Relevance is talked about a lot in the context of link building. In truth, it’s something that no one can really provide a concrete (or even close to concrete) answer to, because none of us knows exactly how Google measures relevance. Even having access to things like the Google Natural Language Processing API and seeing categories such as this doesn’t mean that we know how Google measures relevance themselves, because there will be so much more under the hood that isn’t visible to the public.
Even if we did know exactly how Google measures relevance, the extent to which they reward or penalize what they find as they crawl the web is also up for debate — like any ranking signal. We know that they use page speed, but they are also free to turn the dial on this up and down however they want.
This, in part, is why SEO is so fascinating. We’re optimizing for something that we can’t completely see and testing and refining based on the results we get. We can speculate on what Google may do or what we observe them doing, then a peer may see the exact opposite, and both may be right.
When it comes to link building and, specifically, the part that relevance plays, the potential answers are a lot more complex than we think. This is because relevance isn’t binary. We can’t just say that a link is relevant or not. We can’t say that content is relevant or not. The answers are far more nuanced than this, and we need to split things out a lot more to even begin to comprehend how Google may look at things.
With that in mind, let’s start by splitting out link relevance and content relevance.
When we talk about link relevance, we’re referring to the topic of the page and domain where the link is placed. When building links, we often look for target websites to outreach to and generally, it’s a good idea to find “relevant” links, but “relevant” is actually quite tricky to define. Here are some examples why.
If you get a link from Moz.com, then we’d say that the topics are things like SEO, digital marketing, content marketing, etc. These are a few of the broad topics that we’d classify Moz into. Whilst digital marketing in itself is a big topic, it’s not that complex or tricky to define the Moz domain and therefore, understand what is and isn’t relevant to it.
Things can get more complicated than this if you think about websites such as The New York Times which has dozens of categories and hundreds of subcategories. Broadly, they would be classified as a news website, but they have categories for pretty much every topic that you can think of.
Additionally, we can add other elements to link relevance such as anchor text. What if you get super relevant anchor text but the page where the link is placed is about a completely different topic that isn’t relevant? Does this make the link more or less relevant?
In many cases, you may not even control the anchor text that is being used which means that it can be completely random. We know that Google use anchor text for understanding a link, but to what extent do they use it?
And this is just touching the surface of what link relevance can include.
We then have content relevance which is more about the page on your website that you get links to. It could be an existing page or it could be a brand new page that you’ve created to help with link building.
The attributes of content that sits on your website are far more under your control, so if you create something that is designed to get links and starts to go off topic a little, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect Google to take a harsher view on this in holding you accountable.
Things get hard when you remember that as SEOs, we often have link targets that we want to meet in order to catch up, overtake, or stay ahead of our competition. We want to get as many quality links as possible in order to increase the amount of traffic that we get from organic search.
To get more links, you can go broader with the topics and themes that you produce content about. This naturally opens up more potential link targets which in turn, increases the chances of you getting more links.
What all of this comes down to is striking the balance between producing a piece of content that is relevant to your brand, whilst getting as many links as possible. It can look something like this:
As you can see, many agencies (and in-house teams!) sit toward the right and are prepared to go wider with topics and themes because it can lead to more links. Irrelevance is driven by the pressure to build large volumes of links, and our industry does a great job of showcasing link building campaigns that have gotten hundreds of links, so we believe that this is what all of us should be aiming for.
However, Google wants us more focused on relevant themes because ultimately, they want us to deserve any links that we get.
My take: link relevance matters a lot less than content relevance
Having talked about each one, my take is that link relevance matters a lot less than content relevance to Google and therefore, to your ability to rank in organic search. Here are a few reasons why.
Anyone can link to you
Literally anyone on the web can link to your website, it’s not something that you can actually control. This is party why link spam is so hard to deal with and why the disavow tool was invented.
Even putting spam to one side, anyone can link to you for any reason they want.
For example, I can link from right here on the Moz blog to one of my favorite content pieces of all time. Neither website is related to each other in terms of the business they do and this is a blog post about link building that links to content about movies. But no one would see this as spammy.
What if your personal blog about SEO gets a link from NASA? I’m sure you wouldn’t be complaining about it!
The point being, it seems a stretch to think that Google would have a problem with links like these and therefore, shouldn’t be anything to worry about.
But, do they have value? Does the link above from Moz to a piece of content about movies hold as much value as a link from say, IMDB? This leads us onto my next point and why I think link relevance matters less than content relevance.
Authority and trust probably overrides link relevance
I do believe that Google cares a lot about how much they can trust a certain website and the links from that website. I’d venture a strong guess that Moz is a trusted domain and that it has the ability to pass value to the websites that it links to. We know that they have the ability to effectively “turn off” the ability for a website to pass PageRank to another and that they now have the ability to interpret the use of the nofollow tag so that they can decide whether it can be used for indexing and ranking purposes.
With that in mind, it would make sense for Google to make an assessment of the website giving the link and using this as a strong indicator to help decide how much value to pass across the link.
This would allow them to still pass value even when topical relevance isn’t there but they trust the website giving the link – which, as we can see, can easily happen.
The content we create is a stronger signal to Google
In contrast to the idea that anyone can link to you, you are far more in control of the content that you create. Even if you have a website that has a lot of user generated content, you still have overall editorial control over the processes for publishing that content. Essentially, you can be held accountable for the content that you create.
If you run an online pet store and you create a piece of content about personal finance, few would argue that this isn’t relevant. But the key difference when compare to getting a random link from a personal finance website is that you are accountable for the content because it sits on the website that you run. Google can hold you to a higher standard because of this.
So, even if that piece of content gets 100 links, Google could easily say that they’re not going to value those links very highly because they can’t see any topical relevance.
Does Google really want to reward irrelevant content campaigns
This one is key for me and let’s bring this all back around to link building.
Let’s imagine that you create a bunch of content-led link building campaigns for your online pet store but the topical relevance is very questionable. The quality of the content is great, it’s nicely designed and unique and even cites some expert input. This content has generated hundreds of links as a result of how good it is.
Does Google really want to reward you by valuing these links very highly and as a consequence, giving your organic search visibility a boost?
No, they don’t.
The truth is that in situations like this, it’s pretty obvious that the content has been created for the purposes of generating links. This in itself isn’t necessarily a problem, but if you do it over and over again, whilst the content clearly serves no other purpose, it’s not exactly a signal that your website is truly link worthy.
And remember, when it comes to links, Google will look for evidence that you truly deserve the links that you get and if the majority of links that you get come from off-topic campaigns, there is a strong argument to say that you don’t.
When does Google start to care about irrelevant content?
This is the big question for me and one that I can’t give you a complete answer to.
Launching some content pieces that are completely off topic and gets some links isn’t likely to get you into trouble. After all, everyone does random stuff from time to time and sometimes, a brand may decide to create some content or launch a campaign that is just a bit of fun.
If I were Google, I’d look for evidence that content is being created just for links. So I may look at a few signals such as the following.
Ratio of links to off-topic content vs. the rest of the website
If the majority of links pointing at a domain are to pages of content that is topically irrelevant when compared to the rest of the domain, I’d probably want to take a closer look at why. They may not impose a penalty or filter, but I may flag the domain for a Googler to take a look manually and see what’s going on.
The content being a little bit orphaned in terms of internal links
With many content-led link building campaigns, they are published somewhere on a website that is a little hidden away from the result of the pages. This can be for a bunch of reasons but essentially means that the architecture ends up looking like this with the orange page being your campaign:
The campaign isn’t integrated with the rest of the domain and kind of sits on its own.
Now, imagine that lots of incoming links start to appear that point to this page which is isolated, wouldn’t that look a little strange?
As an exception, this isn’t likely to mean much. But if it happens over and over again, it starts to look unnatural.
The content not linking to other pages to continue the user journey
If a piece of content isn’t relevant to the rest of the website, then it’s quite hard to add internal links or calls to action that make sense. So a clear signal for irrelevant content is a lack of links from the content to other pages.
Essentially, not only is a piece of content isolated in terms of site architecture, it’s also isolated in terms of linking back into that architecture.
This can also be common because if a piece of content is created just for the purpose of generating links, there is no incentive for the creator to link to product or category pages – that’s not what the content is meant to help with.
How to ensure more content relevance
We should accept that content relevance is important and something that Google can (rightly) hold us accountable for. So, how can we ensure that relevance plays a part in producing ideas for link building campaigns and that we don’t get sucked into just going after high volumes of links?
Start with your customers
More specifically, start with the journey that they take when finding your product or service.
When we come up with content ideas, we can fall into the trap of thinking too much about who we’re trying to get links from — bloggers, journalists, writers, etc. We trick ourselves into thinking that if we are a travel brand, then working with a travel blogger will mean that we’re getting in front of our target audience.
Unfortunately, this may not necessarily be the case.
So, we should instead look at the customer journey. There are various ways to model this funnel but here is one that we use all the time at Aira and an example for a B2B company:
This also shows that the journey isn’t always linear. Customers may move backwards in their journey as well as forwards and it may take a lot of steps before they commit to a decision. Google calls this the messy middle and is basically the stage when customers ponder their choices and are deliberating what to do next.
If you want to produce relevant content ideas for your link building campaigns, you need to start by understanding and mapping out the customer journey.
Use keyword research to inform idea generation
When we produce content ideas for link building, we often don’t think about keywords because the goal of the content isn’t to rank, it’s to get links. So we’re not really incentivized or motivated to do extra research for something that we’re not being measured on.
However, doing this can be a great way to increase relevance because target keywords for your brand are going to be closely aligned with the pain points that customers have, alongside the solutions that the brand offers to those pain points. By integrating these keywords into your ideation process, you can’t help but produce ideas that are close to the target customers.
Reduce focus on link volumes
If you have a lofty link target to hit, you are much more likely to produce content ideas that aren’t relevant to your brand. This is because in order to hit link targets, you know that you need a good level of link prospects to outreach to. Even if you have a very good link conversion rate of say, 25%, that would mean that you still need 100 link prospects for every 25 links that you want to build.
How do you get more link prospects? By widening topics so that you can target different sectors of bloggers and journalists.
Instead, the focus needs to be on link prospects that are closely aligned with your own products, services and customers.
This will naturally limit the link volumes that you’re likely to achieve, but you can be more sure that you’ll produce a piece of content that is highly relevant to because you’re moving the pressure to get high link volumes.
To summarize, try to avoid thinking of relevance as something that is binary. There are far more layers to it than this and as we’ve seen, we’ve only really scratched the surface here on what Google is likely to be doing.
When you do think about relevance, focus more of your attention on content relevance and ensure that content that you produce is unquestionably relevant to your customers and your brand.
By taking this route, you need to acknowledge that it may lead to fewer links, but is also more likely to put you in a position where you’re not worried about Google updates that may target relevancy in link building, as well as manual reviews by Googlers!
The ultimate added bonus here is that you’ll be creating content that isn’t just for links — it will be far more useful to regular customers, too, adding to the value of your work.
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