Why Relevant Links Are Irrelevant

It’s common practice to formulate a link development plan that includes tasks such as “build relevant inbound links” and “use relevant anchor text” when putting an SEO strategy together. I have even been guilty of making this recommendation without adequately qualifying it, and I expect to have my backside smashed about it soon.

Relevancy is, unfortunately, a concept that’s bandied about without most people actually taking the time to think it through.

The problem is that relevancy is not a black and white matter. We’re kind of told that it is when Google dictates that relevant links are ok, but when you examine the very nature of relevance, you’ll see that it simply cannot be this or that. It’s just not a discrete concept. What I think is relevant to a topic at hand may indeed be relevant in MY mind, but not in yours.

You know how you read a really good blog (like the SEO Chicks, perhaps) and someone’s talking about something and kind of goes way off topic (doesn’t happen here, though, so stop thinking about our posts damn you!) and then makes the seemingly irrelevant points finally connect…and you realize that, Julie is actually doing this intentionally and that yes, The Clash really do have something to do with search engine optimization. At first glance you think “Jaysus what’s she on about NOW, the freak?” and that (hopefully) soon turns into (hopefully) “well by god she actually does have a point that’s relevant to the topic at hand.” Indeed.

Since search engines consider anchor text to be an accurate representation of the link to which it’s attached, technically it should be very difficult to determine whether or not a link itself is relevant. It’s quite easy to be a bit manipulative here isn’t it? Sure, a human being doing a review can detect irrelevancy if it’s blatant, but if you’re at least partially clever and can cross the street on your own, you should be able to find a way to gloss over the irrelevancy in some way. If anchor text is what the engines look to in order to see that yes, this link is indeed relevant, then there you go. Make your anchor text relevant.

The main issue is that big engines like Google can’t control every tiny aspect of linking but, if they admitted that or stopped doing the omnipotent act, you might just be onto them and maybe, if you were prone to backing down quickly, you’d stop trying to exploit links for your own good. Sugar Rae had a great post about the links that Google could never identify as being paid links. It’s all a giant scare tactic to help them reach their supposed goal of making life on the internet only about the end user. They can’t catch half (or more) of the paid links out there, and they can’t tell whether or not your links are relevant, without a human review. They might not be able to catch you then either.

On the SEO Theory site I found an excellent recent article entitled “The measured nonsense of SEO relevance.” Here, Michael Martinez states that “Search engine optimization has to respect the limitations of search algorithms and it needs to put a limit on the credibility of unreasonable expectations. Relevance is not determined by links but by text.” That’s pretty much dead on.

If you think you might be prone to a human review, then have your inbound links structured in such a way that they do, indeed, become relevant to what’s being said somewhere. It’s not too tough unless you’re a complete and utter moron. A site about how Mrs. Fish Palace really makes a good fried catfish platter (gag) really may have need of linking to your site about dancing cats, such as when they say something about how “the dancing cat sweatshirts that we sell at Mrs. Fish Palace really are hot!” An example that makes me shudder certainly, but still, you can see that even though these two sites should technically have nothing to do with one another, this is indeed a relevant link. Usually you won’t have people randomly linking to your site if it’s not relevant, because what purpose would that serve for them?

Wikipedia has a fascinating entry about relevance, with this quote being the most interesting to me…”It is elusive, because the meaning of relevance appears to be difficult or impossible to capture within conventional logical systems.” The algorithms, although they don’t always seem to be, really are built on a logical framework you know. Therefore, how can a machine-built system, based on logic, determine meaning? We’re back to the whole issue of machines making judgment calls. It’s impossible for them to understand meaning because they cannot infer.

In discrete mathematics you learn about finiteness. To grossly summarize this, it means that you have all these little 0s and 1s, off and on switches, yes and no. There’s no in-between. Something is, or it isn’t. This makes perfect sense to a machine, and possibly less to a human being. However, as you may have ascertained, relevancy cannot be lableled as a 0 or a 1. I found another great quote on an old Search Engine Watch post that equates the attempt to measure relevancy to “asking people to eat different types of cakes and answering whether each cake is simply edible. Edible is fine in some instances, but what you really want to know is who serves the best cakes consistently?”

I could, and do, say that The Clash is the best band there has ever been. To me, that’s completely true and really, I have been known to crack open a large six-pack of whoop-arse on anyone who says something stupid like “hey didn’t they do that ‘Dance Hall Days’ song?” So let’s say that there’s a question of “who’s the best band ever?” and I said “The Clash.” Well obviously I am RIGHT, but you might think that The Sex Pistols is the best band ever. I’ll give you leeway because really, let’s face it, they were a damn fine band too.

However, both of our selections are right in our minds, but they aren’t in agreement with each other. Is my choice more or less relevant? Well, more relevant obviously since The Clash really IS the best band ever, but there’s an obvious gap here in who thinks what. Can we even accurately answer a question like that? What do you mean by best? Most talented, most records sold, best lyrics, most enjoyable? Impossible stuff.

So can an algorithm really assign a true measure of relevancy to your inbound links? There is no freaking way on earth it can. It may try, and I’m not denying that it does, but with a fluid concept such as this, there is no way that you can work to gain favor in this aspect. You can throw in 10 keywords into your meta keywords tag, if that’s what the engines want. 10 is 10. What I see as a relevant link may not seem relevant to you. Considering the way I think, god only knows what’s going to seem relevant to me anyway. I can draw a perpendicular to anything.

So, for those of you who are only concentrating on trying to get RELEVANT inbound links to your site, please calm down, have a Mike’s hard lemonade (or three), listen to someone other than Enya, and just take a Zen approach to boosting your links. You can, after all, make just about anything relevant if you try.

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16 Responses to “Why Relevant Links Are Irrelevant”

  1. Link Relevance and SEO Chicks…

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  2. Rob Oresteen says:

    Julie – right on! I’m so glad to hear someone in the industry speak about this. I’ve thought about this for a while now. Industry experts all go along with the same mantra about “relevancy” without thinking it through. My point has been and will always be, that, I would hate to think that a 20 something at Google is going to determine relevancy for my links.

    Case in point: “invoice factoring”. It’s a competitive term. After running many back links for the top 20 results in Google, I found that the majority of the links to these sites were not from other factoring companies or “related” (?) (their competition) but from all corners of the web. Further more, the average PR ranking from these link partners was 2.7.

    However, one factor (no pun intended) that stood out was that the top 10 list had the majority of their anchor text as “invoice factoring”.

    Ya think?!

  3. [...] week Julie Joyce taught me that Google can’t really tell whether your backlinks are relevant. Everyone is saying “you need to build relevant inbound links if you want to improve your natural [...]

  4. Daz says:

    Decent post.

    I do wonder though why some people seem to make the whole concept of linking particularly difficult. Maybe to give it more “value” and charge the client accordingly? Maybe to put others off, when in fact building balanced links (and yes I ensure the anchor text is relevant though go for a balanced mix) is easy with prior planning ( The 6 P approach).


  5. Tad Chef says:

    Basically search engines are still far to primitive to cope with language. They completely fail when encountering metaphors for instance, that’s why SEO copywriting sometimes sounds as if kids would write it: Simplistic.

    I hope Lexxe will fix it.

  6. [...] you been told directories are limited in there effectiveness and the key to ranking well is highly relevant contextual links, blog rolls and reciprocal linking are no good at all. The options seem to be clever buying of [...]

  7. [...] is a much better discussion; it’s the debate of quality links. While Julie Joyce explains Why Relevant Links are Irrelevant, Debra Mastaler adds that a link is Sometimes Just a Damn Link. The third woman in this list is [...]

  8. Brian says:

    Thanks. I always wondered about this one. To think that google would be less than honest. What is this world coming to?

  9. Brian says:


    How do I find you on StumbleUpon? Anyone that werks The Clash and The Sex Pistols into there posts is someone I want to follow. Even if the babbling side of your posts are a bit long-winded.

    I sure hope you’re English. Any American thinking The Clash or The Sex Pistols is a better band than The Ramones or The Misfits should have to be deported GB.

  10. Julie Joyce says:

    @Brian (aka my new best friend)…I have recently been chastized (see, I AM American) by Lyndonman about my piss poor stumbling skills. You can find me there, though, at Jajoyce2. It’s horrible, really, how little I use this.

    Wait, did you call me long-winded? Hahahahaha.

    I’ll gladly be deported. I could stand to be closer to the gay kilt shop at Covent Garden.

  11. Chris Graham says:

    I agree completely, but there are ways to value a link’s relevance that have nothing to do with the actual content. What?

    You go a step deeper, look at the links into the site linking in to you. The more “relevant” they are to your text, the more relevant your link is.

  12. Julie Joyce says:

    @Chris…excellent point. It really is a tricky situation isn’t it?

  13. Laura Design says:

    This is a great article. In terms of SEO, link building and the relevance of links should be implemented using common sense. Using keywords and links that are not specific to your website, are simply not worth having.

  14. Matt says:

    You can control to a certain extent where your content goes and where you receive backlinks but ultimately if a webmaster chooses to link to you then its up to them.

  15. Nabil says:

    Why would one want an irrelevant link?

  16. [...] I am by no means the only SEO to doubt the veracity of these claims (here is Michael Martinez and Julie Joyce on the issue in 2007), but despite their reasoned arguments, the myth continues to [...]

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