There has been a heated debate on Sphinn about a controversial post by Rand Fishkin of Seomoz. There is a lot to learn from that discussion, but instead of focusing on the debate, I want to talk about something that keeps coming up: Google's Sitelinks.
Google doesn't provide a lot of information, but this is what they say about the matter:
Sitelinks are presented if they are found to be somehow useful.
A site’s structure allows Google to find good Sitelinks.
The process of selection, creation and presentation of Sitelinks is fully automated.
Let's forget the technical details for the moment and focus on what Google's purpose is here: they want to save users some clicks by pointing them to the right page directly in the search results. Sitelinks appear only for the first result, and only for sites with meaningful traffic. (Google uses the toolbar data of visitor frequency to make this determination.)
I decided to dig deeper and study the sources, try some examples of my own and make my own conclusions. I'd definitely like to have Sitelinks when people search for my blog, and I'm sure many of my readers here would like the same. Here’s what I learned…
The Sitelink Debate
Michael VanDeMar hints that Google's Sitelinks are an indication of a site's authority in Google's eyes. Danny Sullivan is not too convinced and points to some curious examples. Essentially, he notes that some sites that would be considered 'bad' by Google, such as ThreadWatch and TextLinkBrokers, have Sitelinks. Conversely, he shows that Volkswagen's website, which is certainly an authority for VW terms, does not show Sitelinks when you search for 'vw' or 'volkswagen.'
There are some weak points in Danny's logic. For example, when you search for “Volkswagen of America,” the Sitelinks do appear. Also, after reading Google help pages about Sitelinks, it is clear that they are generated algorithmically, not manually, so it doesn't really matter if Google engineers don't like a particular website such as ThreadWatch. I bet they don't like Aaron Wall's either, and it has Sitelinks. Computers are clearly making the decisions.
Bill Slawski found a really useful patent that provides even more useful information. I highly recommend you read the whole post on his site. For my purposes here I am just quoting part of his conclusion:
It’s interesting, but not terribly surprising, that so much of the generation of these additional links are based upon user-behavior based information. The patent does note that it is only the top result they are showing these additional links for, so to have lists like this appear, it’s helpful to rank pretty well.
Beyond being number one, the first step in getting Google to show additional links from your site may be to get lots of traffic to your pages. It’s hard to tell how much is enough, but it has to be enough for them to think that this will be a good user experience for searchers to list those pages.
The second may be to have a core group of pages that tend to get visited more than other pages of the site – the only reason to list pages like this is if you are helping make it easier for searchers find what they may be looking for.
Fun with Sitelinks
Now for the interesting part. Let's see how popular SEO blogs are doing in terms of Sitelinks. Rand managed to gather analytics data last year from a sizeable group. Assuming that most of the sites have grown in similar proportion, I performed obvious searches to see if there were sites that do not have navigational links. I found it interesting that Matt Cutts, Pronet Advertising, Search Engine Journal, and several others don't have Sitelinks. Those sites get more traffic (at least last year) than Jim Boykin's that does have Sitelinks.
Let’s face it, Sitelinks take up valuable screen real estate that we all want. Having Sitelinks is like having the first 5 or 6 positions in the SERP (search engine result page). You won't get higher click-through than that. I don't know you, but after considering all this, it’s hard to argue that Sitelinks are not a clear indication of a site's quality and authority.
But that’s not the whole story. After carefully examining those same SEO sites, it became clear to me that there is a reason why they don't have Sitelinks. They don't have site navigation that encourages people to click onto other pages in the site. I'm sure most people visiting Matt's or Pronet's blogs are mostly interested in the posts; other pages simply don't get enough visits for Google to consider useful enough to include in search results.
I think that Sitelinks are a good signal of the authority and quality of a site, but not necessarily the inverse. The fact that a site doesn't have Sitelinks does not mean that it is inferior or unimportant. If you want to get Sitelinks to your blog, the first step, as Bill recommends, is to increase the traffic to it; the second is to make sure you have a set of links that your visitors will consider going to as soon as they land.
This makes me think that I should probably move my recommended reading block above the fold