BuzzThere’s been a buzz going around the industry about co-citations replacing anchor text as a ranking signal. In today’s blog, I want to give you both sides of the argument – those who agree that co-citations are the future and those who say this is not exactly the case.

What is a Co-Citation?

Most of us would have already seen the blog that started the buzz on co-citations, but here’s a brief explanation for those who haven’t. Some pages rank for specific keywords without even optimizing their site for that specific term. You’ll find the words used in the text sparingly, and they may not even be part of the titles, headers, and metadata. These pages rank because their brands appear alongside those keywords in other sites. We’re talking about plain text citations, and these texts do not even contain a contextual link to the site that’s ranking for a specific keyword.

Replacing Anchor Texts?

AnchorThe study in the blog shows three examples of sites benefitting from co-citations. ranks for the competitive term “cell phone ratings” even though their page is not necessarily optimized for the terms “cell phone” or “ratings.” The same goes for the two other examples – ranks for “manufacturing directory” even though the website makes no mention of the words, and SEOMoz’s Open Site Explorer ranks for “backlink analysis” even without using it on the titles, headers, or the body.

As Google moves toward ranking sites based on context, it becomes smarter at detecting co-citations. The blog claims that in the future, co-citations will be a more significant ranking signal than anchor texts. It recommends that SEOs should focus more on online PR strategies, and on optimizing press releases and online reviews.

The Counter-Argument

Bill SlawskiBill Slawski’s answer to this does not exactly negate the growing importance of co-citation, but it does not go so far as to say it will replace anchor texts. Slawski pointed out that while the terms were not mentioned in the titles, headers, and the body, they were either present in an image’s alt text or they were used on the page previously. Google also detects other terms as synonyms – on ThomasNet, for example, the search engine also highlights “business” in place of “manufacturing.”

He also points out that the blog does not mention whether the words co-occur in the websites making up the examples’ backlink profiles. It changes the way we view how anchor texts work, but it does not discount anchor texts as an important ranking signal. Finally, Slawski mentions that the right term for this is co-occurrence, and that its effectiveness depends on Google’s Phrase Based Indexing patents. This means, co-occurrence only works if the keywords are relevant to the context of the rest of the text.

The Solution: Contextual Citation

There’s no denying that co-citation (or co-occurrence) is becoming increasingly important as a ranking signal. It does not mean, however, that the anchor text is dying – it remains a valuable ranking signal as well. Remember that rankings do not depend largely on one element alone. The best way to prepare yourself for Google’s ever-changing ranking criteria is to strengthen websites with both co-citation and anchor text in mind.

Continue building a strong backlink profile and targeting your selected keywords while implementing changes to your PR strategy. Improving your content quality attracts more visitors to link back to your site. It also encourages conversations among people and discussions in blogs, media sources, and other websites, which adds more co-citation instances. By improving the content you give your target audience, you increase the chances of your citations and links to be more contextually relevant to your industry, which in turn strengthens and boosts your rankings on the SERPs.

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