SEO is a continually evolving field to work in and at the beginning of each year many industry experts will try and predict which direction the search engines will decide to take. Rand Fishkin at SEOMoz, recently blogged that he predicts anchor text will gradually be replaced with co citation as a ranking factor. Over the last two years, Google has implemented two major updates (Panda and Penguin) to its algorithm both of which have attempted to improve the quality of sites found on the web and tackle link spam. The advent of co citation may yet be another weapon in Google’s arsenal to ensure that its search results remain relevant and of high quality.
What exactly is co citation?
In the academic community, the act of one work referencing another is known as citation. In the search engine optimisation community, co citation refers to the idea that search engines can see relationships between words in a document. For example, say I own a business called ‘Steve’s Sports Shop’ which sells ‘quality running shoes’. To a search engine, there is initially no direct relationship between the terms ‘Steve’s Sports Shop’ and ‘quality running shoes’. But if those two terms were to appear close to each other, in many documents, a search engine may begin to establish a relationship between the two.
In his blog post, Rand pointed out that there are already some examples where co citation is working. For example, SEOMoz’s Open Site Explorer ranks highly for the term ‘link analysis tool’. He says that this has been accomplished without any on page optimisation, but solely because ‘Open Site Explorer’ and ‘link analysis tool’ have been cited together many times on different web pages.
Why the move away from anchor text?
Anchor text has long been used as a ranking factor by Google and other search engines and has long been manipulated by unscrupulous SEO’s. Before the Panda update a tactic which worked well to improve organic visibility, was to set up web sites solely for the purpose of linking out to sites using keyword rich anchor text. These sites were known as link farms and served no purpose other than to improve the rankings of sites. Google has always strived to combat any attempts to manipulate its search algorithm and provide a service which gives useful and relevant results. As anchor text is easy to manipulate, adding co citation to the algorithmic mix may help the search engine achieve its goals.
Getting your brand name mentioned in articles in close proximity to a keyword will be much more difficult to influence on authoritative sites. It would require establishing a relationship with site owners first, which takes a lot of time and effort. It would also entail providing meaningful, high quality content to these sites – also difficult to manipulate. Drawing on these points we can see why Google would want to go down the co citation route.
Does co citation work for SEO?
As Rand postulated in his blog post, the use of co citation as a ranking factor is merely a prediction. He pointed out three sites which were ranking for terms which had no mention of these terms in their respective title tags. However, type in a random search term into Google and you will still find that the sites in the top results have optimised their title tags. As with anything in the field of search engine optimisation, there are many theories and few definitive answers, as Google keeps its algorithm a closely guarded secret.
Based on the direction Google seems to be heading (ie making it more difficult to manipulate its search algorithm and trying to encourage great content) it wouldn’t be surprising if there’s a lot of accuracy in Rand’s prediction. However, for now, I find that a link profile with a natural amount of keyword rich anchor text and a site with optimised title tags, still works. But going forward I am definitely keeping co citation at the forefront of my SEO thinking.