Linking for SEO Evolves: Two Degrees of Separation

spn_exclusive1Even the most novice SEO student has long since realized that content is king, links (and lots of them) matter, and digital media without external and internal link shares might as well not even come out to play. In recent years, SEO experts have rightly focused on making connections with like-minded content creators, carefully selecting partners that may not be direct competitors, but offer valuable and relevant information. Many less savvy marketers have therefore assumed that links are links, and the more the merrier. As Google algorithms have become all the more sophisticated, it is now readily apparent that all links are not created equal, and the company webmasters keep is key to their own search rankings. Digital creators must now think carefully about who they link to, who in turn links back to them, and – what most currently do not consider – every last link their partners feature too. This concept is currently referred to as co-citation (or co-occurrence in some circles).

Simply put, co-citation in SEO is about the two degrees of separation rule – who you know, and who they know as well. It’s not enough to have a lot of link partners – quality once again trumps quantity.

Co-Citation Breakdown

In academic circles, co-citation is old, but still very relevant, news. If Professor X writes an article about black holes, he has little to crow about if his research never receives citations from other journals. Furthermore, if the black hole article is only cited by small or unheard of institutions with little to no academic clout, Professor X has still not hit a homerun. What he wants, obviously, is for the Harvards and Yales of the world to herald his article as a game changer, and to make relevant and notable citations to his research. That is the academic holy grail of co-citations. In the world of SEO, things work remarkably similar.

In the old days of SEO (going back way over a decade) links reigned supreme. If your content had a bundle of incoming links, rankings increased. But as link share sites starting spamming the digital stratosphere, algorithms caught on and upped the ante, thereby discouraging the horribly annoying trend of websites that simply linked to a gazillion other websites, with no actual content (which equaled an abysmal user experience.)

Then came the emphasis on more classic ranking tactics: keywords, anchor text, and the authority of the incoming and outgoing links. Authority, of course, references the reputation of your content partners. IMDB, as an example, maintains a much higher authority over a link to Frank’s Movie Stuff – which is obviously common sense. The newest factor these days with co-citation, however, revolves around association. It’s no longer enough for you to ensure your links are current, relative and authoritative. You must also be aware of who your partners link to. If you link to Frank’s Movie Stuff, and they link to a plethora of sites with bad SEO reputations, you’ve just damaged your own ranking too. Once again, who you know matters.

What Makes Bad Neighborhoods so Bad?

It’s fairly easy for Google to spot sites that link out to clusters of bad domains. “Bad” domains are defined as sites that have little value to the user, employing spam-like tactics that are simply after traffic and user data, without offering any relevant content or services. Domains like these often create a neighborhood of like-minded links, because it wouldn’t make sense to send a user to a content-rich site in a good neighborhood and spoil the endless loop of profit-making clicks. Therefore, bad domains are almost always a part of bad neighborhoods.

Even if you never link to a spammy blog network, you must take note if one of your content partners does. Search algorithms absolutely employ the old adage of “guilty by association.” So think twice when seeking out external links – make sure any linking domain employs the same high-value tactics that you do, or your ranking will suffer.

It’s a Matter of Semantics

Co-citation is not just about link association; word choice is also imperative. As a result, co-citation is often now referenced as co-occurrence, which incorporates semantic similarity. SEO expert Rand Fishkin explains this beautifully in a November 2012 video about co-occurrence.

He suggests that we consider the query “cell phone ratings”, mentioned on a site that also talks about Consumer Reports, but does not link to ConsumerReports.org – say they simply make the statement: “cell phones ratings as compared to Consumer Reports.” Google doesn’t care the link is missing – its algorithms know to put two and two together.

How does this impact your business? It makes keywords related to your brand that much more critical. If high-authority sites simply make a reference to keywords directly tied to your brand, your ranking can increase. You therefore don’t need partners to link to you. This is a huge, fascinating, and uncharted new SEO trend. We are now seeing sites receiving substantial rankings without the typical telltale signs: anchor text, article keywords and text, title tags, etc. And the reason is co-citation / co-occurrence. This is perhaps the most innovative and exciting new SEO trend in years.

In a Nutshell

Co-citation is admittedly a complex concept, but there are a few considerations to add to your SEO know-how going forward. Here are the key takeaways:

* There are good domain neighborhoods, and not so good ones – stay away from the spammy networks completely. This means you don’t link to them, they don’t link to you, and your content partners follow the same policy.

* Authority rules – link to and from reputable sites that are relevant to your content and business.

* Quality over quantity is still a better formula. You want links, but a lot of bad links do far more damage than a few targeted links.

* Links are not the only cornerstone to SEO success – words matter too. Study keyword trends and tactics carefully as you choose your own brand’s top semantic associations. If partners won’t link to you outright, get them to talk about you with selected keywords – this alone can increase your ranking.

Producer, game designer and freelance writer, Tina Courtney-Brown has been a bona fide web fiend since she discovered Poetry.com in 1994. Tina’s fortés include all aspects of online business, social media, marketing trends, alternative health, digital production and many more. She’s a passionate truth-teller, a sincere advocate for the environment, and an obsessive dessert creator. Learn more at her personal website, or find her on Facebook.

About the author


Tina Courtney

Conscious online marketer, web executive, and multi-faceted writer Tina Courtney has been creating and fostering online innovations since 1996. Tina has assisted many clients in maximizing online production and marketing efforts, and is a staff writer for SiteProNews, one of the Web’s foremost webmaster and tech news blogs. She’s produced and marketed innovative content for major players like Disney and JDate, as well as boutique startups galore, with fortes including social media, SEO, influencer marketing, community management, lead generation, and project management. Tina is also a certified Reiki practitioner, herbalist, and accomplished life coach.  Learn more on LinkedIn, Facebook and Google+. Visit My Google+ Profile


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  • You have very well explained the two aspects and i totally agree content is the king followed by linking and if your content is not convincing unique and interesting then you are surely not gonna get appreciation and moreover no traffic at all.

  • Quality Content is the king today. If we will not take care of our content Google can penalize us without any warning or notification.

  • Very interesting article and you are right quality matter not quantity if we links with one good high authority website than why we waste time to build too many irrelevant links.

  • A really interesting post! Cannot agree more with the point that content is king, this is the only true way to link build for SEO these days. Thanks for this.

  • Interesting post, it’s a bit of a mind field scanning your own links to find the nasties though! Big thanks to Googles Disavow tool for covering that but, you still have to find ’em! And if you’ve got 10’s of thousands to wade through!

  • I bet the nerds at Big G read this sort of stuff and fall about laughing. G’s search algorithms are nothing but a blunt instrument with nothing like this ability to discern.

  • I think it’s terribly hypocritical for Google to harshly penalize sites they perceive as having low quality content while at the same time continuously push their own properties, like Blogger and YouTube, to the top of search results regardless of content.

    I can write the most useless crap on Blogger, but if the title matches a search term it zooms to the top of the serps.

    And don’t even get me started on horrendous sites like Wiki Answers and Yahoo Answers. Their content is completely unmonitored and full of useless tripe, but Google continually places their pages at the top of the serps.

  • This post explains the linking strategies and their relevance very well. I especially like the Prof. examples. Your neighborhood plays a big role in deciding what you become and so it does for links too.

  • Very interesting post! I agree, quality is far more important that quantity. As Google continues to evolve, we too most evolve; just like the evolution of the World – survival of the fittest!

  • Thanks for sharing your ideas and knowhow!
    Any referrals to a reputable SEO service which is ‘performance-based’ is a great help; e-mail to cnate54@gmail.
    Dr. Joe

  • Very useful read. As a new guy in the web business, that’s the first time I’ve heard of co-occurence.

    “…mentioned on a site that also talks about Consumer Reports, but does not link to ConsumerReports.org – say they simply make the statement: “cell phones ratings as compared to Consumer Reports.” Google doesn’t care the link is missing – its algorithms know to put two and two together.”


  • Oh man, I guess I have a lot of work ahead of me if I have to stick all of the sites I link to in Open Site Explorer and analyse them! Posts like this depress me… (the job of an SEO never ends!) 😀

  • Tina, that was extremely well-written and informative. I’ve been “link-shy” since I got Penguined last year and have been focusing merely on writing lots and lots of content. But that isn’t seeming to help. Your explanation of co-citation makes a lot of sense. Now if I could just get Recording magazine to mention my site:). Thanks again!


  • Thanks Tina, The quality over quantity issue is one I hear a lot of where SEO is concerned. In the past I would be tempted to sign up to every directory and get as many backlinks as possible. But now I think good quality will be the policy of choice. Thanks again

  • I am in total agreement with your article. We had a situation about eight months ago where a person had left a comment on one of our blogs that linked to a “gambling” site. Somehow, we missed the comment when it went up and it was “approved”. From that point on we started getting about 50 links a day to different “gambling” sites and even some “porn” sites! It was nearly impossible to get the links removed from our site. Since the person was approved once, the system started approving every comment he sent. Hours were spent on working with Webmaster tools to get rid of the association with this “bad neighborhood”! So anyone that reads this article needs to take heed of what is being said here. You ARE what you LINK TO! At least until you get someone to believe otherwise! This problem is still ongoing with one of our sites. The seriousness of what can happen when a “bad link” gets through your system is very true and you will spend countless hours trying to repair the damage. I hope this article helps someone else avoid the trouble we had to go through…definitely time consuming and I would imagine, very expensive if you had to have someone do it for you! We were lucky enough to have someone here that knew enough about the situation to help us out, but I’m sure it would have been an expensive venture if we had to pay someone to do it for us.

  • Nicely put Tina! I find your articles very informative and to the point. Proper SEO is not about how a person thinks it should be done, it’s about intelligence. It’s about knowing the game rules and following them to a ‘T’. It’s also about keeping up with the evolution of Google, the way that they change, the way that their rules once again change. Knowledge certainly plays a very key role in SEO.

  • Yea, co citation is a cool standard to put in place in the seo world. I’m looking forward to seeing how search will evolve around it.

  • Most of the time when I’m seeking out website partners I would make sure that these websites always have traffic pouring into them. The dofollow link is okay but the relevant traffic is most important as well in SEO. You said it right though….”quality over quantity”.

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