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How Link Decay Can Cause Cavities In Your Link Profile

In a way link decay is like tooth decay. Seriously, bear with me.

Every day plaque builds up on our teeth which is why we have to keep brushing them. Otherwise the bacteria would accumulate, rotting them away until they all fall out of our heads and we end up gumming our food. Links are the teeth a website uses to chew its way up the SERPs. And time and change are like the plaque that, over time, takes its toll on the quality of our back links. So we need to keep cleaning them up to preserve their strength.

Ok, so the analogy doesn’t hold up 100% because we can’t keep adding new teeth to our mouths to replace the old ones. But it does make sense in so far as links require maintenance in the same way our teeth do. Because without it, link decay wears away back links diminishing their value, leaving us susceptible to the sharp jaws of the competitors coming up behind us.

What Exactly Is Link Decay

Essentially link decay is the disappearance or de-valuing of links. Links go away all the time. Pages, even whole sites, get changed, taken down or poorly re-directed regularly causing the links that were on them to go MIA. But even links on un-changed pages can lose their initial value over time as well. That means unfortunately, link decay happens on two fronts.


The One-Two Punch

First, the web is always in motion and the changing circumstances surrounding a link can weaken it. Links can become de-valued as a page becomes stagnant or less temporally relevant. When adjustments to a site’s architecture orphan or bury a page that diminishes its worth, along with the worth of all of the links on it. For example, a home page blog link will fairly quickly be relegated to archive hell.

Even powerful pages that remain current with plenty of internal links will see their external links drop off and fade out. That natural process will inevitably reduce the benefit that any outgoing links from the page were receiving. In some cases, a link can become stronger as it ages; but the vast majority of the time the mercurial internet will wear away a link’s strength like the ocean erodes rocks.

Second, link decay also relates to link velocity. Link velocity is the speed and volume with which new links are coming into a page or a site. A piece that gets very popular, very quickly, will have a high link velocity. Whereas a page that picks up links slowly over time would have a low link velocity.

Link profile decay

When the link velocity of a page or site drops that is another form of link decay. It may be impossible to build links with a high velocity all the time, you can’t always drive your car at top speed, eventually, you’ll crash. The best thing we can do to stave off this kind of link decay is to maintain a steady velocity. Some peaks and valleys are impossible to avoid, but the more constant link development remains, the more you can prevent the onset of link decay.

Areas of High Link Decay or QDF and Other Sexy Subjects

QDF is so hot right now. The query deserves freshness model is an uber-fascinating area of development. It’s a further indication of Google’s intuitiveness when it comes to what searchers actually want.

The idea is that some topics are trending at a precise moment (of course in some instances a “moment“ can last months) and in that moment any queries on that topic are more likely to be seeking the newest information possible as opposed to tried and true resources on the subject.

Sports scores, current events and breaking news are all great examples of areas which will probably be more susceptible to the QDF model. While topics like “how to tie a knot“ or “mating habits of ostriches“ are less prone to demanding the newest content available. Unless an ostrich mates with a knot-tying sailor on The View in which case, all bets are off.

Marriage on the View

Pandering to areas that are subject to QDF is useful on some levels, but not so much on others. It can be a great way to get a Fast Pass to the head of the line for searches on topical subjects in Search Engines. But as far as link building goes, the rate of decay can make the links procured in that vein less valuable than they may seem.

A giant spike in back links thanks to an article on the latest celebrity news is certainly a boost, but as soon as the next starlet packs-up for Rehab link decay will set in something fierce. The drop off in the link velocity of that page will be significant and in all likelihood many of the links themselves will soon begin to lose value as well.

Link Velocity and Spam

Another problem with playing to the fast links is that while savvy marketers can do it for mostly the right reasons, spammers do it for mostly the wrong ones.

A giant rush of links can be a sign to search engines of a new piece of great content on a timely issue. It can also be a sign of a spammer buying a crapload of links to manipulate their rankings. If what is actually the former somehow appears as vthe latter the rapid influx can actually count against you.

As any site pushes through a link campaign, link decay is always something to keep in mind. The best ways to fight link decay are simply to remember some key principles.

  1. Spread out your efforts. Don’t rely solely on “push it fast and hard” techniques. Think about maintaining link velocity over time, at least a few weeks or months in order to ensure that the links carry as much weight as possible.

  2. Diversify. Using hot topics to build links is can definitely be beneficial, but don’t limit yourself to striking hot irons. Put some time and effort into creating content that will never become old news. Guides, tutorials, studies, infographics and other kinds of non-temporal information will withstand the test of time.

  3. Re-visit old content and back links. If you have some great back links, you know which ones you love, don’t let them become forgotten old acquaintances. Build new links to your old back links, to keep them as valuable as possible. And shine up your old content with a new promotional push.

  4. Use Fluoride. Seriously, that stuff is magic for your enamel.

I couldn’t have done this piece with out extensive and thought provoking discussion with my Sensei, David Harry. The man is a genius who makes my head hurt, but in a good way. And to borrow one of his favorite lines “slow and steady still wins the race“. Thanks to link decay, there’s really no such thing as “setting it and forgetting it“ in the link building world. What’s new will be old very soon, and what’s old must be made new again.

Good oral hygiene means solid brushing habits and regular visits to the dentist. Good link hygiene means just about the same, only without the pointy metal things and the lollipops.



  1. John November 29, 2010

    The article and its subject matter is very timely indeed. With Google trying to improve its search results and almost discarding all old school link-building methods – its a fact that most site owners on forums and blogs complaining of their links getting either de-valued or links being given without any juice. 🙁

    One of the most recent discussions that I came across is —

  2. jvaniderstyne November 29, 2010

    Hi John, Thanks! It’s true you hear about it all the time. Most of the time we just plough forward without looking back, but link decay means that re-vitalization tactics have to be apart of our arsenal.

  3. Michael Martinez November 29, 2010

    You make some good and interesting points. Nonetheless, I have to disagree with a couple of things you say.

    “When the link velocity of a page or site drops that is another form of link decay.”

    NOPE. That’s simply a decay in velocity, which is NOT the same thing as a decay in link volume or value.

    “The drop off in the link velocity of that page will be significant and in all likelihood many of the links themselves will soon begin to lose value as well.”

    Not likely at all. ALL of the links will begin losing value IMMEDIATELY. Why? Because the Web keeps on growing and changing (a point you made earlier).

    You seem to be suggesting that people should avoid large sudden spikes in links. That’s thinking like a link builder, not like an SEO.

    In search, how fast links come and go doesn’t really matter. What matters is how much value grows and ebbs. Value isn’t determined solely by links but if you’re just focusing on link value then there is no limit to how much value you can or should obtain in terms of trusted (and trustworthy) links.

    If you hit the front page of CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the London papers every day for a year and get thousands of links every day from those news stories, you’ll be fine.

    If you’re out there hammering Web forums for profile links and blogs for comment links, well, you better have a backup plan.

  4. jvaniderstyne November 29, 2010

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the input. I don’t think anyone should avoid spikes in links, I’m just saying that under some circumstances they CAN appear unnatural. And that once the “spike” is over it should be re-visited to prolong success.

  5. Michael Martinez November 30, 2010

    Fair enough, but if a spike occurs in an unnatural way, maybe it would be counter-productive to continue developing toxic links.

    I don’t think it’s the spike event that causes filters and red flags to kick in. I think there is a variety of signals that coincide with the spike events. Those signals could trigger filters and bad karma in non-spiking events, too.

    No one has been able to show that a link spike actually causes anything bad to happen. We’ve only seen occasional indications that bad things have happened when certain types of link spikes occurred.

Comments are closed.

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