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Do You Really Know How Many People Link to Your Website?

At some point down the road I’ll be talking about a service called Review My Web, which allows you to compare SEO-related statistics of your own site with those of two competitors. After seeing this post on the service mention the incoming link factor and the common, although misguided, “in Google we trust” phenomenon, I wanted to talk about incoming links more directly first. If anything, it will help you better understand some of the stats you’ll see using RMW later.

Here’s the big issue: Google and Yahoo! show very different results for the number of inlinks your site has. So, between those two biggest sources for inlink counts, who do you trust (especially when you’re getting those stats from a third party service)?

In this case, it’s not Google. Here’s why:

  1. Google doesn’t make full link stats available to the public. No third party tool can pull up the number of links Google actually sees to your site or URL. What they see is what you get when you do a link:http://yoursite.com search in Google.This number is very inaccurate. Google’s admitted that for years, so anyone thinking it’s worth using is beyond behind the times. This statistic is entirely useless as any kind of metric.Why is it inaccurate? Because Google doesn’t want to make it easy for people to see who’s linking to sites other than their own. This search query is designed to return a sample of the links Google sees–nothing more.If you want to see more backlinks Google sees, you need to sign up for their Webmaster Tools. When you set your site up in there, you’ll be able to see all kinds of stats – your indexed pages, upload a sitemap, see pages returning errors, and yes, even see your backlinks.To find your total inlink count, click on your site name (after you’ve set it up). Then click “Links” in the left navigation. Click “Pages withe external links.” Where you see “All Pages,” you’ll see the total link count Google sees to the right (or not – in fact, Google admits this number isn’t complete, but is rather just a larger sample).Compare that to your link:http://yoursite.com query. Using my freelance writing blog as an example, that query returns 197 links, while Webmaster Tools shows 7699. Still not a complete picture (you can’t get one with Google), but a pretty significant difference, no?
  2. Google is very slow to update. This is also very commonly known. Google doesn’t update their backlinks data very often, so the numbers you see (even in Webmaster Tools) can be outdated–your new linkbuilding efforts won’t be reflected in the counts.
  3. Google doesn’t follow all links. They use the no-follow attribute, which means many of your “real” inlinks are ignored (such as those attached to comments you left on no-follow blogs, and most blogs have no-follow comments by default unless the blogger changed that).If all you’re thinking about is SEO and your placement specifically in Google, you may not care about those links. But if you want to get the full picture of where you stand against your competitors, you’ll want to know that. While those links might not add to your PageRank or contribute to your Google search placements, they do still bring in targeted traffic (and if you’re comparing yourself to the competition from an overall marketing or visibility position, you need to consider more than search engine traffic).

Google obviously has its problems when it comes to measuring incoming links. Those problems are big enough that I’d suggest putting more emphasis on Yahoo’s link count as a general metric when comparing two sites.

That said, Yahoo’s Site Explorer isn’t perfect either. But they’re an improvement. Here’s how to check your inlinks with Yahoo!

You don’t need to go through the main site explorer page linked above. You can instead just visit the Yahoo! search engine and type in a link:http://yoursite.com query. It will automatically redirect you to the inlinks page of site explorer for your site’s stats. (If you do go to site explorer directly, after searching for the site you’ll have to click the “inlinks” button for more details.)


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Using my writing blog as an example again, I see 24,444 links. But wait–we need to tweak some things. This total only shows links to the actual URL I entered (the home page). So I go to the dropdown box on the far right and click “entire site.” My total is now 26,142.

Hold on. We’re still not done. this total includes not only links from external sites to my blog, but also internal links from one blog page to another. Uh oh. We don’t want that. No problem. Go to the left dropdown box and click “except from this domain” to rule those pesky links out. My total is now 23,805.

This is the number I care about–the number of external links I have pointing to pages on my blog. Better yet, the links are practically real-time–no waiting weeks or months to see updated link counts like with Big G. In fact, the first backlink showing in my results is to a post on another blog that only went live today.

Neat right? So what’s the problem with Yahoo!? Well, for getting a simple numerical look, very little. The problem is if you want to delve deeper and view all of these backlinks. Yahoo! only currently lets you view and export the first 1000. So the stats are useless for really comprehensive analysis beyond that.

Here’s something else you should consider: if you haven’t properly redirected your site’s URLs to a single version, your stats won’t be tracked with a single search. In other words, while I might type in http://yoursite.com or http://www.yoursite.com and get to the same page either way, search engines can view those as two different sites for tracking purposes. You should choose one format or the other, and have the other redirected to it (but that’s a post for another day – if you already run a blog on a service like WordPress, you may already be redirecting without knowing). Any easy way to check is to do both searches in Yahoo’s site explorer. In my case, the www version only returns one indexed page with about 90 links–insignificant in the grand scheme of things, meaning things seem to be redirecting well stats-wise. If you have large numbers for both, it means you’re not properly redirecting, and your real stats are some combination of search options. (This isn’t just a Yahoo! thing by the way–in Google Webmaster Tools, you should also choose one version in your settings to avoid these issues.)

I suppose it would also be nice if you had the option to ignore no-follow links, but I don’t see that happening, as that’s more Google’s baby. Besides, you’re better off with more thorough information than outdated “samples” when trying to compare your visibility and potential traffic sources (not to mention links from social media sources which are often no-follow) with that of your competitors.

In this case, in Google we shouldn’t trust. While I’m not a huge fan of Google in general, I do use their webmaster tools as one resource in my arsenal to know where my sites and blogs stand. So I’ll be rooting for them to make further improvements on that front.

Keep these things in mind when we talk about the types of stats released by services like Review My Web later on.

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