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How do you define trust? TheFreeDictionary.com defines it many different ways. SEO professionals should pay particular attention to these two definitions:
1. “Firm reliance on the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing.”
2. “Reliance on something [or someone] in the future.”
The reason these two definitions resonate with me is they both include a human component. Trust is a thing, sure, but this thing ultimately originates in the actions of people. On the Web, where organic search results are driven to a large degree by trust, entire classes of links have been devalued, and rightfully so. Among SEM professionals, it is widely agreed that search engines can tell a great deal about a website by looking at and analyzing the links that point to that website. The most successful SEMs – particularly link-building SEMs – have been those who understand link trust from a search engine’s perspective, and implement strategies that earn content-driven link trust, rather than begging, borrowing, or stealing it.
First, some clarification of the term “link trust,” or its more commonly used SEM term, “trusted links.” I have never been a big fan of the term “trusted link,” as it implies the link exists by itself, disconnected from any person or place. It is easy to forget that the link itself is not where the trust originates. A link is made up of two parts – a piece of code and, more importantly, a person with some sort of intent. Any given link can radiate signals that a search engine algorithm might find helpful, but these signals originate from the person who placed the link wherever the engine found it, along with that person’s intent when he or she placed it. You may not want to believe that a search algorithm can determine intent, but in many cases, it can. If your day job is editing a library’s “useful reference links” section, and at night you privately blog about your passion for the band ELO, then the intent of your content and links is pretty easy for a bot to discern just by looking at the domain where that content resides and the links that point to it. In this case, library.org’s intent will be different from ELOrules.blogspot.com.
So a more accurate term than “trusted links” might be “trusted linker.”
Does Trust Scale?
A recent Gallup Poll asked Americans to rate the trustworthiness of various professions using honesty and ethics as a scale, a poll that they have been running annually since 1976. The latest poll’s highest ratings went to nurses, teachers, pharmacists, military officers, doctors, policeman, and clergy. Low-scoring professions included car salesmen, advertising practitioners, and lobbyists. I was surprised that search engine optimizer wasn’t on the list, but give it time.
In the online world, search engines perform a similar but far more complex poll, designed to determine which content and links can be trusted. Let’s imagine for a moment that we work for Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft Live, or Ask, and it is our job to identify trustworthy linkers. Who would you consider a trustworthy linker? As an example, would an online librarian for the Library of Congress website at LOC.gov be a trustworthy linker? Would the creator of a script that scrapes other content and automatically creates pages with links on them based on keywords be a trustworthy linker?
What if we place these two linkers – along with the links they create – at opposite ends of the link trust scale? For any search engine including link analysis as part of a ranking algorithm, the integrity and intent of the linker is crucial to recognize. Our trusted linker example from the Library of Congress site radiates signals of trust that aren’t hard to identify algorithmically. Likewise, link spam radiates signals that are usually easily spotted. The challenge for the search engines is assigning levels of trust across billions of links that are not as trustworthy as those from the Library of Congress or as untrustworthy as scraped link spam.
A second definition of the word trust is “reliance on something in the future.” I like what this definition implies, especially from an SEM standpoint. Since neither people nor an algorithm can know what kind of content a site will offer in the future, some of what we can trust about any site will have to be based on the site’s past. While this is not always fair to brand-new websites launched at brand-new domains, it helps explain why most search engines seem to rank older sites ahead of newer sites. It also helps explain the unfortunate business practice of buying old and trusted content at existing and trusted domains just to leverage that earned trust for monetary gain, rather than actually trying to create content of value related to the products being sold.
From Theory to Practice
If we agree that online trust is to some extent measurable, and if we further agree that this measurement involves links granted by trusted linkers, how do we implement strategies to increase link trust, without abusing it?
First and foremost, remember that it doesn’t do any good to identify 500 target sites you are absolutely certain are edited by trusted linkers if your site doesn’t have the content that will earn a link from the trusted linkers in the first place. To put that in simpler terms, LOC.gov doesn’t link to junk, no matter how nice you ask, and neither will any of the tens of thousands of other sites that have earned trust. Why? Because sites with the highest degree of trust earned that trust the hard way. Online trust is earned by attracting links from other sites that had great content that also attracted links from still other sites that also had great content. It’s a form of circular linking logic that only Google – and maybe M.C. Escher – could love. And it works.
As much as it might hurt to admit it, if your site has nothing about its content to differentiate it from a hundred other sites in your niche, then your site is not the kind that will earn links from trusted linkers, and you are fighting a battle that can never be won.
Second, if your site can be differentiated from those other hundred sites in your niche, don’t just assume it will find its way to the top of the search results and stay there forever. You must actively pursue the most advantageous SEM tactics for your particular site. One of those tactics should be to take the time to research and identify every possible trusted linker in your niche. It’s not easy, but it will be worth it. I’ve seen a spike in new client inquiries from sites that have been around for many years, enjoyed great rankings, and then as competing sites have become more perceptive regarding quality content and link attraction, those older sites lost those high rankings. Why? They became complacent at the exact time their younger competitors have been busy going after what the older site had but didn’t actively nurture and grow.
Third, don’t depend or rely on the same tools every other site uses for SEM. If your site provides a unique experience, then it has the potential to earn unique links. Using the same SEM software and/or tools as everyone else is to ignore that very thing that will help your site earn a differentiating set of trusted links from trusted linkers in the first place – your uniqueness.
Lastly, and in a related way, don’t be too quick to mimic what you see being done by others. Just because you spot thousands of links everywhere pointing to your competitors does not mean that any of those links are trusted and/or helping them in any way. While it’s true that some SEM and link-building techniques can mimic trust, fake trust is not sustainable. Real trust doesn’t happen overnight, but neither does it vanish overnight. Real trust can be sustained.