Everyone understands that backlinks are at the heart of search engine optimization. There are countless other factors involved, both on-page and off-page, but having other websites link to your website has been and always will be a critical factor in determining the relative “value” of your site in the eyes of Google.
Of course, a lot has changed over the years in terms of how Google handles and interprets backlinks. We’ve changed how we might think about link building or what sort of anchor text we might want to use. Google has cracked down on paid links and doubled down its efforts on rewarding “natural” links to determine the relative “authority” of a site too. Things change and you need to change with them.
They may not be all that new anymore, but you may not have heard of them. And to ignore their influence would be terribly imprudent: implied links.
Moving Beyond the Regular Link
When you think about traditional backlinks, the connection is pretty clear. I can link to http://www.youtube.com exactly like how I did right there or, even better, I can link to YouTube using appropriate anchor text like that.
In both cases, a reader of this blog post can click on the link and be sent directly to the YouTube homepage. That’s what Google might call an “express link.” That’s what the rest of us might call just a backlink, the same kind of backlink we’ve been using for years.
Where implied links differ, which is terribly confusing, is that they don’t really contain a backlink at all. There’s nowhere for the website visitor to click in order to access the resource being referenced. Instead, the visitor needs to type in the website URL manually into the address bar or he needs to search for it (likely through Google).
The Same as a Brand Mention?
If I was writing a blog post about social networks that are increasing in popularity, I might mention Snapchat or Periscope on that list. I might not link to either social media platform directly, but that is still a brand mention and, in effect, it operates as an implied link.
Given this, it’s easy to assume that brand mentions and implied links are exactly the same thing. They’re not. A brand mention is any time that someone mentions your brand. I could talk about my blog, Beyond the Rhetoric, in passing and that would count as a brand mention. I could write about Apple and the newest iPhone and that would count as a brand mention.
When either one of those hypothetical examples elevates to the status of an implied link is when someone reading that article actually searches for the brand new in Google’s search engine or manually types in the URL in the address bar. I imagine Google can only track the latter if you’re using Chrome, but the fundamental principle still applies. Until the visitor actually visits the target resource or brand page being mentioned, it’s not yet an implied link.
How Important Are Implied Links?
So, what does this all mean for the future of your search engine optimization efforts? As Google puts more weight in social signals, as the algorithm gets even more complicated and nuanced, as Google gets even more careful about how it handles traditional backlinks and anchor text, these “secondary” signals and factors will increase in importance.
“Black hat” link building was hugely popular for a number of years, because it represented a way you could game Google’s system and rise to the top of the search rankings. I imagine that implied links could take a similar turn as sites work to improve their reputation and “authority” in the eyes of Google. What you want, as always, is for your links — implied or traditional — to look natural and organic.
SEO will always be a game with a moving target. A popular site may not be characterized as the most authoritative site, just as an authoritative site may not necessarily be the most popular. For the purposes of SEO, reputation, authority and relevance will continue to trump all else. And implied links are one part of that increasingly complex equation.