Search engine spiders look at both the site itself as well as the links within sites. Why do they do this? Isn’t looking at the contents of the site enough to determine how good the site is and how the site should be ranked?
Links serve two purposes online. First, they quickly and easily link users to different and useful information based on topic. Users can choose to click on links if they want to in order to find out more information. On the other hand, links act as a popularity index of all sites online. Take, for example, a very popular online site like Google, Yahoo!, or Amazon. Each of these sites has millions of daily visitors from all around the world. Imagine the number of links to these pages that exists. The more popular a site, the more links there will be to that site on other sites.
Part of Google’s page ranking system depends on the number of links to a page. In general, the more links to a page, the more popular the page is and thus the higher the page rank is. The fewer links, the lower the rating. There are some exceptions to that rule. For example, linking to known deceptive or spam pages, pages that have been banned by search engines, can cause a decrease in page rank. If these pages link to a website, that can also decrease ranking. For more on this subject, see the section on “Black Hat SEO.”
The temptation for website owners becomes to find places to link to their site in order to increase ranking. There are several services that offer to increase a site’s page rank by including links to the page on so-called “link farm” pages. These pages exist only to display links for the purpose of increasing page rank. Link farms are not for visitors, which is why these pages are often problematic for search engines. Being linked in a link farm can cause a site to lose rank, despite the original intention to do otherwise. Over time, websites can find legitimate sites that are willing to link to their site, which will, over time, increase the site’s rank.
Legal Issues Involving Links
The fact that there are actual legal issues involving links might seem strange, especially considering the purpose of the Internet is to provide a portal for the sharing of ideas and information. The problem is that, in this litigious climate, users can’t be too careful about how and who they link to, because sometimes there are legal issues that must be considered first.
One legal issue involved with links is deep linking, the practice of using very deep sub directories in a website, and linking to the content contained deep inside a site’s structure. These deep pages and directories are not usually immediately apparent to a visitor that goes to the home page or index page, so their contents is often not scanned by web spiders and is not generally available to the public. Most legal issues involving links come from deep link issues. If a website links to the home page of a movie studio, no one will bat an eyelash. After all, this is driving traffic to a site generally available to the public to promote the studio. On the other hand, if a website links to a video found deep within the studio’s site, especially if that video is copyrighted information, the party responsible for creating the link may be headed for trouble.
Generally the greatest concern lies in links to intellectual property, which is defined as artistic works which are copyrighted. Of course, intellectual property can mean many different things, since text, sounds, pictures, and moving pictures can all be copyrighted. Since there is very little legal precedence, determining which links are allowed and which will result in a lawsuit is difficult. Some companies find these links welcomed promotion and marketing to their brand, site, or product. Others are bothered by the links.
Take, for example, the numerous lawsuits filed against webmasters because of the kinds of links provided by them. One example is a man who began a website to link to movie trailers all across the web. Since he figured that trailers were like advertising to the movie studios, he was in the clear. Unfortunately, one movie studio didn’t agree and sued the man for linking to trailers of movies from their studio. Here are some general guidelines to avoid problems with linking:
- Ask permission to link to deep directories, pages, or content within a page.
- Remember that linking to homepages will get websites in far less trouble than linking deeper into the site.
- Be wary of linking to copyrighted material. If a site depends on this copyrighted material, the site’s owner must always ask for permission from the hosting site before posting links, and make sure the site’s visitors are informed that they are viewing copyrighted material.
- Avoid linking to known spamming or deceptive sites. Sites that have been banned by search engines, participate in scamming customers, or participate in spamming schemes will bring down the reputation of a site and will decrease the site’s page rank.