The days of basing a successful link building strategy on link quantity and anchor text alone may be numbered. The link popularity theories behind PageRank and Hilltop remain important, but major search engines are continually adding new elements to their link algorithms to improve search relevance. One of these new elements is the concept of visual page segmentation which was recently proposed in a paper entitled "Block-level Link Analysis," by Deng Cai, Xaiofei He, Ji-Rong Wen and Wei-Ying, available online at http://research.microsoft.com/research/pubs/view.aspx?tr_id=690.
How VIPS Works
The paper introduces VIsion-based Page Segmentation (VIPS), which begins with the premise that current link popularity algorithms are faulty in that they consider each page on the World Wide Web as a single node. Different "blocks" on a page however often have different semantics; for instance, a block on the left side of the page might contain a general navigational menu or text link advertisements, whereas the block on the right side of the page might contain an informational article or links to other Web sites about a certain topic. When VIPS is applied, these blocks can be separated by a computer with a vision-based program. Each block can then be considered as the fundamental unit of analysis, rather than the entire page. When a link is scored in terms of its block, the link"s contextual relevance can be interpreted more intelligently by search engines.
What VIPS Means for Search Engine Optimization
In the near future major search engines such as Google, Yahoo! Web Search and MSN Search will likely integrate some form of visual page segmentation into their search algorithms. A successful search engine optimization strategy should incorporate knowledge of block-level analysis to ensure that the effects of a link building campaign will be maximized. But how exactly does a concept like VIPS affect search engine optimization? Two consequences in particular should make every SEO take pause.
Devaluation of Links from Certain Blocks
VIPS will allow search engines to differentiate between links from the content block and links from other blocks such as text advertisement blocks or footer blocks. As such, algorithms could easily weight links from each block differently.
A link from the content block could be considered as more likely to be a true recommendation than a link from a text link advertisement block. Search engines may therefore give extra weight to in-content links while devaluing links that appear to be advertisements. Sites that rent links through link networks usually do place them in a block above, below or to the side of the content block. When VIPS is implemented, there is a risk that many rented advertisement links could be devalued.
Improved Contextual Analysis
The theme in which your link is placed also will be more important than ever before. Many search engine optimizers have voiced their opinion that "anchor text is everything"; that is, the theme of a page linking to a Web site does not parse link relevance, but only the anchor text of the link does.
With block-level analysis, search engines will be able to recognize the theme of any given block more easily. This should have the effect of boosting the link relevance for links from tightly-themed content blocks, while devaluing links that are in a block with no apparent theme.
Links That Will Always Soar
A search engine optimizer need not fear the effects of VIsion-based Page Segmentation. Although VIPS will probably devalue certain types of links that are favored by many SEOs, it will concurrently increase the value of themed, in-context links.
I have always stressed the value of legitimate links from directories, articles and press releases. These types of links are placed in a content block and are also tightly themed (that is, your target keywords will be near your link).Webmasters who actively build these types of links will benefit from long term rankings even when new twists such as VIPS are added into the algorithmic mix. In fact, these algorithmic improvements should improve search relevance and neutralize some of the spammier link building methods. And that's something we should all be happy about.
Andy Hagans is a search engine optimization consultant who specializes in link building and risk management. Visit http://www.andyhagans.com for more information. Mr. Hagans also maintains The Link Building Knowledge Base at http://www.linkbuilding.info to help other webmasters.