By Bryson Meunier, Natural Search Associate Director, Content Solutions
To me, white hat SEOs are like extensions of a search engine’s search quality team, who have both an interest in ensuring the quality of search results, and in increasing visibility for our clients without affecting the integrity of the search results. To that end I think it’s occasionally useful to take the search engines to task for poor quality search results. I’ve done it before on my own blog by pointing out three embarrassing Google SERPs. Today I want to focus on sitelinks.
The idea behind sitelinks is to help search engine users by giving them several entry points for queries that appear to be navigational in nature. If the query appears to be navigational and the site in question is deemed to be the likely destination for that query, Google will provide internal links to help the user find what they’re looking for faster. As Google explains in its help section:
“We only show sitelinks for results when we think they'll be useful to the user. If the structure of your site doesn't allow our algorithms to find good sitelinks, or we don't think that the sitelinks for your site are relevant for the user's query, we won't show them.
At the moment, sitelinks are completely automated. We're always working to improve our sitelinks algorithms, and we may incorporate webmaster input in the future.”
Google showed they weren’t just whistling Dixie with that last statement since May of this year, when Chris Boggs called them out on Search Engine Watch for giving sitelinks for non-branded queries in a way that was apparently unfair. Since that article was published, Google has since improved their sitelinks algorithm to the point where 3 out of the 5 queries Boggs mentioned as being undeserving of sitelinks are no longer showing sitelinks.
Below I’ve listed ten sitelinks that are probably not navigational queries, and probably not any more useful to the user than the listing below them (in fact, some of them are obviously less useful, but have keyword-rich titles, content, and domains), yet all of them have sitelinks. Using the Google AdWords Keyword Tool for average CPC at position 2 and approximate average search volume for exact match, and a Cornell eyetracking study for approximate CTR, we can tell the approximate cost, clicks, and impression share for each bad sitelink:
1. Download is an action as much as it is one of CNET’s brands:
Average CPC: $0.93*
Average Monthly Google Impressions: 1,830,000
Average Monthly Google Clicks*: 1,277,523
2. Anyone who has flipped past their movie selection on Sunday afternoon knows that Comedy Central is not always synonymous with comedy:
Average CPC: $0.81
Average Monthly Google Impressions: 301,000
Average Monthly Google Clicks: 210,128
3. Apartments.com is clearly not the only place to find apartments on the web:
Average CPC: $1.61
Average Monthly Google Impressions: 823,000
Average Monthly Google Clicks: 574,536
4. It means “foreign exchange”, even though that query does not have sitelinks. It’s also not a branded query, although one lucky Futures Trading group does own it.
Average CPC: $6.75
Average Monthly Google Impressions: 165,000
Average Monthly Google Clicks: 115,187
5. I prefer MSNBC. Why does CNN get the non-branded, non-navigational query?:
Average CPC: $1.38
Average Monthly Google Impressions: 2,740,000
Average Monthly Google Clicks: 1,912,794
6. TV Guide has a stronger brand and about as much link popularity, yet CNET’s TV.com gets the sitelinks:
Average CPC: $1.16
Average Monthly Google Impressions: 1,220,000
Average Monthly Google Clicks: 851,682
7. This one has no traffic, but is consistently amazing to me personally. A site that hasn’t been updated in three years that has significantly less link popularity than the closest runner up (full disclosure: my SEO site) is treated as the natural destination for the query:
Average CPC: $4.26
Average Monthly Google Impressions: 880
Average Monthly Google Clicks: 614
8. MTV, Ultimate Band List, Wikipedia and DMOZ all lose out to the authority domain, SortMusic.com:
Average CPC: $1.16
Average Monthly Google Impressions: 60,500
Average Monthly Google Clicks: 42,235
9 and 10. Both of these are similar to numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7, in that keyword use in domain and title appears to have given a comparable site sitelinks for a non-branded query over equally deserving competitors. For the sites who have sitelinks for the following non-branded queries, the holidays have come early:
Average CPC: $1.79
Average Monthly Google Impressions: 673,000
Average Monthly Google Clicks: 469,821
Average CPC: $1.75
Average Monthly Google Impressions: 90,500
Average Monthly Google Clicks: 63,178
The sites that have sitelinks for these non-branded queries would receive, in total, about 5,517,699 clicks per month, just by having sitelinks for these queries. And these are only ten queries. Think of how many more clicks sites receive without real merit, simply because of the sitelinks algorithm.
I’m sure many SEOs are salivating at these traffic figures. No doubt the figures are impressive and not always achieved in a way that is 100% organic. As an SEO who believes in fair competition I would hope that Google would get better at determining which sites and which queries deserve sitelinks, and return them only for sites that deserve the increased visibility. It’s clear at this point that they have a long way to go.