Google Sitelinks Research, Examples, Theories and Best Practices

Google Sitelinks Research, Examples, Theories and Best Practices

Google Sitelinks is an automated program that displays between three and eight indented links for the top ranking website shown for particular search query.  This blog post is dedicated to my research of the Google Sitelinks program and will include a number of examples, theories and best practices.

Preface
On Tuesday October 7, 2008, I spoke at the Search Marketing Expo East (“SMX East”) event at the Javits Center in New York City.  The panel I was part of discussed Enhanced Listings, and my topic in particular was the Google Sitelinks program.

Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Roundtable live blogged the session, and his coverage of the panel is available here.

Finally, as a disclaimer of sorts – I’d like to address the naming of Project Big Water. On the morning of October 7th, my research into the Google Sitelinks program was dubbed “Project Big Water” by industry friends who also shared excellent examples with me to research. Since that day, BigWatah.com has launched, and, Brent D. Payne blogged on Marketing Pilgrim about Big Watah and this effectively unrelated event here.

And with that housekeeping out of the way, lets talk Google Sitelinks.

Google Sitelinks: An Introduction

Google Sitelinks.  What are they? They’re a series of links that Google will display underneathth the first organic search result. You’re probably very familiar with Sitelinks visually – so lets start with Google’s example from the Webmaster Central help center.

Again, this visual is probably quite familiar to you.  But before we begin to dissect these links, lets take a closer look at why Google displays these links to users.

Why does Google offer Sitelinks?

It is my belief that Google chooses to display Sitelinks for a few reasons:

Help users navigate your site: I’ll start with this bullet point because it comes straight out of the  Webmasters/Site Owners Help section. It’s also quite sensible for Google, as their primary concern should be a high quality search experience. Sitelinks will help you to find what you’re after more quickly and easily by eliminating clicks.

To help refine search queries: I’ll venture out on a limb here and say that most people searching Google are lazy. So lazy in fact, that we’ll jump at an opportunity to type less than we already do, even if it means we don’t find what we’re after right away.  Enter Sitelinks. A simple branded query for something like “disney” will allow a searcher to simply click their way onto popular topics and site sections like vacations, Mickey Mouse, or perhaps the Disney Store. Google is interpreting your search and producing immediate refinements based on what they believe to be most useful to you.Here’s an example that I used in my panel presentation for a Google search result on “honda“:

I think the above example is great because it shows us how a brand name like Honda can be interpreted in so many ways. Most consumers will probably be after Honda’s cars, trucks and SUVs — so it’s no surprise to see Automobiles as the number one link.  It’s not unrealistic though to think someone may just lazily search for “Honda” when wanting to check out something about their racing teams, off road vehicles, investor relations, etc.

To link to important pages: Compounding on the previous bullet point, you will often see Sitelinks for the most important pages of a web site.  Why? In addition to being popular resources, important pages are useful and help to improve the search experience.  On smaller web sites you will often find Sitelinks that line up with conventional pages such as the “about us”, “contact information”, “driving directions”, “store locator”, etc.

When do Google Sitelinks Display?

Everyone wants to know how to get Sitelinks to appear for their site. But first, we must look into when they will appear… And that question of “when?” can easily be answered… When one site dominates a search query. We’re talking about sites that are so far in first place, second place couldn’t touch them with all the SEO and backlinks in the world. Unless it was me consulting for them.

In other words, its entirely possible to have Sitelinks display for queries that are not done for brand names.  Since the Sitelinks program debuted in the summer of 2006, more and more non-branded SERPS contain Sitelinks.  All indications are that Google will continue this trend as they look to improve the quality of their search results.

My favorite SERP to demonstrate this is for “video games” where GameSpot is simply killing it with each of the major consoles itemized.  Someone in their SEO department deserves a vacation.

Other times you may see Sitelinks in the SERPs may include important people’s names and proprietary phrases. As an aside, I found it cool that Matt Cutts doesn’t get any Sitelink love but Jonathan Hochman and Stephan Spencer both do.

[Puts on Tin Foil Hat…]

You know what else I think contributes to Sitelinks? Analytical data. Not exclusively Google Analytics, either. I’m talking Google Toolbar data. General usage statistics. Common clickthrough paths. All of those things.

If Google knows that 3,000 people a day are conducting the same search query, clicking through to the same pages in the same sequential order all before exiting a site… Wouldn’t it make sense for them to include a Sitelink to the final destination page?  Of course it would.  And Google has more than enough data to put those paths together.

Theoretical? Of course. But certainly possible.

Fundamentals of Google Sitelinks

Okay, its time to take a deeper dive into the elements at play when Sitelinks are determined and displayed.

The first and most annoying is the fact about the Sitelinks program is that it is an entirely automated system.  You can’t enable Sitelinks.  They’ll either be there, or they won’t be. All of my research has shown that there is a search volume threshold that helps trigger when Sitelinks display.

We need to realize that Sitelinks uses an entirely independent algorithm than the traditional organic search results.  Early indications were that order of Sitelinks was determined by the internal page strength of the pages included in the program. While I certainly believe that internal page strength is a factor involved, it’s certainly not alone.

Another quirk about Sitelinks is that they’ll always display in the same order. You have no editorial control to shift them around at all.

If you want to have any influence at all on your Sitelinks, you’ll want to get your site verified and included into your Google Webmaster Tools account. You may not be able to shift the ordering around or trigger when Sitelinks will or will not display – but you will have some tuning available as I’ll cover later.

The last piece involved here is your own creativity and ingenuity. You can easily drive yourself crazy trying to determine why your Sitelinks behave the way they do… But take it all with a grain of salt.  This is still a very new program with regards to optimization techniques – and it will take a lot of testing to get it right.

Google Sitelinks and Google Webmaster Central

As mentioned above, you’ll need to get your site verified with Google’s Webmaster Central if you hope to influence the Sitelinks displayed for any domain. Once you have done that, you can access your Sitelinks panel through the following navigation:

Once you’re inside that area, things get a little funny on you.  I’ll cover some of the nuances though in the next section…

Frustrations & Quirks with Google Sitelinks

Controlling and Blocking Sitelinks: With the Sitelinks program, there’s no inclusion model Google simply spiders your content, runs your site through an algorithm and pushes out a list of Sitelinks if they deem you worthy. So in that aspect, there is already very little control.

It’s possible though that the Sitelinks Google suggests are ones that you do not want displayed.  For this purpose, Google does allow you to block Sitelinks from appearing in the search results.  I’ve come across a number of cases where this was particulary useful, including here on my own blog.  Many times there is simply content you do not want promoted with the perceived level of authority that a Sitelink carries.

So.. Blocking Sitelinks is easy, right?  Sure it is. Just click on the “Block” link and as Google says, that link will be blocked from appearing for 90 days.

Once you’ve blocked URLs, the blocking period will reset to another 90 days every time you visit the Sitelinks page in your Webmaster Tools account.

No joke. that proves to be problematic when you’re running tests in an agency style environment because there’s no way to check in on one site, see what’s blocked and then leave. There needs to be more editorial control here and I think it’s a very weak assumption for Google to just increase the blocks to 90 days again and again.  You can easily choose to unblock URLs too with just a click inside the Sitelinks panel.

Time frame for Blocks to Stop Displaying: Also, the blocks are not instantaneous.  Test cases that I have run show that there’s an average of about 12 to 14 days before blocks are reflected in the search results.  I’d assume that time frame will shorten up as more people begin using the Sitelinks program… But for now, it is what it is.

Three to Eight Sitelinks: That’s the total number of links that will display in the search results. If you have an active inventory of more than 8 Sitelinks appearing in Google’s Webmaster Tools – start blocking out as needed to make sure the top 8 there are the ones you really want to be used.

You can always block out more, too.  You don’t need to fill up all 8 slots. You do need to maintain at least three unblocked Sitelink URLs though.  Any less than that and the system will stop displaying your Sitelinks alltogether.

Case Sensitivity: Another quirk with Sitelinks is their inability to maintain character case in links.  Everyone is familiar with Apple and their iPhones, iPods, ITunes and so on… But check out how Google displays their Sitelinks:

Getting New Content into Sitelinks: Ready to be discouraged? For the sites inside of my testing group, the newest content showing up in the Sitelinks was more than 7 weeks old.  That’s horrifying for sites (including blogs, in particular) that thrive on current events and stories.

Google Sitelinks: Best Practices

Sitelinks is simply an enhanced type of search result.  Therefore, the standard SEO variables are in play here, with a heavy emphasis on links – both internal and external links.

You’ll want to make sure you structure your content in a typical manner. Stick to content themes and employ the SEO101 approach.  You’ll want to use headings where appropriate to organize content on pages and pay close attention to providing clear and concise page titles.

Since link popularity and page strength are both important factors in the Sitelinks algorithm, be sure to measure links using the Webmaster Central tools. As is the case with most Google SEO, the more links – the better.  Just be careful not to rely too heavily on any one type of link or anchor text.  Subtle variations seem to help Google understand the importance of Sitelink candidates.

If you care about your Sitelinks – never 301 and existing Sitelink.  In three seperate case studies that I ran earlier this summer – all three sites lost the Sitelink URLs (old, and new).  One of those sites had been showing 7 Sitelinks, and one 301 somehow shut down all of the Sitelinks in a few weeks time with no other changes having been made.

Google Sitelinks & XML Sitemaps

Kate Morris detailed a test that she had run where the priority supplied in an XML sitemap actually influenced the ordering of pages in the Sitelinks program.

Like Matt McGee, I’ve never found XML Sitemaps to be much of a help at all.  But, I can understand how (or at least why) Google would be open to considering this data for shifting Sitelinks around.

I haven’t had a chance to test this out myself yet – but I do have a test planned for the next few weeks.

Using Social Media Tagging to Score Google Sitelinks

One of the posts here on my blog that I needed to block was a blog post about someone.  That post had a number of people tagged too.  In less than a month that entry shot up to the top of my Sitelinks which caused some concern.

It’s not that it was bad content – it’s just not that important to users who are looking for me by name.

In researching the backlinks on that particular post, I found that Technorati was carrying major influence since many of the backlinks were reported on www.technorati.com in addition to the various sub-domains of technorati.com including feed.technorati.com, search.technorati.com and others.

Other social media sites that used tagging to help create a massive amount of backlinks include Friendfeed, Twitter and MyBlogLog.

Questions? Comments?

Admittedly, the topic of Google Sitelinks can be a bit dry and plain.  When used correctly though, Sitelinks can really improve upon Google’s user experience while also providing more opportunities for search marketers.

But – this is still a very new program in the sense that Webmaster Central control is only a few months old. If you have any questions on this program, I’ll certainly do my best to help out. Leave a comment below so we can help to grow this resource out for more users to benefit from.

32 thoughts on “Google Sitelinks Research, Examples, Theories and Best Practices

  1. Eric, I love that your covering essentials like these. I have sitelinks showing on my site but the links are not always the ones I want to display. Thanks for taking the time to share details here so I can investigate further.

  2. Well done! Sitelinks are essential, any (even slight) control you can have over them gives you power to control presentation in Google’s SERPs. To me that makes them super important.

  3. I didn’t experience the same problem with a 301 redirect that you mentioned. I managed the SEO for CarMax.com during a site redesign during which we redirected our old URLs to a new structure. When the new site launched our redirects were picked up immediately and the SiteLinks for the old URLs disappeared only for a couple days before returning with the new structure.

    The two week delay in blocking URLs in the SiteLinks caused me more headaches than anything else.

  4. @Andrew Miller – very interesting. I wonder if the entire site redesign and launch was a factor? In the test cases for me it was just applying a 301 – not revamping the whole site itself.

    Thanks for contributing to the conversation here!

  5. I’m in the process of testing out the XML sitemap priorities as well. I reduced the sitemap priorities that are showing from a .1 to .4 and the ones I want to show from .75 to .80. I’ve been testing for about a weeks and no change. Personally I don’t think the priorities have any difference.

  6. Eric, you were fantastic at SMX, but after reading you everyday I knew you would be. You gave a lot of important information on sitelinks and I am glad you posted your info here (I try to type fast butwent back and found I had missed some things). I hope to hear your speak in the future

  7. Pingback: Srsly Google, WTF?
  8. “When one site dominates a search query”
    Your 50/50 on that, you’re right that sitelinks show up when a site in first place dominates the results for that particular query. But the individual sitelinks that show are not based on the dominance of that site for those queries, instead it’s just a random set of the most popular queries that get clickthroughs for that site.

    So Microsoft may have sitelinks for Windows Vista, Windows XP, Microsoft BOB, Zune, and then something like Halo. In this case notice, that Microsoft may not rank #1 for Halo, Bungie the developer of the game would, but Microsoft may appear 2nd or 3rd but just receive a great deal of clicks on that term.

    That’s my educated guess on it, because I’ve seen some wacky things with respect to Sitelinks.

  9. On case senstitivity, it’s also a bit bad at apostrophes. Try a google search on moneysavingexpert. The first sitemap link is for forum’s – with an erroneous apostrophe.

    There’s only one place on that homepage where forums is spelt forum’s wrongly like that – yet somehow google has chosen that one (buried in some usually hidden explanatory text) to be the sitelink.

    I’m sure this should tell us something – I’m just not sure what!

  10. Nice writeup Eric.

    The fastest i ever got sitelinks was 26 days after registering the domain, the site got a full 8 Sitelinks for several different (but similar) terms. They seemed to pop-up all at the same time for the various terms. The domain had about 40k backlinks when this occurred.

    Another site had the exact same design, was 2 years old and had 100k links but did not have them for even it’s own name which is pretty unique.

    This leads me to believe search volume is a “major” contributing factor, site 2 had solid traffic with a PR6 home and about 30xPR5 subpages but it rarely ever got searched by name. However site 1 with the sitelinks was getting a lot of searches for the terms it got sitelinks for. Also when PR updated, it got 1xPR6 and about 30xPR5.

    So 2 sites, same WordPress Design, roughly the same authority (in terms of Pagerank) but the 4 week old one got sitelinks over the 2yo one and the only major difference was search volume for the terms.

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