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The Link Diversity Argument: In or Out? (And What to Focus On Instead)

Link diversity: It’s been around since the dinosaur ages of SEO.

Remember the era when Moz was SEOmoz?

Yeah, that long.

So, with SEO constantly shifting and changing, is link diversity an outdated concept after all this time?

Let’s find out how it fits in with SEO today.

The Link Diversity Argument: In or Out? (And What to Focus On Instead)

While there’s been a handful of definitions of what “link diversity” means, the basic premise behind link diversity is one simple idea:

Having a variety of types of backlinks pointing to your site.

Uniform links = bad.

Variety = good.

Sure, that’s pretty vague, but let’s remember the goal here: to get a mix of backlinks that will help our site rank.

 

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What is link diversity today?

So given what we know today, this is the best version of link diversity that we could think of:

  • High quality = good. We know quality matters over quantity when it comes to backlinks. Having one backlink from a reputable website with high authority is better than one hundred backlinks from newborn baby sites.
  • Farm-to-fork = bad. On a similar note, we know that link farms are bad. Even more high quality manufactured links (looking at you, PBNs) are getting slapped with penalties. It’s no wonder link farms of all kinds are getting some serious side-eye from the SEO community.
  • High domain quantity = good. We also know that the number of domains matters more than the number of pages we have backlinks from. It’s more impressive if you have a dozen domains backlinking to you a dozen times collectively than it is to have a couple of domains linking to you a dozen times.
  • Diverse anchor text = good. Getting more into the nitty-gritty details, we also know that uniform anchor text is bad. Having backlinks that all have the same, perfect anchor text linking back to your site looks sketchy as hell.

That means a backlink profile in its modern Sunday-best contains real, high-quality backlinks from various domains with non-uniform anchor text.

Link diversity, as a layer on top of that foundation, implies that variety is better.

Is your article backlinked mostly from listicles? Is your contact page only backlinked from directories? Is your product page mostly backlinked from Pinterest? Link diversity says “maybe you should get on that…variety is the spice of life, after all.”

But is that true? Is that advice we should be listening to?

Is link diversity a basic SEO factor that shouldn’t be overlooked, or an outdated idea that should be laid to rest?

I think yes, it’s an idea that should be retired. Here’s why.

What’s changed?

Back in ye olden days of SEO, it was easy to game search engines. You give them what they want, and they give you what you want. Siloing, backlinks, relevant anchor text, the works.

Until they wanted to stop being played.

Ever since then, Google’s goal is to weed out the real from the fake, the should-be-ranking pages from the shouldn’t-be-ranking pages.

As SEOs, the new goal was—as it is today—to look natural.

You want to look like you’re playing the game, but in the white hat, by-the-rules kind of way. Producing killer content, gaining authentic backlinks, you know the drill.

But let’s look at this in perspective.

Even though we sometimes act like it, it’s just not true that all of our webpages are in a great line of webpages, waiting to be assessed by Google.

As immense and powerful as Google is—indexing pages by the casual trillions—it’s only indexed a small percentage of the internet. Some guess 4 or 5% (it might’ve changed since this has been published, which is why I’m not citing it…Google it for current estimates).

So, with thousands of websites being made per day (sites, not pages), it’s just not practical to assume Google has the bandwidth to be giving all websites—let alone webpages—the crawling and indexing attention-time they may or may not deserve.

If you’re Google, what do you do?

How do you find the gems in the rough, the needles in the haystack—a haystack that’s only getting bigger by the minute?

Penguin, aka “the in-group” code

Google’s answer to this conundrum, as best as we can tell, can be found in large part in the Penguin algorithm updates.

The first Penguin update started in 2012, shaking the Google-indexed internet. The last update we think we know of was in 2016.

Google would like to have you think that Penguin works by, “decreasing search engine rankings of websites that violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines by using now declared black-hat SEO techniques involved in increasing artificially the ranking of a webpage by manipulating the number of links pointing to the page.”

But the truth is: Google doesn’t have time to penalize everyone.

It’s much more likely that they’re starting the other way around, starting with sites that they know are high authority, and crawling outward from there.

If you’re an arms-length away from these sites, you’re in “the in-group.” If you’re not? You’re part of “the out-group.”

 

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This is how Google is able to judge so much of the internet with so little capacity.

Penguin isn’t what Google would like us to think it is—some kind of machine-learning search engine hall monitor, slapping penalties on those who aren’t in step.

The reality is likely much more simple:

The Penguin algorithm updates are using what we call the reduced link graph and seed pages.

Reduced link graphs and seed pages

Seed pages are those high authority pages that Google uses as a place to start. They’re literally the “seeds” that lead Google to other pages via links.

If your site isn’t linked closely to a seed page, it’s dying on the vine. The closer you are to a seed page, the better.

Google uses seed pages to build its reduced link graph. The reduced link graph starts with the seed pages, crawls and considers pages within a short link-distance of those seed pages, and ignores the rest.

This allows Google to filter out sites with inauthentic links with their limited bandwidth.

Don’t believe it? “Seed pages” and the “reduced link-graph” are both explained in more depth in one of Google’s patents. We don’t know for sure that this patent is Penguin, but for many SEOs who have deep dived into Penguin, it sure looks that way.

If this is what’s happening, it’s not what your site has, but what it lacks:

The right connections (hey…just like in real life).

If you’re not in the reduced link graph among the seed-page-superstars, Google isn’t going to rank you. That means spam links aren’t technically hurting you, but they’re not helping you, either.

So what it comes down to is, you’re either in, or you’re out.

Really though, not joking. If “the in-group” are the seed pages, then gaining popularity among all of the non-popular kids isn’t going to help you become popular.

Actually, gaining more connections with more people in the out-group is just solidifying your own position in the out-group.

 

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What you want to do is get in the in-group. Infiltrate the popular crew. Crack the code to get some of that seed-page flair. You know you want to.

What Penguin means for link diversity

What does Penguin mean for link diversity, then?

It means Google couldn’t care less about the diversity of your links.

And why would they? As a bit of an aside, I’d also argue that there isn’t even good basic logic to the idea of link diversity in the modern era of Google’s search algorithm. Google rewards pages that are the best of the best, that are really good at what they do.

If your page does something really well, and gets a lot of quality backlinks that are similar to each other, that’s probably great in Google’s eyes. If everyone’s looking to your page to answer a certain question, that makes you look legit.

Google doesn’t care if you’re a jack-of-all-trades. They’re looking for topical experts, and experts aren’t necessarily attracting diverse links.

In fact, it’s more likely they’re attracting backlinks that are similar to each other.

If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that algorithms look for patterns within the high-quality, reduced link graph—not diversity.

Back from the aside, we know from Penguin research that Google cares about backlink distance from seed pages, not link diversity. But where did this idea of link diversity come from, anyway?

The “natural” link profile

After gaming the system of search engines in the early days and getting penalized for it soon after, suddenly the idea of a “natural” link profile became very important.

What used to work was the highly-manufactured, unnatural link profiles. So we thought, okay, better make sure we look au naturale so Google doesn’t think we’re black-hatting our way to ranking victory.

And how to look natural? Natural means imperfect, a bit messy, not uniform.

But we took it too far. Google’s not looking for “natural”-ness. It’s looking to see how close you are to the popular kids of your industry. It wants to see that you’re not too far from the crowned seed pages that are relevant to your topic.

That means forcing link diversity doesn’t make your link profile look “natural.”

If you’re leaving links on the table because you’re worried too many of the same type will make your backlink profile look unnatural, or if you’re forcing links for diversity’s sake, throw the idea of “natural” out the window. It’s not doing you, Google or users any favors.

Link diversity is only as good as link relevancy and quality (which, as we now know, means getting in the in-group of the reduced link graph).

How to get in with the reduced link graph

Now that you know what you know about Penguin and link diversity, what to do?

Just follow these steps:

1. Do your research: Identify seed pages in your niche

Who are the popular kids of your niche? The unpopular outcasts?

You need to find seed pages relevant to your site, and work your way out from there (just like Google).

You probably have an idea of sites you wish you had backlinks from, so start there. You can also do competitive research to find topic-relevant seed pages.

Make sure they’re legit popular and not posers by checking their stats like domain authority, spam score, trust flow and citation flow. You can see all of this by adding seed pages to your competitors in the Monitor Backlinks tool.

 

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You only need a few seed pages to start. Look at the backlink profile of the seed pages to find more relevant seed pages (see screenshot below).

Make sure authority metrics are high and that the seed page sites are in some way topically relevant to your site.

You won’t have luck trying to break in to the link graph in a corner of the internet you don’t belong, so stick to sites in the same topical bubble as yours.

 

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Sure, you can throw some large, trusted general sites into the mix if it looks like they’re in the reduced link graph, but you shouldn’t be using those as your only seed pages.

If you pulled someone off the street, they should be able to look at your chosen seed pages and tell what your site might be about.

It’s not about diversity. It’s about relevancy.

(Don’t have a Monitor Backlinks account? Sign up for a free, no-risk 30-day trial to start adding and analyzing seed pages right away!)

2. Walk the walk and talk the talk

If you want to get into the reduced link graph, it’s time to start acting like it.

First, getting out of the out-group means you’re not heavily associating with other sites in the out-group. That entails checking your backlinks and your outbound links.

Disavow out-group backlinks

From what we know about Penguin, spammy backlinks won’t hurt you if you’re in the reduced link graph. Just like how a creepy stalker doesn’t make a moviestar any less popular.

But if you’re in the out-group, being heavily associated with spammy backlinks won’t be doing you any favors, and may be holding you back from getting in the in-group.

It only makes sense then to try to strengthen ties to the in-group while you also weaken ties to the out-group.

As SEO gets increasingly difficult with high levels of competition and the evolving, high-tech algorithm, we have to pull out all of the stops that we can based on the research we have.

You know the drill: Find spammy backlinks and disavow them.

You can do both from within the Monitor Backlinks tool, to help make your life easier:

 

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If you think you’re already in the reduced link graph, you can (and should) skip this step. But if you’re not, you can’t afford to be associated with bad company.

Don’t go crazy with disavowal, and use your discretion. Keep it basic. Only disavow backlinks that are clearly spammy—you know, the ones with really bad spam scores and trust flow, that kind of thing.

Remember:

The popular kids you aspire to become one day of the reduced link graph have low-quality links pointing to them like it ain’t no thang. So don’t worry about this step too much.

You just want to distance yourself from the worst of the worst so that Google doesn’t think you’re one of them. Play it cool.

Update your outbound links

This step is much more important. Those in the in-group don’t link to spammy sites. So neither should you.

It’s not just about who’s pointing to you with links, but also who you’re pointing to with links. When’s the last time (if ever) you checked your outbound links?

Go through the pages on your website, starting with your highest traffic pages, and look at the outbound links on them. You can use web browser plugins like Link Klipper or SEOquake to make sure you find all of your outbound links.

This is where your seed pages come into play.

Are you linking to any of them? Who are your seed pages linking to? Are you linking to irrelevant sites? Low-quality ones? Have you been kind of ignoring your outbound links?

Given what we know about Penguin, your outbound links may be much more important than you think.

Update your outbound links so that you’re only linking to pages that you think are in the reduced link graph. Link to the seed pages you did some research on where you see fit, and link to the sites and pages that they link to, too.

Link like them.

3. Get those backlinks

It’s time to doll your site up like one of the popular crew to infiltrate (and ultimately, become part of) the reduced link graph.

You know what that means: getting quality backlinks.

The only way to get into the reduced link graph is to get backlinks from the sites that are already there.

The more pathways you have to seed pages and the shorter those pathways are, the better. There’s nothing that’ll get your site in the reduced link graph more quickly than endorsements from seed pages and their close connections.

Year after year, top SEO companies do independent research, using their own regressions and data analysis to try to figure out where there’s correlations.

Year after year, backlinks remain top dog, and it’s hard to imagine the future being any different knowing what we know about Google’s limited bandwidth in the face of the ever-expanding internet.

They’ve gotta start somewhere (and that somewhere is with seed pages).

First things first: See what high quality backlinks you already have. You can use Monitor Backlinks to track and filter all your backlinks to find your best ones.

 

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How did you get these links? Why are they linking to you?

Keep doing what works, if anything.

Then it’s time to pull out the big guns.

If you’re serious about getting backlinks, creating quality content and hoping it’ll get linked to isn’t going to cut it anymore.

You’re going to need to be open about unconventional ways to get high PR backlinks.

You’re going to need to do backlink outreach (the sauve way, of course) and get out of your comfort zone (ever thought of ranking via YouTube?).

 

Link diversity isn’t the goal anymore. 

In SEO today, the goal is quality and relevancy.

Get in with the popular crew of the reduced link graph and you’ve achieved your goal!

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