Note – I originally attempted to publish this article on SEOmoz, but there was a ‘conflict of interest’ as they weren’t willing to out other SEO websites’ possibly unethical practices.
I found the recent release of SEOmoz’s Open Site Explorer extremely useful. It’s particularly good at comparing sites quickly and listing inbound links in descending order of authority. I thought this would be a great opportunity to perform a little research on a couple of the top ranking commercial SEO sites on the web to see how their inbound links have contributed to their success.
SEO is obviously a very competitive keyword – it’s therefore hard to rank highly for it in organic search, so this seems like a good place to start researching. I started on the UK version of Google, being UK based myself and searched for ‘SEO’. When I searched for all websites, I wasn’t surprised to see the top ranking item was Wikipedia’s SEO page. Wikipedia is considered one of the most authoritative websites on the internet and has literally millions of pages (almost 19 million right now if you do a site:en.wikipedia.org on Google) and tens of thousands of inbound links, so it’s going to be pretty hard to beat in any subject.
I then looked at pages in the UK only and found the top few matches were commercial, which is what I’m interested in for this post. The top website is currently Just Search, which touts this enviable position in a video from the MD on the home page of the website. Another website in the first page that caught my eye was Fresh Egg, appearing at number 4.
Both are professional looking commercial websites, whose primary purpose is to attract business for the SEO and related internet marketing services they offer. Both are very much accessible (so says the WAVE accessibility checker) with valid (W3C checked) XHTML and filled with relevant (SEO related) content. According to Google, Just Searching has a couple of thousand pages of blog content, whilst Fresh Egg has a more modest 160 pages. Google reports each has around 500 inbound links, Just Search a few more than Fresh Egg. So far, all is as I would expect, one site being a little higher than the other in the rankings due to the content and inbound links.
My next step was to put both of these websites into Open Site Explorer. The initial summary of the sites showed a high authority for both (85 for Just Search, 82 for Fresh Egg). It also counted an awful lot more inbound links than Google reported. Around 160,000 for Just Search and 50,000 for Fresh Egg.
It’s interesting to note that the authority of the two sites is not far apart, considering the significant difference in the number of inbound links and the fact there’s a fair bit more content on Just Search. Of course, the amount of links in itself is only a number. Importance is assigned based on the quality of links in terms of their authority.
So the next question is, which sites link to these two top ranking big hitters? This was where I was a little surprised to see the results. The inbound linking sites are listed by descending authority score, so I was expecting to see a number of other respected SEO sites towards the top of the lists. Certainly there were a number of these – SEO Round Table, Top SEOs and Get Updated for Just Search. For Fresh Egg, there was a link from PPA Media. However, over half of the top 20 for Just Search and almost all of the links for Fresh Egg come from completely off topic websites.
For example, one of the highest authority pages on Just Search is linking from Britney Spears’ Guide to Semiconductor Physics. Others include Victorian Bathrooms and Stockport Country Football club. In many of these cases, the links were almost hidden, snuck into the websites in question. Presumably these are the result of paid advertising, exchange of services or some sort of affiliate deals. Although they may not be breaking any codes of conduct as such, with the link text in each case reading ‘Search Engine Optimisation’ or something similarly representative, the way these links are almost-hidden and out of context makes them appear a little unethical.
For Fresh Egg, links come from Wineware, The Sanctuary, Tropical Sky – obviously not SEO related topics. Most of the links are within the footer credits of websites belonging to clients of Fresh Egg, clearly displayed as ‘Website Design and SEO by Fresh Egg’ or similar. There’s nothing sinister about this – it’s an age old marketing technique, gaining exposure by advertising on client real estate (both online and offline) after performing a service, but it’s interesting to see how it’s perceived by search engines.
White hat SEO consultants traditionally advise clients to gain inbound links through writing articles and gaining a presence on related websites. Whilst this is not a particularly scientific experiment, having focused on only two sites and just a selection of the top inbound links, it is at least anecdotal proof that Google doesn’t penalise links from unrelated sites and it appears these have heavily contributed to the success of these cases.