Links have long been the foundation of SEO, ever since the very beginning of Google. Links connect the web; every site is an anchor point, every link is a line drawn between two of them. It makes sense that more links to a site would indicate more value, more authority, and more traffic to a site. A site with no links is a site no one knows about, no one can find.
PageRank itself was founded on the idea of links working like votes, more links means more value. Unfortunately, Google has spend the last 20 years working to minimize the damage of this approach. When links – something you can easily control – are the foundation of your SEO, it’s easy to do things like:
And so on. There are thousands of shady marketers looking for ways, both organic and inorganic, white and black, to boost SEO. Google can only keep up so well, and while they are keeping up, they’re also looking for ways to minimize the damage. Hiding public PageRank was one such move. Nofollow was another.
These days, the internet has grown to a point where a links = votes outlook is woefully dated. Google may have hundreds of search ranking factors, but they’re always looking for more, to further refine how they can view the web in an accurate way.
Linkless mentions are also called Brand mentions. They’re pretty simple; essentially, just mentioning a brand name in your text without actually linking to the site. For example, I often mention Moz as a source of valuable SEO advice. That sentence, right there, does not link to Moz, but mentions them as an authority. In context with my text, it’s a beneficial mention.
Under traditional SEO, Google would need a link to give that any weight at all. Since there’s no link, under traditional SEO, my mentioning them makes no difference to them at all. The only way they would even notice is if they used a social listening app to find this post once it’s been indexed. The only way it affects anything is if, once they discover it, they decide to read this site, link to it, or otherwise benefit me in some way. They have little incentive to do so; my mention has no tangible power, so unless they really like this site, they have little reason to benefit me in return.
There is some potential power here. I mention Moz as an authority, and you read my mention. The next time you’re researching a topic, you find a post from Moz about it. You remember that I called them an authority, and you trust me, so you extend that trust to Moz. Moz benefits, though Google’s search doesn’t reflect that. Moz might encourage mentions to build trust, even if it’s not reflected in their SEO.
Of course, this situation is a little backwards. In reality, you’re a lot more likely to trust Moz than to trust me; they have more SEO, a bigger reputation, and more content. If Moz were to mention me as an authority, I stand to benefit a lot more than the reverse.
Google recognizes that word of mouth is powerful, and that links aren’t always going to convey that word of mouth. I still haven’t linked to Moz in this post – in fact, I’ve avoided it throughout the whole thing – so Google needs another way to recognize the value my trust in Moz brings to them.
Google has been working hard over the last few years at semantic search, contextual value, and language parsing. They can identify that I’m talking about Moz as an authority, without just relying on keywords. They know this site is about SEO, they know Moz is valuable in the SEO sphere, and they know that my recommendation reinforces what they already know of the situation. So why not add a little value to that linkless mention?
Of course, all of this is conjecture at this point. Just reading this article, all you have are my rationalizations about what Google could be doing. You have no way of knowing whether or not Google is actually taking this approach. Thankfully, I’m not alone, and others have done some legwork in proving whether or not linkless mentions actually have value.
Fact 1: Google (and Bing) have both mentioned that “brand mentions” without links, with positive sentiment and tone, can bring value to the mentioned site. Gary Illyes mentioned it in a 2017 keynote, and Duane Forrester mentioned it at SMX West 2016. High quality content that is heavily cited has power beyond just links; brand mentions in that content can bring value to the sites they mention.
As you might expect, this isn’t solely limited to highly cited content, though that’s a good place for Google’s testing to start. Begin with content they know they can trust, from trustworthy influencers, and spread out from there once the proof of concept works. Likewise, start from the other end; devalue mentions from known spam sites so that those sites – and their contextual aura – are not skewing search results or usable as a black hat technique.
Fact 2: Google has patented ways to analyze brand mentions or linkless mentions in the past. One such patent is included with the Panda algorithm patent, from 2014. They mention a system that tallies up the value of both express links and implied links.
Implied links: “An implied link is a reference to a target resource, e.g., a citation to the target resource, which is included in a source resource but is not an express link to the target resource. Thus, a resource in the group can be the target of an implied link without a user being able to navigate to the resource by following the implied link.”
Implied links, brand mentions, linkless mentions; they’re all referring to the same thing, a time when a piece of published content makes reference to another brand or piece of content without actually linking to it. Google knows this happens all the time, and they want to lend it value when it’s trustworthy.
Fact 3: Google has told their contractors to factor it in. Remember a few years back, when the 100+ page PDF document of search quality guidelines was leaked? That document used to be under NDA by contractors who worked for Google as a sort of human element and spot check for the algorithm, rating the quality of sample search results.
Since that document became public, Google has owned up to it, and actually publishes the occasional update to the guidelines, though not every update is mentioned or called out explicitly. In this case, Google actually made a post mentioning that quality raters, those human element contractors, should look for outside information and independent mentions of the reputation of a website when determining the quality of that website.
Fact 4: Sentiment analysis needs to be included, a fact that Google recognizes. Linkless mentions can’t work fine on their own, they need to be tempered by the positive and negative opinions attached. Several unscrupulous companies have expressly used negative sentiment to drum up interest and both fame and sales, gaming the system. Google recognizes it’s a problem and has even contributed papers about their sentiment analysis system. They don’t explain exactly how it works, nor do they speak to how potent it is as part of the algorithm, but they make it known they have at least some kind of system in place.
What good would a sentiment analysis system do if they don’t consider linkless mentions at all? It can add some minor context to links, of course, but the simple addition of nofollow can do that as well.
The fact is, linkless mentions are part of an overall web of public opinion and sentiment that isn’t always written down in explicit link form. Heck, often times you intentionally avoid linking to bad businesses because you know links can benefit them; but your stated opinion that they’re bad isn’t necessarily reflected in SEO. Now, Google knows that public web of opinion exists, and wants to use it to keep the bad sites down and the good sites on top.
It’s also harder to game than links. Anyone can buy links through spun content that looks decent at first glance. It’s a lot harder to fake a wide variety of positive or negative reviews and implied mentions. Sentiment analysis, more advanced spin detection and copied content protections, it all plays into keeping implied mentions valuable without being able to artificially inflate or deflate the value of a site. After all, we can all tell when an Amazon review is obviously fake; now Google can too.
So what does this all mean for you, the average marketer? Well, unfortunately, it does mean you have another metric to track, and it’s a little harder to track than simple links. Tools like Ahrefs or Majestic – see those implied mentions? – can track links, but they do nothing about linkless mentions. For that, you need to use social listening apps.
Social listening and brand mention tracking comes in first. You’ll need some kind of app to do it for you. You don’t necessarily need one with sentiment analysis, though I would anticipate sentiment analysis is going to become standard for most of these apps within the next year or two.
What apps could you use? There are a lot of them to consider. Google Alerts is simple and uses the power of Google’s indexer, but at the same time it requires you to go out and do your analysis manually. Other apps, like Menion.com, Talkwalker, Hootsuite, Awario, and Sendible can all do brand mention monitoring, some with other forms of analytics as well, others without. Find one you like and stick with it; historical data is useful to keep around.
Secondly, you’re going to want to work to boost your implied mentions. Fortunately, this is actually pretty easy. You can guest post to boost your mentions. You can get people talking about you on social media and drum up press on blogs. You can work with influencer marketing techniques to get mentions, not just links.
Third, you’re going to want to strive to address customer pain points and provide excellent customer service. Bad reviews won’t just hurt your customer perception; they’ll start to hurt your actual SEO as well. Keep your social listening tuned and check it for negative sentiment whenever you can.
Whenever you find a negative mention or negative review, take the time to read the context and figure out where it’s coming from. Is it a competitor bashing your company? Not much you can do about that. Is it a current customer complaining about a broken feature, or an ex-customer complaining about their poor experience? These are cases where you can figure out what they don’t like and see if you can fix it.
In some cases, there’s nothing you can do. If I leave you a bad review saying I really was disappointed you couldn’t etch my name into the moon, you’re not going to research a space program just to satisfy me. On the other hand, if I – and a lot of other customers – complain about your spotty uptime, you can work to get more robust servers and DDoS protection to ensure greater uptime. Fix the customer pain point.
The most important step, though, is to then reach out to the customer. You can talk to them directly and ask them to review your product again, now that you’ve fixed their issue or added their desired feature. Ideally, you can get them to remove their negative review or change it into a neutral or positive review. Through this technique, you can improve your overall sentiment and grow positive brand mentions throughout the web.