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Thoughts On Random Link Spikes & The Events That Create Them

If you need some interesting reading material this Holiday season, try Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in the Markets and in Life.

There are some interesting lessons in it that can be applied to link building, especially related to unexpected and random events that not only affect people, the economy, news, and markets, but if you think it through, weblinks.

It’s rarely discussed for its organic ranking effect, but there can be no doubt random and unexpected events have a dramatic effect on the web’s link graph.

Some link spikes occur as a result of a news event that is shocking, like what has unfolded over the past few weeks with the Penn State football program, and as a related entity, affected a disadvantaged youth program created by Jerry Sandusky named The Second Mile.

How many of you had ever heard of SecondMile or been to that website before the news broke about what went on inside the cocoon of that program? I’m a college football fanatic, and I’d never heard of it in my life.

Look at this early November blurb from the PennLive website. Note the seemingly proud comment about pageviews.

On Friday, The Patriot-News was the first news organization to report that former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky had been charged with (removed by me)… Since then, the national media have descended on Happy Valley and our own coverage has drawn 6 million page views on PennLive.com.

(Is a sexual abuse column’s impact on pageviews something to mention at all? Pageviews are not news)

Bad News = Links = A Sad Phenomena

As a father of a nine year old boy who has been to many camps, I fought back the urge to drive to Pennsylvania and beat Sandusky senseless. Instead, as a long time link builder who has seen and studied link spikes for many years, the first day I heard about the SecondMile website, I plugged the SecondMile URL into my backlink analysis tools, just for the sake of curiosity.

I knew what was about to happen to that URL, I just wanted some quasi-empirical data. Look at the below table and graph:

Why The Engines Must Differentiate Link Spikes

In its over ten years of existence, the SecondMile site was not exactly a link magnet. But then something newsworthy happened, and in 4 weeks, it increased its inbound links over tenfold. We all know what happened. And sadly, it’s human nature to be attracted to bad news; the worse the better.

Now, in a Web where a social layer of link sharing dominates daily new link flow, the engines are going to have to figure out just what these spikes mean and if they matter – how, when, and why. I don’t envy them.

Not to be cynical, but a similar link spike happened many years ago when there was a mine collapse in Utah. The Utah Mining Association website, which never had more than a handful of links and visitors, suddenly found itself in a hailstorm of links, clicks, and media inquiries. All due to an unfortunate accident.

Online, bad news breeds links. It was the same with all the websites that sprouted after the Deepwater Horizon oil Rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

I don’t want to stay stuck on the bad news side of the link spike fence, so let’s also remember that good news following bad news can sometimes spark new sites that are trying to help. Think of the new sites that launched after Hurricane Katrina or the East Asian Tsunami. New relief sites never seen before sprout up and attract links by the thousands, helping accomplish some good. This is the positive side of link spikes.

What if a sports team that seemingly had no chance to win a championship. suddenly had one of those miracle seasons nobody expected?

Any of you old enough to remember the Amazin’ Mets’ of 1969 know that if that happened today, a new website call AmazinMets.com would have been launched, along with many others, and out of nowhere, we would have an entire new universe of sites and content devoted to a subject that was considered an impossibility 8 months earlier.

Randomness As A Link Building Strategy

I’m being facetious (sort of), but if all you want is links, and you don’t care how, then convince your CEO to fabricate something horrible or incredible about the company, call CNN, and Tweet it. Watch the ensuing frenzy of links come flowing in.

Then, ask yourself if these links should have any impact on any aspect of Web search, news search, blog search, or any other search. The nature of the Web right now seems to gravitate towards sharing and linking to the sensational. As I mentioned earlier, let’s hope the engines account for this.

Two final thoughts…

Part of SecondMile’s slogan contains the words “Providing Children with Help…”.  Those words appear on 380 million websites, but now, with their 612 links, SecondMile.org ranks first for that phrase. This was not in any way intentional or part of any SEO strategy.

It was random and could have happened to any other site with any other slogan that found itself embroiled in controversy. But it’s a perfect example of the faultyness of the randomness of link spikes and unintended organic consequences.

Lastly, did you know hurricanes have already been named for upcoming years? Check out this page at NOAA. I’ll bet you didn’t know that in 2012 the 1st named storm of the season will be “Alberto”.

Take a look at this website. This site is a fine line example of planning for future randomness. None of us can know which storms will become Hurricanes, which Hurricanes will make landfall, and which hurricanes will cause destruction to the extent that websites and organized efforts to help will be needed.

But a forward thinking marketer recognized that sooner or later, one of those named storms is going to bring with it a catastrophe. At least their goal is to help people.

That’s smart planning for future random link spikes.

Let’s also remember that you don’t need a real or manufactured tragedy or sensationalist linkbait to rank well. You don’t have to piggy back on bad news. You can capitalize on current events in many ways. They don’t all have to be slimy.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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