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There is more to trust than links

SEO digest

Every now and then I see someone equate “trust” with “links” in an SEO forum or blog post. I suppose it was inevitable that people would eventually morph their “authority site” buzz expressions into “trusted site” buzz expressions. The SEO community embraces many ideas at the same time, so there is always an air of change around any semi-popular buzz expression. Evolution in idiom is a sign of a living language (or jargon).

Although I’m still not clear on what people mean by “authority site”, I’m pretty sure that most people think it has something to do with links. Some people have defined “authority site” to mean something equivalent to “my site has always ranked well for this expression and is therefore an authority for that keyword”.

In my experience, when I’ve asked people to clarify what they mean by “authority site”, the majority suggest that an “authority site” should rank well for just about any expression (because of all the links pointing to it).

If that were really the case, Yahoo! would rank well for “elephant” or maybe “business directory”. For that matter, the Adobe site (which ranks first for “click here”) should also rank well for “directory” or “photographers”. It has a photographers directory and there are lots of links pointing to the site. But it doesn’t do so well for either 1-term expression. Does that mean Adobe’s site has no “authority”?

I just have a problem with arguing that has a stronger link profile than, so the old “authority site” buzz expression really doesn’t make any sense.

But “trust” — now that’s a horse of a different feather. A trusted site is something that we’ve been able to talk about with some actual knowledge for the past few years. We can define trusted site as any Web site that a search engine permits to rank for a variety of expressions AND to pass value on to other sites within its index.

A trusted site most undoubtedly has links pointing to it, but is a site trusted simply because it has links pointing to it? Is it trusted because it has links from other trusted sites pointing to it? Can a site be trusted for any other reason?

I would say that you can answer all three questions with a very qualified “yes”. Yes, there does seem to be a connection between search engine trust and links. But you can also show that sites lose their trusted status for non-linking reasons. All you have to do is cram some hidden keywords onto a trusted site and watch its rankings drop.

Search engine trust is based on behavior — behavior of Web sites. Your site becomes trusted not only because other sites link to yours, but also because your site behaves well.

Your site loses trusted status because it behaves poorly. Now, I suspect a site MIGHT lose trusted status if it loses all its links — unless maybe it’s been trusted for a long time. Think about it. Suppose your site acquired links from other trusted sites, became trusted, and then lost all those links as those sites failed. Maybe your site has new links from untrusted sites. Should your site lose trust simply because it lost those older links?

Linking minds ought to want to know.

But people who are concerned with trust need to focus on behavior rather than links. Links can behave badly or well, but the sites on which links are positioned can also behave badly or well. That is, your inbound links may all be good, clean, trustworthy links but they might be coming from sites that have otherwise behaved badly.

Hence, trust does NOT equate to links because it is not ABOUT links. Rather, trust is extended because everyone in the chain is behaving according to a search engine’s basic requirements. Your site can lose its ability to pass anchor text and/or PageRank if the site does naughty things (or if it appears to do naughty things).

Then again, when you’re talking about Google specifically, trust might also depend in part on which index your page is in. I don’t believe that Google trusts documents in the Supplemental Results Index — at least not nearly as much as it trusts documents in the Main Web Index. I’ve never seen a Googler talk about Trust and the Supplemental Index at the same time, but it’s pretty clear that you get out of the Supplemental Index through the accumulation of PageRank.

Still, suppose your site does naughty things and accumulates lots of PageRank? Will Google automagically promote the site from the Supplemental Results Index to the Main Web Index?

SEO minds want to know.

published @ September 26, 2008

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