Get High Rankings by Building Authoritative, Irrelevant links?

Some of my friends have been known to argue that irrelevant links have long been detected and discounted by search engines, making related links an important part of your link building strategy. Do you really need  large numbers of “relevant” links to get a site to rank for your top keyword?

No. As long you’ve built links on reasonably trusted, authoritative domains, and you’ve thrown in some (sometimes over) optimised anchor text for good measure, you can still rank. That’s not to say relevance plays an important role, but not as much as one as I had been hoping for.

I’ve been checking out some high search volume, relevant key phrases to get optimising my new company website for. One of the most consistent things I’ve found by checking out the back link profile data is that link authority and inbound anchor text optimisation completely outweighs relevance of the links themselves. Though I can’t tell you the keyphrase, or expose the competition’s link building strategy, there are some very cool take aways below.

The data sources

I gathered data from Yahoo Site Explorer and Linkscape. All the usual metrics were there (see below) with an additional  series of percentage calculations and counts of inbound link relevancy by profiling link URL’s, titles and domains.

Data captured

-Google Position
-# Yahoo Inlinks
-# Relevant links in first 100 Yahoo Inlinks
-Yahoo Inbound link Relevancy %
-mozRank and other Linkscape metrics from the advanced report CSV
-Inbound link URL relevancy (count in Linkscape export)
-Inbound link relevance %
-Most valuable inbound link mR
-Count of relevant anchors
-Relevant anchor % of total inbound links
-Average URL mR of all relevant inbound anchors
-Highest mR of all inbound (relevant anchors)

The takeaways

1) The first 100 links reported by Yahoo showed high, medium or low relevancy counts. There was no strong correlation between Yahoo Site Explorer inbound link relevancy in the first (arguably most authoritative) 100 links and Google ranking for the term monitored. The top ranking site had 1 relevant inbound link, on a non keyword rich domain name.

relevant links in Yahoo

The second and third results contained much larger numbers of relevant inlinks, though the vast majority of them were nofollowed, comment links from blogs.

2) mozRank of the URLs offers a stronger correlation in some cases, with a significant anomaly in position 6. This ranking happened to be a very strong domain, with an article on the subject in question holding the ranking position with a non canonical form URL.


3) Juice-wise, most of the domains sat in a comparitively similar range (domain juice is the sum of mozRanks for all URLs in a domain. It is shown on the same 10 point logarithmic scale that mozRank uses), so not much joy there.


4) Inbound link URL relevancy *(count) was calculated by looking at the URLs, domains and titles of the most authoritative inbound links in the Linkscape data.

* I would like a way to make this calculation stronger by also including mentions of the key phrase in the body content on the linked-from page, so consider this a rough guide. To make the calculation even stronger, an array of related key phrases could be generated and each one used to count towards relevancy. This would likely increase the relevancy count in some cases!


5) The overall inbound link relevancy expressed as a percentage to make the comparision a touch more meaningful. Again, the highest ranking sites inbound link profiles often produced the lowest (or very low) levels of relevant inbound links.


6) I found the percentage of “optimised” inbound links for our top 10 ranking URLs quite interesting. Could there be a tolerance range in which a search engine finds certain anchor text distribution percentages acceptable? The first 5 results, with a gentle downward slope followed by a increasing percentage for the lower positions looked really interesting and I’m definitely looking forward to doing more tests with other search terms.


7) My favourite measure – a plot of the average URL mozRank of all inbound links that carry relevant anchor text, originally discussed in a post about the Vince update, appears once again. Although the difference (slope) is gradual, and there are a few anomalies, there’s definitely a trend to be found here.


What’s the conclusion?

My conclusion? Sites are ranking regardless of how “relevant” this test perceives their inbound link profiles to be. The top ranking sites in the test had consistently low relevant link counts. Instead, authority factors such as value (mR) passed via relevant anchors and anchor text term distribution percentages seem to play a strong influencing role in final ranking position.

For next time, I’d really like to spend more time analysing and defining “relevancy”, as I mentioned in point 4. That said, I don’t think we would see much of a change in the patterns, with high ranking sites continuing to obtain rankings using heavily optimised inbound link anchors from trusted domains.

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54 thoughts on “Get High Rankings by Building Authoritative, Irrelevant links?

  1. David says:

    Awesome post great visuals and graphs, it show and im sure it will lead to a new rise in spammers chasing authority links but explains how you can step outside your niche to grab extra links as long as it has authority…

    How does domain age skew this?

  2. Yura says:

    Did you take into account the fact that authoritative sites get links from a wider range of sites, many of which are irrelevant to the topic, but the links would still be natural in that case? I.e., authority sites have lots of links from relative authority sites, but even more links from irrelevant sites just because they are on the top.

    I'd be measuring the nature of those links instead of them being relevant and irrelevant.

    For example, you counted comment spam nofollowed links as relevant, while I'd count them as unnatural.

  3. @David

    In my opinion, domain age doesn't play the influencing role that others believe. If you've got the links, you're ok. It would be interesting to factor in the data next time though :-)

  4. Hi Yuri,

    Actually (in the case of the yahoo nofollowed links) I don't have a choice but to count them, but I'm not saying those links are influencing the rankings.

    Not that I shared all of my data here, I did record the highest value links on each domain – remember I'm using this study to enhance my own rankings…

    You mention a wide range of domains and my answer is yes, I do take domain diversity into account using the linkscape data.

  5. Adrian says:

    Richard, another good post, well done fella.
    The more I do this for my employer and more ethical I try to stay, the more annoyed I get when looking at competitors who are clearly getting unrelated links and paying for others. Me-finks-me-too might be the strategy for the enlightened!

  6. MikeTek says:

    Excellent research and post.

    If you base your SEO "expertise" on what you'll read on the big visible SEO blogs you'll get this wrong. You'll go on thinking that you need links from relevant websites. Not the case at all.

    Some of the top ranking pages for ultra-competitive keywords have only a few hundred inbound links with exact match anchor text – and none of the links from relevant websites.

    I see it all the time. The strategies that aren't supposed to work continue to work wonders. How long are you going to play Mr. Nice Guy when it's clear big brother isn't really watching?

  7. Alex juel says:

    Excellent and very thorough post.

    One question, although many of the links are not on relevant domains, are they on relevant articles/pages?

    I don't think it would be likely to gain a high quality link from an authority website on a page that has nothing to do with your own content.

  8. David Lindop says:

    I was speaking with Tim Nash about this the other day – he claimed relevancy had a much smaller role than SEOs believe (actually he claimed relevancy is a myth for ranking purposes).

    Still, I can't shake the feeling that one should be building links from relevant websites. If Google don't care then you've lost nothing but a little time scouting for links – however, if Google does care (or puts more weight on this in the future) then you've already set yourself up for an easy ride.

    Great post however… always like graphs :)

  9. Couldn't agree more, David. I really hope that, regardless of what works today, the search engineers will nail an algo that truly detects, and prefers relevant authoritatve links. To that end, the advice really should be "build authoritative, relevant links" for a long term sustainable strategy. Hopefully.

  10. Jebaloo says:

    You should be an official spokesperson for Linkscape – you bring it to life. Great analysis, and what with all this data and insight, I'm sure you'll be ranking for 'Purple Monkey Dishwasher' in no time at all. : – )

  11. Most frequently, entirely unrelated sites and pages, which is the sign of a heavily manipulated link building campaign…

  12. Excellent point Mike and thanks for dropping by!

  13. Thanks for the research, conclusions and stats to back it up.
    It seems relevancy isn’t really a big factor when you are chasing high rankings. But what do you think of linkage ?

  14. Terry says:

    Thanks for the research!!

  15. What about getting high rankings with no links at all? Is that possible? :0 :)

  16. Ha! The internet would be a very different place if it were…

  17. Paddy Moogan says:

    Great post Richard. I think a mistake that most SEO's make is not taking the time to sit down and analyse competitor and ranking data. They tend to rush off and build as many links as they can without looking at the bigger picture first.

    One thing did interest me in particular, the anomoly in position 6. Are you seeing this at all on other queries? I know Matt Cutts addressed (and fixed) the bug that could cause this a long time ago but I've seen one site in particular consistently rank 6th for a number of keywords. Sorry wish I could share!

    Just throwing an idea out there :)


  18. linkbuildr says:

    I would high disagree with you on influence of domain age. I've seen it time and time again rank sites that shouldn't be for some serious kw's.

  19. SEO karachi says:

    i believe link is a link it doesnt matter if it is not relevent but it must be high pr..

  20. Arnie K says:

    Just found this post by trying out Real time searches. Any way, I thought I would also comment on the study, these things are so hard to do because you cannot control everything when it comes to SEO research. Regardless, we feel authority links are where its at — with good anchor text. Relevancy is cool, but I'd take authority over relevancy any day.

  21. Well put and glad to hear you found this away from the usual channels! Welcome and thanks for commenting.

  22. sk33lz says:


    Great post on this seemingly developing problem. I have been noticing this trend in the US index as well. I use the same tools you mentioned, and see the same sorts of trends on many keywords for my clients.

  23. SEO India says:

    In my opinion relevancy is very important in increasing page rank. This is my own experience that Google notice link relevancy and content relevancy during PR updation and give PR according to content or back link relevancy for particular page & domain. I also do agree that if we have an authorized irrelevant website or popular brand website, we can take link back from this site, it will not have any negative effect on our Search engine ranking, it will defiantly help in increasing search engine ranking but as far as PR concern I would defiantly say relevancy is very important. Personally I believe in quality not in quantity. The 10 relevant or authorized/branded back links is equal to 100 irrelevant or unauthorized back links. I think so. For an example if i will have the opportunity for taking link back from the few popular sites like Google, Twitter, Facebook..etc, will i reject this opportunity?, never i will at once accept this proposal.

    I have heard many times from many SEO experts talking about Page rank. How the Page Rank can be increased?. They always discuss that we have a good website, good Google search engine ranking, good amount of web traffics, excellent link popularity but our Page Rank is not increasing, what is the reason, they don't know.

  24. I'm not saying domain age isn't a ranking factor – I'm just saying that most SEO's agree that is not the most important, and the link strength could overrule the domain age variable.

  25. Dixon Jones says:

    Good data. Nice post (as usual!)

    Dave Naylor once ranked for the single word “vi4gra” after an anchor text link from Danny Sullivan. May have been a few years back, but it still made me take note.

  26. Cheers Dixon – I edited the reference to everybody’s favourite pharmaceutical just in case this page ends up stuck in safe search (again ;-)

  27. SEO Doctor says:

    Like Rands point of buying links, you need to look at the long term. In 2 years time those non relevant links may be doing nothing for you. Its got to be better trying to get top quality relevant links for a long term strategy, and yer just get a few authorative non-relevant links to rank now.

  28. sk33lz says:

    The long term strategy has always been what top SEOs say to take, and I also agree with that strategy in most cases. The problem is, if your client’s listings are squashed in the short term by black hatters targeting over-weighted factors, there may be no long term strategy to think about…

  29. Dave Snyder says:

    I don't think its an all or nothing concept.

    A site, in order to rank well, needs to have links from a number of places, and links that have various attributes.

    Power links, the ones being classified here are important, and it is why we leverage social media for our clients. How else are you going to get a link from the BBC naturally if you are not a big brand?

    Relevant links are there too, as I am sure they are with the sites tested here outside of the top 100 links tested here.

    And anchor text, should be varied naturally, but focused anchor text should still be in the mix.

    As SEOs, we are too often looking for the silver bullet. A+B=C. The reality looks more like the drake equation.

  30. Authority links are always helpful… but too often, authority can't be secured without $, whether through press release distribution or paid links.

    Relevant links should generally be easier to come by as a niche blog or site tries to develop its authority, but relevant sites that aren't direct competition tend to lack overall authority.

    With link building, IMO, if you have a natural looking profile with a combination of all types of links, you're going to get rankings. No matter how easy you try to make it, link building is still going to require the tedious work of – that's right – building links. Just get ready to buckle down and get to it.

  31. Hi Dave, thanks for dropping by! Just a quick note on the relevancy count – the 5th graph (expressed as a percentage) is calculated from the Linkscape data, so we're talking a relevancy count in the first few thousand links rather than just the top 100. Either way, totally agree with what you say – in this particular niche, it would be reasonable to assume you could own the top ranking by out-linkbuilding these guys with value AND relevance.

  32. Excellent work. Empirical data, though a single case, really helps provide the insight needed to best serve the customer. I also believe that "expertise" as one aspect of relevance is about who considers you an expert, and then the "subject matter" of which one is an expert is based more on content in a vector-space model and the linking between similar expert vector-space comparisons. Thanks!

  33. You can look forward to some lively debate on this. I've just linked to you from the Internet marketing Forum "Warrior Forum". But we'll never know the definitive answer to this will we? Then SEO would be all too easy.

  34. Thanks Malcolm, where's the link to that? I'll join in the conversation….

  35. Jen says:

    Great post.!
    Relevance is only a part of the equation and a highly over-rated one at that. I look forward to your further analysis of relevance. Because I believe that relevance is an equation in and of itself.

  36. Regular articles and combined linkbuilding techniques is all you need. Commenting on other people's blogs is very useful as they tend to comment to your blog and spread throught your network sometimes… Natural linking occurs slow but builds up with time, and if you are serious about your work and blog, you will succeed.

    I have subscribed to your RSS by the way…

  37. Jonny Scott says:

    Thanks for sharing. Out of interest, any reason why you did not bring Majestic SEO into this analysis?

  38. Hi Jonny, I’m planning to do exactly that in another post for the future. Thanks for the reminder!

  39. Very good post – thanks for your researches!

  40. Angela (think angela's link pkg) has been clainming this for awhile. Your conclusions prove she is on the right track.

  41. Thanks for this, this confirms my findings of sites in very competative niches achieving top rankings with VERY irrelevant but also very authoritative links.

  42. Next SEO says:


    Your post is great and your conclusions are really impresive.

    thanks for sharing with us.

  43. Sorry. It's here –

    Didn't go far. Needs more to join in. cheers, Mal.

  44. Mike Evans says:

    It will be interesting to return to this page in three years time and to see whether anything is still relevant, I suspect new ways of ranking will be brought in, just as mere mortals like myself have got the hang of backlinks and quality website structure

  45. No problem! Good to have you on board (excuse the pun…)

  46. did you ever get around to quantifying relevancy? nice work dude.

  47. Cichlid says:

    We just had a huge discussion at work about irrelevant links getting discounted by search engines. Thats great info and confirms what I’ve said. Thank you.

  48. Good to know! Glad you found this post useful…

  49. I wonder if you don’t have any irrelevant links, that the search engines could see that as unnatural? Just a thought.

  50. thanks for give me information
    and thanks for research

  51. great information and i think it is true!

  52. hernia says:

    Thanks to you we ve got more links! thanks:)

  53. I have spent a lot of time pursuing only relevant links, but thanks to your article I will now also accept more irrelevant ones providing they are of good authority.

  54. Well this is define in good way , all you have to do is a proper strategy for doing this

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