Nobody outside of Google (and perhaps nobody inside) understands how its link-based map of the web truly works, and how it impacts on the rankings within the search engine results pages. We do know that Google has years of experience, some brilliant people and some astonishing AI, analysing something that none of us can get our head around. There’s no point in trying to second-guess what’s going on. But we can think about the obvious.
Remember, the web is largely rubbish. Thanks to great search engines and following our own recommended links, we don’t see this, but in 2020, Google says it detected “40 billion pages of spam every day”. I can’t begin to imagine this. So finding the good stuff is as much of a battle for search engines as ranking it.
Now think about the Bacon Number. This almost pre-dates the web, and is a light-hearted measure of how few connections are needed to get from one person to the actor Kevin Bacon. This is effectively one way of looking at the web. A Nature article analysed this back in 1999, and this 2013 Smithsonian article summarised it by saying that through the most highly connected pages, users could navigate from most areas to most others in less than 19 clicks, regardless of scale.
Putting this together, we could guess that the further our sites are from clusters of spam, the better it will be. We can’t do much about the unknown and unwanted sites that link to us, but we can try to get authoritative sites to do so – and attach ourselves to them. Outbound links to genuinely useful sites can only be a good thing; we don’t want to be floating in the web, untethered from the good stuff.
One good regular exercise might be to audit the outbound links on our sites, using something like Screaming Frog. This doesn’t just involve ensuring the links work; many old links may now connect us to sites that were once legitimate but have been taken over by less savoury content. If you think: “Surely Google won’t care about that?”, consider that a site with only great, up-to-date outbound links is probably a site that has been well maintained in general – and isn’t that something a search engine should approve of?