redirect lasts for too long, it may have negative effects on its rankings.
Pro Tip: If you ever do a 302 for some technical reason (maintenance, release etc) and it ends up becoming a permanent redirection, change it for a 301.
303 & 307: These are temporary redirects too, and to many degrees, the behaviour and effects are the same as a 302. The differences are very technical and with no SEO impact, so you could pretty much treat all 3 the same way with a 302 being the preferred route if you ever need to do a temporary redirect.
4) Canonical: We could get very technical with canonicals, but to put it simple, they’re a 301 redirect for bots only.
What does this mean? Well, a page that contains a canonical link will instruct bots to treat the container page as if it was a “copy” of the linked page; in effect, “This one I’m pointing to here is the original, never mind me” while the page is still accessible for users because it’s not redirecting them anywhere.
This is very common on eCommerce sites where filtering menus will create tons of copies of the same content with simply a different layout or display. Canonicals are used to avoid duplicate content issues.
This means: They pass juice and trust.
Pro Tip: if you’re A/B testing a page, always canonical the tests to the control.
Depending on the nature of the links you’re getting to your site (ie. follow, nofollow, 301s…) you’ll benefit more or less from that link. Let’s always keep in mind that SEO isn’t a binary matter.
It’s neither 0 or 1, there’s plenty of decimals for each little variation. And remember, if the link isn’t indexed, it doesn’t “exist”.
With that said:
Technically then, dofollow links are the best you can get as they will transfer you the most "juice", but don’t think that nofollows are useless either. Nofollow links pass *some* juice, they pass trust (say what? Keep reading to learn more about trust) and anchor text* -just as dofollows would.
*Ever heard about “pillow links”? Great, keep on reading because things will start making a lot of sense very soon.
Now that we’ve seen the different types of links according to their technical configuration, let’s have a look at links according to where they live in the site/page.
Not every placement will transfer the same amount of juice, and some have become highly devalued over several Google updates. To the point that they barely pass any juice and may even be considered spammy.
1) Contextual/Editorial links: There is no difference between the two terms, they are used interchangeably in the SEO community.
This type of placement means that the link lives inside the a block of text wrapped by, ideally, topically relevant words. These pass the most juice.
2) Author Box/Bio Links: Most websites include a box at the end of each article displaying a little bio about the author of the post. These type of links are still considered editorial, but because of the non-topical context (hence meaning, lower relevance than editorial links) they pass less juice. Still good to get, and some publications will allow guest bloggers to include self-promotion links only on that box.
3) Sidebar: This type of placement was abused in the most nasty of manners during the early years of SEO (link wheels, link exchanges and what not), and have since become highly devalued, especially for site-wide sidebar elements. They pass some juice. Can be seen as spammy unless they’re highly relevant to the content inside the main content box.
4) Footer: These are links that are placed on navigation menus or “recommended/sister pages” kind of menus inside the footer, as well as “signature” links (think of Powered by XYZ kind of links) they pass little to no juice. They’re normally sitewide so be brutally careful with your anchors.
5) Comments: Most sites allow comments on their posts, and authors can typically link to their properties on their names or paste links inside the actual comment. Thanks to some heavy abuse during the years, these now pass little to no juice, and most CMS and sites make them nofollow by default.
6) Resource pages: These are pages inside a given website that link to tons of other useful or partnered sites inside a given topic. They typically have a very high outbound links (OBLs) so the amount of juice they pass is very little. More about the impact of the 'link count' later.
7) Profile pages: Some websites allow people to create a profile either to contribute to the community, to publish as a guest or something else. Most of these profiles allow the user to add a link to the user’s website.
Expect no juice coming from these (although maybe some trust will pass depending on where the profile is created at, take for instance a university profile)
Sidenote on Image links: They’re a bit tricky as it depends on whether the image is placed contextually or on the sidebar (or in weird cases, the footer) but all things being equal, they pass slightly less juice than their text counterparts. Google favors text links because the user knows what text they’re clicking on, whereas an image link where you could direct them anywhere.
With what we’ve just seen, it’s pretty clear that contextual, homepage text links win. Does that mean you should ONLY be getting that type of links and that all others aren’t valuable?
Of course not.
Always remember that a diversified link profile is a healthy link profile. Even blog comments may pass a lot of traffic even though their direct SEO value is insignificant. Keep reading to learn about the indirect power of referral traffic on SEO...
With placements out of the way, let’s dig into the different type of websites you may get links from.
Are they all equally valuable? Long story short: No.
There are sites that will pass a ton of juice and trust and some others just a bit, if any. Before you begin reading the list below, keep something in mind:
Any time we refer to the amount of juice/push a link will give you, we are considering all things being equal between compared websites (i.e all previous metrics being the same).
Now, to help you understand which sites are worth getting your links from, let’s do some quick categorization:
1) Content-rich sites (on TLDs): These are sites such as blogs, where the bulk of the site is made of text and media rich content. At the same time, they live on a top-level domain (i.e. www.thesiteweretalkingabout.com). These pass the most juice from this list.
2) “Seed” sites: These are the super authoritarian websites like nasa.gov, wikipedia.org, as well as massive magazines such as Forbes, Entrepreneur, Huffpost and the like. They typically represent real-world businesses and organizations that are widely known and trusted.
Think of banks, universities, official government agencies, companies like Apple or magazines like Cosmopolitan which have been around for ages. By the mere nature of those sites, they typically keep a nofollow policy for all external links unless it’s to an associated business/entity, so the juice will be minimal. However, these pass quite a lot of trust.
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3) 2.0 Sites: These are blogs, just like the ones we’ve mentioned above but created on blogging platforms such as WordPress, Blogspot, Wix and so on. The blog lives in a subdomain such as www.whatever.blogspot.com. They pass limited juice*.
4) Resource sites: Very similar to resource pages, these are websites whose sole purpose is to link to other relevant websites. Think of organizations whose homepages are just a collection of links to donor’s websites and so on. Because of high outbound links on these, very little to no juice passes.
They can also be flagged with unnatural link patterns and hence de-indexed. Also, if there’s plenty of links on that resource page pointing to shady websites, your “link neighborhood” isn’t good.
They’re rarely worth the effort of getting unless it’s something super high-quality and industry-specific. (On Chapter 5 you’ll learn more about specificity)
5) Directories: Very similar to the previous ones, but in this case we can differentiate between industry directories and local directories. These pages are used to send citations, as the link is wrapped by the company’s Name, Address, and Phone Number (NAP.) Essential for local SEO. No juice is passed* but geographical/topical relevance is.
6) Forums: Being an animal of their own, links contained inside forums pass minimal amounts of juice. There’s 3 types of links you can get inside a forum:
7) Q&A Pages: These are sites like Quora or Yahoo answers. They don’t pass much juice as the pages themselves usually don’t get any juice but they can bring targeted traffic. Hence, use them to acquire traffic and not juice.
8) News Pages: These are a result of press releases, where you’d pay a service provider to write a press release and get it syndicated (ie. published) by a few hundred news sites. They don’t really pass much juice if any, mostly because the container pages ( not the sites) don’t get any juice themselves.
9) Social Media:* All social media profiles allow for links to the website they belong to. Be it a Facebook page, a Twitter profile or a YouTube channel, you can get links to your site from these. They’re pretty much essential to have but expect no push from them*. It is more a matter of “why would you not have these” than a push from having them.
*Given that parasite SEO is a complete discipline in and of itself, we shall keep things simple on this guide. If you want to learn more about parasite SEO, here’s a good guide.
We could say that the best type of sites to get links from are big, content rich sites and high-authority sites. And while that’s correct, remember what we just said in the previous section:
A diversified profile is a healthy profile.
Getting links from other types of websites won’t hurt, but will make your overall profile stronger. In many cases, they'll bring you referral traffic and trust too!
ANCHOR TEXT TYPES
We’ve talked a fair bit about anchor text. It’s one of the most critical aspects of SEO and link building in general, so we’re going to cover all the types of anchor text, including a few notes on the use of each one.
Please read Chapter 7 section 3 Anchor text distribution for more details on how to craft your profile.
1) Exact Match: This happens when the chosen anchor is exactly the keyword (or one of the keywords) that the target article is trying to rank for. Here’s an example: Best Memes of 2017.
2) Partial Match: This happens when the chosen anchor contains part of the keyword or keywords the target page tries to rank. Here’s an example: Picking your nose (see complete keyword on target page’s UR 😉 )
You can play around matching different parts of the keyword so you’ve got more room for keyword-rich anchors without over-repeating yourself, but again, don’t overdo.
3) Smart Match: This is a term we just made up, so listen carefully. A smart match is when the anchor is chosen in a way that reads like it’s been written naturally by a human instead of forcedly stuffed into a sentence. Example: Let’s say the anchor you want to use is “best dog chew toys” to link to your money site. You could instead use this anchor: rawhide is one of the best chew toys you can give your to dog.
It contains your target keyword, it’s diluted, it’s natural and it’s quasi impossible for you to repeat the same anchor twice as combinations are endless, thus making your profile a lot safer.
4) Branded: These are anchors that contain a brand’s name or a relevant member of the organization’s name (i.e. the author or CEO) . The safest, most naturally occurring of all anchors. Any healthy backlink profile will have a big % of their profile made up of branded anchors. Example: Dynamite Circle or Tim Ferriss
5) Naked: Naked anchors are quite a literal name. It means the target URL is served “as is”, without covering it with text. These are pretty safe to use, but bear in mind that they do actually contain keywords on them. Example: https://moz.com/blog/seo-tools-that-rock
7) Empty: These happen when an image that has no alt text. There’s a link, but there’s no anchor text whatsoever. Images use alt-text to describe images to Google's bot.
8) Hybrid: These are anchors that contain 2 or more anchor types within themselves, for instance a keyword and the brand name. They typically happen with title anchors. Example: This post about Google’s Penguin algorithm by Search Engine Land.
AUTHORITY, TRUST AND RELEVANCE
Ok, we’re done with dissecting links under the magnifying glass. Now we’re going to have a birds eye view type of analysis of the sites linking to us. All sites possess and transfer 3 main elements to linked sites: Authority, Trust and Relevance.
We’re no longer talking in techy terms anymore, as these three concepts are real-world, human type of things. How do they translate then to websites? Let’s have a detailed look at each one:
1) Trust: Same as in between humans, the closer you are to someone the more you trust them. You won’t have much trust in someone that approaches to you randomly in the street, but if the same person gets introduced to you by your best, most beloved friend, you give that same person a lot more trust. The latter is a lot closer to you, because there’s a direct connection.
In the net, it is known that there are a bunch of websites that search engines have as close, beloved friends because they represent agencies and real-world organizations that are widely known and trusted.
These are often referred to as “seed” sites. The closer the links pointing to your site live to those seed sites, the more trust is transferred to your site. (Which is the reason we said a nofollow link from the Wikipedia may not pass juice, but will definitely pass trust and that’s good).
To give you an example, a brand new health and fitness blog has no trust. “Who the heck are you” Big G thinks. The same blog gains 1 link from webmd.com and another one from Princeton’s health department and immediately the relationship changes to “Ok, you must be one of the good guys”.
Trust is a massive SEO factor, and the more competitive a niche is, the more trust you’ll need to penetrate it. The net is full of scams, phishing sites, promises of diamonds for free and whatnot, hence acquiring trust is one of the quickest ways to gain the favor of the search engines.
2) Relevance: To determine how well a given page answers a given question, search engines analyze the relevance of all the links pointing to that page. This includes:
3) Authority: It’s a bit of a tricky concept as it’s relative but it could be boiled down to a combination of the previous two plus some other factors. What does this mean:
However, as I just mentioned, this is a relative concept. It’s relative because you’re only as much as an authority as the rest of the people in the room are or are not. You’re comparing between sites in the same industry/niche when determining how authoritative a site is.
The authority of a website is actually determined by a lot more factors, but the simplified a-b-c scheme above covers 80% of it to be honest.
These concepts can be “measured” to a certain degree by using third party applications that analyze a bunch of on and off-page factors and give sites/pages a metric that reflects how much trust and authority they have.
Here's a quick look at the most common "trust scores" from companies:
Majestic: Trust Flow and Citation Flow. We’ll let the guys at Majestic themselves explain how these work:
PS. They’re a better metric to use than Moz
When all three factors are present on a site linking to ours, that link moves the needle massively. Sometimes, it makes sense to get low-value links such as profiles, nofollow links and other such links if the page is relevant just because the linking site will transfer a lot of trust, even if there’s no juice gains.
UNDERSTANDING LINK JUICE
Link Juice is a non-technical term to describe the amount of equity (ie. ranking power) a given link transfers. It comes from a prehistoric SEO era where PageRank was all there was and a high PR link was oftentimes all you needed to jump up in the SERPs like there was no tomorrow.
Here's a breakdown:
Link juice is the combination of EVERYTHING we’ve seen in the previous chapters. authority, trust, relevance, anchor text, follow/nofollow, placement, containing page.... And maybe a few dozen other algo factors we don’t know because we ain’t Google.
So if we know that link juice just is the amount of influence a link will have and that all the above concepts matter to the amount of value of a link, is that all there is?
Nope, we still have a couple things to take into account. And the first is juice behavior.
Outbound Link (OBL): A page will transfer its juice equally amongst all the do-follow links living inside that page. Hence, the more outbound links a page has, the less juice each target site will get.
But wait, there’s more! Enter link freshness:
We know FreshRank to be part of Google’s algo since quite the beginning of search.
New links from fresh pages pointing to a page will refresh or otherwise “reset” a document age, which ultimately affects its timely relevance for the keywords it ranks for. In layman’s terms, this means that a new link carries more juice than an old one (all other things being equal), because it makes the page fresh again.
Think of link juice as power. The more, the better. If your on-page SEO is on point, link juice will only throw you further up the SERPs.
Unfortunately, that’s not all there is to off-page SEO. Let’s jump into the next and last chapter to solve this equation once and for all.
SOLVING THE OFF-PAGE PUZZLE
Now that we understand links and all their different shades, let’s have a look at the final off-page ranking factors that will ultimately shape the results we’ll get from our link-building campaigns and our link profile.
1) Number of Referring Domains: Simply put, the more domains that refer to our site, the better. This can be interpreted in many ways, but it’s like saying the more links the more “upvotes”, the more connections (and hence closeness to seed sites) we have, the more anchors we get and so on and so forth.
This builds up more trust, relevance (if we’re getting links from relevant sites) and ultimately, authority.
2) Strength of Incoming Links: This meaning, the amount of juice we’re getting from the links pointing to our site. The stronger, the better we’ll rank. Simplistic yet accurate.
3) Anchor Text Distribution: This refers to the % of each type of anchor text (as seen in Chapter 4) a given page receives.
There’s no ideal anchor text ratio that is universally applicable, as each single industry and keyword is different.
Too optimized and you’ll get slapped by Penguin. Too little and you’ll have a hard time ranking because of low relevance… everything circles back to that!
To learn more about how to distribute your anchors, you can refer to this guide and its part 2.
A side note on pillow links: I know I promised more details about what pillow links are like, 4,500 words ago; so here’s Charles Floate guide to pillow links. (Check that hybrid anchor text right there! Brand+Keyword)
4) Link Velocity: The speed at which you acquire and lose links has a big impact in your SERPs performance. The “speed limit” will be determined by the spread of the targets (i.e are you getting links to just one page or to 20 different ones?) and the overall trust the site gets, as well as site age and its momentum.
A website with a ton of trust, age, and a history of gaining links consistently, can get away with some crazy link velocity because it’s established.
A brand new site will have to build links at a much slower pace, spreading them more and concentrating on high trust-passing links in the beginning to be able to scale its profile.
A side note on the “link balance”: You will naturally lose links over time as pages get deleted, webmasters update their content and sites just disappear. You’ll also earn links naturally as people discover your content and share it around.
Gain more links than you lose and you’ll be increasingly popular, hence you’ll perform better. The opposite scenario (you losing more links than you’re getting) will tell search engines you’re no longer as cool as you were and that may hurt your rankings.
5) Referral Traffic: 'Real' traffic is always good to have.
In the end, a site’s purpose is to serve a specific audience, so getting people to come to your site is great. What does that mean in pure SEO terms? Well, the way that traffic behaves on your site will send the search engines signals as to how good the page is (which technically is an on-page factor).
At the same time, it serves to “explain” why you’re getting new links.
Think about this: A brand new page that gets 0 visits per month suddenly acquires 30 links in one month. Uh uh, flags everywhere. However, if every link passes traffic, it justifies more links coming in as that traffic may be sharing the content in places (Sort of a snowball or viral effect if you wish), which brings us to the next point.
6) Social Signals: What was during a couple of years considered as one of the “main” ranking factors, is now understood better as a solidifying or justifying factor. What that means is that social signals “explain” why you’d be getting new links to a piece of content.
If it’s popular on social, it makes sense that it would get links from other websites.
Also, if it’s ranking and it’s continuously popular in social, that means it’s still fresh and relevant. But look at it as seasoning in the gravy. Not even the gravy itself, and certainly not the meat. But nice to have.
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