If you spend any time wandering through the corridors of various webmaster sites, or turning the pages of recent books on search-engine optimization or website building, you’ve probably encountered the phrase link equity. What you may not have found is a consistent definition of what that phrase means. Which isn’t all that surprising, since link equity is basically a concept and concepts can support as many meanings as people want to hang on them.
The most common definitions of link equity come from the search-engine optimization industry and usually refer to a combination of link popularity — as determined by the number of external sites linking to a particular site — and link authority, the white-coat (as in doctor’s gown) quotient of a site’s links. By this definition, a link from a site that has a lot of incoming links of its own delivers more equity than a link from a site with few incoming links. Likewise, a link from an authoritative site — www.nasa.gov or www.espn.com — has more equity than a link from an amateur astronomer’s site or a sports fan’s private blog.
The only problem with using popularity and authority as measures of link equity is that it results in a theoretical, rather than a real world, definition. A real-world definition should be based on how well a given link will or won’t work for you rather than on an abstract ranking based in large part on obtaining one-way “authority” links that are virtually impossible for any commercial site to get.
Let’s see if we can create a better definition.
We’ll begin with an English 101 look at the two words themselves. First, link. In the context we’re using it here, we all know what that means, a direct express lane between one web page and another. What is sometimes overlooked, however, is that there are two kinds of links — internal to pages on the same site and external to pages on other sites — and each kind can have equity.
We all also know what equity is, stored value of either a positive or negative nature. While we’re not really concerned with negative equity here, it might be useful to give some quick “for instances.”
Internal link with negative equity example: A link from a computer sales site home page to an “About Us” page detailing nothing except the vendor’s extreme political philosophy. The negative equity derives from most end-users’ distaste for extremism and from the search-engines’ aversion to irrelevant content links.
External link with negative equity example: Incoming links from “bad neighborhoods” such as link farms (high volume links with very low relevance). Such links are considered “spammy” by Google and the other major search engines and you really can’t find a better example of a link with negative equity than one the search engines define as an attempt to dishonestly beat their system.
Moving along to the more interesting side of the equation, positive link equity. From a bottom line point of view, you could say that positive link equity is the sum total of the amount of productive traffic a particular link delivers to your site. The problem with that definition is that it can’t be quantified.
You know that a link which regularly brings you 100 clickthroughs resulting in 18 sales a month is extremely productive and thus contains a lot of end-user equity. But how do you calculate how much search-engine equity it has?
Clearly you can’t. Much as we’d all love Google to issue periodic report cards grading every element on our sites and telling us how much each added or detracted from our ranking, it steadfastly refuses to do so. (Probably for good reason, since knowing that information would make it easier for creative cheats to devise new search engine spam schemes.) On the other hand, Google executives and technicians have frequently talked — off and on the record — about the desirability of building pages and establishing links to positively benefit end users rather than search engines. The theory is that sites and links that deliver the most high-value content to end users are inherently the best sites and should have the highest rankings.
Given the search engine’s position on optimizing for end users, it’s reasonable to postulate that links containing a lot of end-user equity — such as the one producing an 18 percent sales conversion ratio — also have positive search-engine equity. Most SEO guru definitions of link equity also assume that only one-way incoming links have any. But this too is off the real-world mark as long as your outgoing reciprocal links provide valuable information and opportunities visitors to your site wouldn’t otherwise have.
Say you’re a rental agent and your site has a link to an insurance agent offering special rates on renters insurance to people who lease through you. That outgoing link is offering people a way to save money on an essential service. It gives potential renters a reason to do business with you instead of a competitor who may have the exact same listings. That link’s got equity, baby. And anybody who says it doesn’t is living in an ivory tower located a mile above Cloud Nine.
Though you rarely see it mentioned, there’s also both end user and search engine equity in good, clear internal navigation links.
Here’s an example:
Navbar Link: Baby Buggies
Banner Link: Half-Price Baby Buggy Sale
Text Link: We pride ourselves on our huge selection of value-priced American-made and elegant high-end British baby buggies.
Of these three links to the same internal web page, the navbar link has what could be termed neutral end-user equity, the text link has positive equity derived from its expanded content, and the banner has high positive equity because it offers the end user extra value. The banner, if it stays on line long enough, will probably also gain search-engine equity in queries for terms such as “baby buggy price” or “baby buggies on sale.”
Also, at least as far as Google’s concerned, sites should have “a clear hierarchy and text links. Every page should be reachable from at least one static text link.”
True, those “static text links” may not contain a lot of positive search engine equity, but not having them — as the above quote indicates — can definitely have negative implications.
So what is link equity, really? Have we arrived at a workable definition? How about this one?
Link equity is the amount of positive value your website receives from the totality of your linking campaign — internal, external, reciprocal, one-way, free, paid, etc.
Or, maybe you don’t like that one. The neat thing is it doesn’t matter.
Follow ethical, editor-based linking practices, use intelligence guided by experience in sending and accepting link requests, ruthlessly purge your site of links (such as dead or irrelevant ones) that might contain negative equity, and regularly add quality links at a controlled, natural rate and your site will be overflowing with positive link equity no matter how the words are defined.