As many of you know, Google is getting a lot smarter. Their use of artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms are far from perfect and can still be manipulated, but they are advancing at a rapid pace. Some of you may have even felt the impact of an update just a couple weeks ago.
One thing that has been clear for a while is that Google dislikes activities geared toward manipulating search results. What is equally clear is that while Google can detect and penalize some activities, they rely heavily on misinformation and fear to stifle other tactics. For these reasons and others, regularly testing your strategies is critical.
During some recent testing, for example, I have noticed something very interesting: The impact of content and internal linking seems to be increasing. Before you get too excited, you should know this is more prevalent with information queries than commercial terms. Even so, information searches allow you to connect with potential customers and pull them into your funnel very early on, so there is no denying the value.
Before we dive in further, let's tackle a common myth.
Today, many people are writing content about ranking without links. While you can rank individual posts or pages without links pointing to them directly, you are far less likely to rank an entire site without any incoming external links. The exception to this rule would be low competition local businesses or keywords that are new (such as a newest Bitcoin knockoff).
If you are in either of those niches, you should check or have someone check out the competition to get a better idea of where you stand. Otherwise, you should be prepared to include link building in your 2018 marketing plans.
Building an Optimal Structure
For those of you who are newer to SEO, there are a couple things that are very important, but often neglected when it comes to setting up your site.
Site hierarchy is simply the method used when organizing your site. A clear organization structure will allow Google to better understand how pieces of content on your site fit together (the top level and sub categories), and which items are most important. One commonly seen example is a website with multiple locations.
Let's say you have a roofing service that serves three states, and 10 cities in each of those states. A good URL structure would be: site.com/locations/state/city
Each of the 10 cities served would be in a sub folder of their state. Each of the three states served would be in a locations folder, and the locations folder is one of the main categories of your site. Using a structure like this would allow you to potentially rank city pages without building links directly to them.
Links, Cups and Water? Oh My!
Think of your pages as glasses and the power coming from internal links as water. If your biggest cup locations and you build 10 links to that page, your cup will start to fill up. However, since the locations pages links to the state pages, some of the water will now flow into the state cups. The state cups in turn link to city pages, so each city cup will collect some water as well. Whenever most people talk about ranking without links, they are talking about pages that rank because "water" is passed from higher level pages to the ranking page via internal linking.
How Should Internal Links Be Setup?
As I touched on before, internal linking can serve more than one purpose. For today, our focus is how internal linking can help you improve rankings.
Let's go back to our example URL structure from above using actual locations: site.com/locations/Tennessee/Nashville.
In our example Tennessee (TN) is the top-level category and Nashville is one of the cities. The other nine cities could be those surrounding Nashville, such as: Brentwood, Franklin and Murfreesboro.
With a properly setup silo, the 10 city pages would link to each other and back to the TN page. This makes it clear to Google that those cities pages are a clear grouping, related to TN and each other. Aside from the flow of "water" between these pages, it allows for another extremely important, but less discussed signal: Geo-relevancy.
The Three Purposes of a Link
You see, whenever a link is built (internal or external) it should be used to create one or more of the following three signals.
Not every link will generate all three signals, especially when it comes to internal linking. However, the above example of interlinking city pages does a great job of creating relevancy signals. We'll save the signal discussion for another day, but it is something you should learn more about if you aren't familiar with the concept.
So... How Does Content Help?
The first and most obvious benefit of content is it allows you to create specific city pages, which in turn allow you to create relevancy signals. For them to have value, the content should be unique on each page and include geo-references.
Aside from city pages, content such as blog posts can be used to achieve a similar effect. Let's say that you are trying to rank in Nashville. Instead of pages targeting surrounding cities, you could have blog posts talking about related events or news from the area.
If you are a local business, your blog can even discuss information related to your city and not your services. For example, if you are a chiropractor in Spring Hill, a section of your blog could be dedicated to covering local news or events. If you can tie the two together, even better.
Here is an example: Top 10 Places to Hike near Spring Hill.
In this blog post you could link out to and mention specific locations near you and mix in some tips on avoiding injuries while hiking. You may even end up pulling in a few patients who find your site by searching for places to hike and end up needing an adjustment after.
I hope that next time you see a click bait title claiming the you can rank without links, you will have a better understanding of what they are talking about. If you are not using content to create relevancy of geo-relevancy signals on your site, give it a shot. If you don't have your site setup properly and are spending money on link building, fixing your internal linking and site structure will allow you to yield much better results in most cases, so don't put it off.