How Google assigns and removes the value of a link

The true value of a link is not always easy to see.

Back when Google first started, they used links as votes between pages. Each link you gained was a vote for your page and so the person with the most links was the one who usually ranked.

Nowadays that whole calculation is far more complex and links are just a part of a wider journey to what should rank. Links are a hugely important part of that journey but you can't just out link people to the top in most cases now.

The reason that Google started out using links as their main metric was that they used the link as a proxy for the user. It was a way of Google gaining signals for what was important to the user.
Nowadays Google has so much information directly from the user (think Chrome, Google analytics etc etc) and so they no longer need to rely on links as a way of working out what pages are important to the browser.

Once it became clear that rankings could be manipulated by gaining a high volume of links, Google took action to reduce that manipulation. The date that all really changed was April 2012 when Google first rolled out their Penguin filter and started to apply a more formal system of manual actions as penalties against sites that they saw abusing them.

For a few years they used to run the Penguin filter as a separate standalone routine and so if you found your site caught up by Penguin you could often face a very long wait to escape its penalising effects.
Since October 2016 though, Google has Penguin baked into its core ranking algorithm. Today its Penguin that judges if a link is worthy of passing its full value and this is the main mechanism by which Google can ignore those links that seek to manipulate their search ranking algorithms.
Back in 2012, I was a link builder and I had been doing all types of links (including some volume stuff) for many years. Identifying the change in stance I co-founded the business that is now called Kerboo, one of the worlds most trusted link analysis platforms. Through Kerboo I get to see what links people are building, what links seem to get penalised and what links seem to get ignored (I created a metric called LinkValue to show this inside the Kerboo platform).

With that background here is how I like to think about the factors that affect what value your links are going to give you.
Links typically help qualify your page for consideration in the ranking calculation. There are a raft of other factors that determine where you actually sit in the SERPs but without links you won't even get into consideration.

The things that will impact your links ability to pass their full value include: -

What equity does the link itself have to pass?
This is a slightly old school way of looking at link value but I find its still valuable to think about the value a link could pass as a gross value.

How trusted is the domain that is linking?
If its a very well trusted domain then logically you can have more confidence that its links are likely to pass their value more reliably.

Are there any signals that could lead Google to determine that the link was placed for manipulative reasons?
If its obvious to you that the link was only placed with its SEO benefit in mind then its a good bet that Real Time Penguin could also make that judgement and therefore remove its ability to pass its value.
Things that can nudge Google into thinking that a link is possibly manipulative include: -

Anchor text that is heavily commercial or lacks variety.
Previous experience of that site (has it often been disavowed by other webmasters? / are there obvious signals that they sell links etc ?)

Is the link Rel=Nofollow etc?
Google typically ignored all the value a link could pass if the link had a rel=nofollow. When they added two other ways to tag links, rel=UGC and rel=sponsored they announced that they regarded these three tags as ‘hints’ rather than a rule.
This led to a lot of SEO’s believing that nofollow/UGC/sponsored links now pass their value in a lot of cases.
Whilst it's fairly evident that Google always made a judgement on whether it would take or ignore the nofollow signal, it's our belief that Nofollow links rarely pass their value.
At Offpage we never discount any link as having no value at all.
Every link has a risk and a reward and it's making sure that the mix of links you gain continues to be positive for your site that really determines how successful you are.
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