Are Contextual Links a Google Ranking Factor?
Inbound links are a ranking signal that can vary greatly in terms of weighting by Google.
One of the key attributes that experts say can separate a high-value link from a low-value link is the context in which it appears.
When a link is placed in relevant content, it is believed to have a greater impact on rankings than a randomly inserted link in unrelated text.
Does this statement have anything to do with it?
Let’s dig deeper into what has been said about contextual links as a ranking factor to see if there is any evidence to support these claims.
The Claim: Contextual Links Are a Ranking Factor
A “contextual link” refers to an inbound link pointing to a URL relevant to the content in which the link appears.
When an article links to a source to provide additional information the context for the reader, for example, it is a contextual link.
Contextual links add value rather than being a distraction.
They should flow naturally with the content, giving the reader clues about the page they’re directed to.
Not to be confused with anchor text, which refers to the clickable part of a link, a contextual link is defined by the surroundings text.
The anchor text of a link can be related to the web page it points to, but if it is surrounded by content that is otherwise irrelevant, it is not considered a contextual link.
Contextual links are said to be a Google ranking factor, with claims that they are weighted higher by the search engine than other types of links.
One of the reasons Google may care about context when it comes to links is the experience it creates for users.
When a user clicks on a link and lands on a page related to what they were looking at before, it’s a better experience than being directed to a web page they are not interested in.
Modern link building guides all recommend getting links from relevant URLs, instead of going out and placing links just anywhere.
There is now more emphasis on quality than quantity when it comes to building links, and a link is considered higher quality when its placement makes sense in the context.
One high quality contextual link can, in theory, be worth more than several lower quality links.
This is why experts advise site owners to acquire at least a few contextual links, as this will take them further than building dozens of random links.
If Google weights link quality up or down based on context, that would mean that Google’s crawlers can understand web pages and gauge how well they relate to other URLs on the web. .
Is there any evidence to support this?
Evidence of contextual links as a ranking factor
The evidence supporting contextual links as a ranking factor dates back to 2012 with the launch of the Penguin algorithm update.
Google’s original algorithm, PageRank, was built entirely on links. The more links pointing to a website, the more authority it was considered to have.
Websites could catapult their site to the top of Google’s search results by building as many links as possible. It didn’t matter whether the links were contextual or arbitrary.
Google’s PageRank algorithm wasn’t as selective about which links it valued (or devalued) over others until it was increased with the Penguin update.
Penguin made a number of changes to Google’s algorithm that made it harder to manipulate search rankings through spammy link building practices.
In Google’s announcement of Penguin’s launch, former research engineer Matt Cutts highlighted a specific example of the link spam it’s designed to target.
This example illustrates the exact opposite of a contextual link, with Cutts saying:
“Here is an example of a site with unusual link patterns that is also affected by this change. ‘in fact, the text on the page has been ‘turned’ beyond recognition.
A contextual link, on the other hand, looks like the one a few paragraphs above to Google’s blog.
Links with context share the following characteristics:
- The placement fits naturally with the content.
- Linked URL is relevant to the article.
- The reader knows where they are going when they click on it.
All of the documentation that Google has published on Penguin over the years is the strongest evidence available to support contextual links as a ranking factor.
See: A Complete Guide to Google Penguin Algorithm Update
Google will never categorically say that “contextual link building is a ranking factor” because the company discourages deliberate link building.
As Cutts adds at the end of his Penguin ad, Google would rather see web pages acquire links organically:
“We want people who do white hat search engine optimization (or even no search engine optimization at all) to be free to focus on building amazing and compelling websites.”
Contextual links are a ranking factor: our verdict
Contextual links are probably a Google ranking factor.
A link is weighted more when used in context than when placed randomly in unrelated content.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that context-free links will negatively impact a site’s rankings.
External links are largely beyond the control of the site owner.
If a website links to you out of context, this is not a cause for concern, as Google is able to ignore low value links.
On the other hand, if Google detects an unnatural linking pattern, it could factor into a site’s ranking.
If you have actively engaged in non-contextual link building in the past, it may be a good idea to consider using the disavow tool.
Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal