While pretty much anyone that knows anything about search engine optimization can tell you that links are important (ok, REALLY important), most of the small business owners that I've spoken with really don't have any idea of why links matter beyond the simple concept that links will help them rank better.

Since it's hard to build a good link strategy if you don't actually understand why links are so important, I thought that I'd put together a new series of articles that examines why links matter so much to both search engines and to Internet users.

Today, in part one, I'll explore the idea of links as the threads of the web, helping both search engines and humans find their way from one site to another.

Links Are the Internet's Road Map

Perhaps the single most important reason why links matter is because they act as a sort of road map to the content on the Internet. When Tim Berners-Lee first created HTML back in the early 90's, he included the concept of hyperlinks as a way of getting quickly from one point of data to another. Sometimes that meant a jump within a document and sometimes it meant a jump from one page to another. These days, we simply call them links and we use them to describe the clickable text that takes a web site user to a new set of content.

Back in the early days of the World Wide Web, links were the ONLY way to get from point A to point B. There was a program called Archie that would search through the files on a particular server, but there was no way to run a search of all of the content that was available via the Internet. Since there were no search engines you had to rely on people to make note of good sites and to add links to them to their own sites. Once the first major search engine with a "crawler" or "spider" popped up in 1994 it didn't take long before search engine programmers realized that following links was the most efficient way to find and index new sites.

The End of Search Engine Submissions

By the early part of the 2000's search engine submission was rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Search engines were now programming spiders that were skilled enough to follow all links which made submitting a site fairly useless. Most search engines closed down their submission forms or began to ignore them.

They were beginning to realize that a site with no incoming links probably didn't contain valuable enough content to be worth indexing anyway. These days links are essential to making sure that the popular search engines will both find and index all of the pages on your web site. In fact, without links, your site might as well not even exist as far as organic search is concerned.

Why Do Search Engines Need to Follow Links?

It's important to understand that search engine spiders simply do what they are programmed to do. They aren't capable of thought or independent action. That means that search engines are unable to visit sites by typing in URLs that they've seen on television or by running searches for whatever query strike their fancy. As such, they must rely on links to help them find their way from one site to another.

This is why a good link building campaign will help your site get indexed more quickly and more completely by the major search engines. Spider-based search engines such as Google, Yahoo! and MSN find new sites to include in their indexes by following links from one site to the next.

By working on building links to your Web site from other spidered sites, you'll eventually receive a visit to your site from one of these spiders and will find your site listed in the most popular search engines. All of this should happen without your ever taking the time to submit your site to a search engine.

It's also why links are essential to the indexing process.

The more links you gain, the more quickly you will be indexed. In fact, the more links you have and the more search engines begin to recognize you as an authority in your topical area, the more often the search engines will visit you and the more time they will spend digging through your site to make sure they've included all of your pages.

In the next installment of this series, I'll explain why search engines look to links as part of their attempt to replicate human judgement when placing value on a site.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

March 12, 2007

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Why Links Matter - Part 1