One of my favorite comedy bits is Lewis Black educating us on the difference between milk and water. Black tells us that there is no such thing as soy milk because soy beans do not have breasts (from which milk comes). Soy milk is a made-up name to sell a product.
“Link juice” – a term made up by Greg Boser, president of BlueGlass Interactive – is a misrepresentation of a small part of what used to be and is no longer a significant component of PageRank. Don’t believe me? Look up “link juice” in Wikipedia and you’re redirected to the SEO page.
Over the years, the term has been used by the SEO community to mislead clients into thinking that Google is able to monitor a flow of authority status between sites – status that diminishes in proportion to the number of links on the page.
Even when the Web was a mere 15 million pages, this would have been quite a feat. At its current trillion-plus page level, however, the ability to monitor anything across the entire Web defies logic. More importantly, we no longer need SEO-binkies like link juice to legitimize our craft. Link juice has to go and here’s why.
Link juice is SEO pixie dust
The SEO community latched on to the term early on as a poor substitute for what turns out to be a complex part of the PageRank algorithm. Search results for “link juice” on any search engine produce reams and reams of self-referential fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) from various SEO practitioners who lack a clear understanding of the Hilltop Algorithm. This algorithm introduced the concept of authority status for certain pages based on links from other authority pages on the same subject.
The closest Google has come to acknowledging something that looks like link juice is from front man Matt Cutts: “Probably the most popular way to envision PageRank is as a flow that happens between documents across outlinks” (Matt Cutts’ blog, June 15, 2009). Even Rand Fiskin at Moz backs away from the juice flow element of links: “… the idea of a ‘leak’ of juice through adding additional links to a page may not be accurate (at least, according to the original Google PR formula)…”
Authority and not the juicy kind
From the get-go, PageRank was a flawed model due to Larry Page’s assumption that Web citations would be as altruistically awarded as research citations in academia. Not so for a commercialized Web.
Even the inclusion of a Random Surfer dampening factor could not deter the SEO community from “gaming” the PageRank system early on. This began the Road Runner/Wiley Coyote relationship between the search engines and the SEO community.
- Google launches an update that includes the Hilltop Algorithm and introduces the concept of page authority. SEO community responds with refined link acquisition schemes from search engine-defined “expert” sites.
- Google refines Hilltop with Topic Sensitive PageRank that augments PageRank with the capacity to match the topicality between pages, e.g. authority within a certain concept area. SEO community responds with content farms and publishing thin content on trending search topics.
- Google launches Caffeine, a complete shift in how Google crawls and indexes the Web. No more monthly dances. Lackluster response from SEO community who does not care about indexing or dancing for that matter.
- February 2010 gets off to a Le Mans start when J.C. Penney and Overstock.co are outed by a competitor for mind-blowingly egregious link acquisition and parasite hosting schemes. An extremely peeved Google responds with an early release of the Panda update, the first ginormous step away from a link-based relevance model to one that is user experience-based. Evidently they are sensitive when an international publication like the New York Times exposes their lack of complete control over the Web and search results. Who knew? The SEO Community FREAKS OUT as websites plummet from ranking for no apparent reason. OK, crappy thin content that searchers don’t like is the reason but who wants to admit to that? There is much hysteria as some SEOs try to find a user experience professional to talk to. The powers that be down in Mountain View do the happy dance.
- Google puts the final stake in the link-driven relevance model with Penguin. The SEO community is gob smacked and unable to come up with a workaround better than bended knee pleading to be re-included in Google’s index. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, a cottage industry of bended knee re-inclusion experts emerges.
- Just to make sure the link-based vampire is really dead, Google shuts off any keyword referral information from Google Analytics (KAPOW!) and launches Hummingbird, a diabolical turn towards query reformulation, semantic mapping, and content strategy. Completely baffled, the SEO community talks among itself about the impact of Hummingbird while still trying to figure out the pizza place/restaurant example that Google used in the announcement. Even if link juice were real (which it isn’t), the now desiccated corpse of links no longer has juice.
Let’s put away our SEO binkies
We don’t need to make up stuff to make ourselves sound legit. SEO is a known and highly desired service. We do need to start reaching across silos and working with our user experience and content strategy brethren because optimizing websites is now a team effort.
There is no such thing as link juice. There is page authority – of which links are a part of a long list of contributors. And, while we are getting used to a link juice-less world, let’s put keyword optimization on that boat. It is not about keywords any more. It’s about concepts and context.
And let’s ditch the too-many-links-on-the-page-bleeding-link-juice chestnut. The search engines are all over that. In their yearly conference on Adversarial Information Retrieval (IR), they have discussed this and now designate global and footer navigation links as nepotistic links, recognize them as spam, and ignore them.
Let’s banish link juice from the lexicon of SEO. Like the binkies of our childhood, we don’t need it anymore. Caffeine, Panda, and the most recent Hummingbird infrastructure changes have brought about a more dynamic, contextual, and semantic search landscape. We have a lot of work ahead of us.