Exploring The Complex Relationship Between Links and Views

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viewsFor those of you who are not aware, SEOmoz—one of the SEO consulting industry’s leaders—has their own index of the web.  Unlike Google’s index, the one at SEOmoz, called Linkscape, is after information about links.  Rand Fishkin and his team spent months developing the index, and continue to refine, expand, and hone it.  The idea was that if Google was going to place so much value on links, there ought to be some way for SEOs and site owners to learn about the links they and their competitors have accrued.

Now, this is not a commercial for Linkscape.  I’ve used it, and I’ve enjoyed it.  You might too.  I’m not here to convince you to use it.

But Sam Niccolls wrote a post on the SEOmoz blog that should be, I think, of great interest to anyone in the video SEO space.  Titled “Tangled Web: The Most Linked To Pages On The Internet,” the post takes a look at some of the largest sites in existence, and lists which pages on those sites have the most links pointing at them.

The piece is terrific fun, but beneath the smiles it will cause lie some great lessons.

He starts with some facts about Wikipedia pages, and some of them might surprise you.  The entry for “Search Engine Optimization,” for example, has twice as many links as the entry on Barack Obama.  Would never have guessed that.

But then Sam dives into YouTube, and I must admit my mind was a bit blown.  Susan Boyle’s performance on Britain’s Got Talent is the single most linked-to video on YouTube’s domain.  That’s really surprising.  Yes, I know the video was extremely popular, but just look at #2 on the list:  “Rick Astley – Rick Roll.”  I’m honestly shocked that this isn’t number one.

The infamous Battle at Kruger makes the top 10.  And while I know that video was a rocket ship of popularity for a brief period, I’m surprised it’s this high.

Here’s the entire top ten of pages being linked to on YouTube:

  1. Susan Boyle Performs on Britain’s Got Talent
  2. Rick Astley – Rick Roll
  3. Judson Laipply – Evolution of Dance
  4. Work at Home Infomercial (in Polish)
  5. Web 2.0 The Machine is Us/ing Us
  6. Free Hugs Campaign
  7. OK Go on Treadmills
  8. Michael Jackson – Thriller
  9. Rick Astley – Rick Roll (Sadly, this is not a typo. It really is on the list twice…)
  10. Battle at Kruger Between Lions, Buffaloes, & Crocodiles

boyleNow, I’ve seen all these videos—except for the Polish infomercial (has to be some coordinating link-bombing going on there)—and am not really surprised at what’s on the list.  Those are all, for the most part, well-known video successes.

But there are tons of videos on YouTube’s list of Most Watched (All Time) that aren’t cracking the most-linked-to list put forth by SEOmoz, including “Charlie Bit My Finger,” “Hahaha (laughing baby)”, “SNL Digital Shorts,” and about a zillion music videos.

In fact, I can only find a few of our most-linked-to videos within the top 50 of YouTube’s most-watched list (Susan Boyle, Evolution of Dance, & Free Hugs).

Let’s augment the SEOmoz most-linked list by adding in the total views for each, and you’ll see what I’m driving at:

  1. Susan Boyle Performs on Britain’s Got Talent      76 Million
  2. Rick Astley – Rick Roll                                                25 Million
  3. Judson Laipply – Evolution of Dance                      128 Million
  4. Work at Home Infomercial (in Polish)                   13,000
  5. Web 2.0 The Machine is Us/ing Us                         10 Million
  6. Free Hugs Campaign                                                  51 Million
  7. OK Go on Treadmills                                                  48 Million
  8. Michael Jackson – Thriller                                        69 Million
  9. Rick Astley – Rick Roll (2nd version)                            20 Million
  10. Battle at Kruger                                                                46 Million

There’s no rhyme or reason there at all.  Sure, the basic principle that the most linked to videos will also be among the most watched holds true.  But there’s clearly no direct correlation between links and views.

Why is that? I have my own theories.  Clearly there are people who open a browser, go to YouTube, and start surfing videos.  Maybe they search by topic.  Maybe they watch one and then follow “related videos” links on the sidebar.  But there’s a massive audience that isn’t watching these videos after finding a link on some blog or something… they are already on YouTube.  That means that your basic SEO work (title, keyword choice, tags, etc.) still plays a HUGE role in your video being found and watched.  Links will help, but won’t win the war on their own.

astleyRick Roll makes sense on the list of most-linked.  It’s linked to from nearly every forum and message board and blog comment string in existence.  And the views are probably down because it’s not something people actually want to watch.  The link itself is the point of the Rick Roll game.

Most of the rest would appear to be linked to naturally… virally.  I mean, if a video gets zero links, but still gets 100 Million views… it wouldn’t technically be a viral video, would it?  At least… not if we use the definition of viral that requires links as a part of the “spread” of that video.  By the same token, a video could go viral (earn tons of links) without actually getting many views… such as the Polish Infomercial.  To have slightly fewer links than Evolution of Dance is quite impressive… to only have 13,000 views for that video is depressing.  I’m guessing most of those links are part of a manipulation tactic to get the video ranking well.

There’s some data in Sam’s post about Hulu as well.  Interesting data.  Here are the most linked-to television shows:

  1. Arrested Development
  2. Firefly
  3. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
  4. The Office
  5. 30 Rock

With the exception of The Office, it’s a who’s who of shows nobody watched when they were on.  I mean, 30 Rock wins tons of awards, but it has far fewer viewers than you might think.  Firefly and Arrested Development were both canceled (and both by Fox!) for terrible ratings.

So why are these shows the most linked? Is it because you can’t find either of the top two on television anymore?  Have they gained an audience after cancellation in a kind of cult way?  Or are fans of those shows simply watching them for free so they don’t have to buy a DVD?

familyguyHulu doesn’t really give us good data on “views.”  They do have a “most popular shows” section you can filter by date range.  Filtering for “all time” gives you 20 results per page.  Firefly isn’t on the first page, but all the others are.  But Family Guy is listed first, then The Office, and then Arrested Development.

So again we see that links don’t have any direct correlation to views.  As with YouTube, there are an awful lot of Hulu users who simply go to the site and start browsing content—they don’t follow links to get there.

If we want to dumb it all down, then this is really very similar to traditional SEO:  Getting good rankings is not an endgame.  It’s one step of many.  If you don’t target the right rankings, phrases people actually search for, then being #1 overall on Google means nothing.  And once you target popular phrases and grab the #1 ranking, you better have a plan for converting those visitors, because #1 rankings don’t pay the bills.

In video, it’s the same. You can get more links than any other video in history, but your views may not go up at all.  Why?  Well, for starters, where are those links coming from?  Are they on sites that have any traffic at all or are they on link farms?  A link that never gets clicked is a link that never sends traffic.   Second, is your video any good?  If not, then views will be scarce.

Now, none of this is Earth-shattering.  The game isn’t changed.  You still want lots of links to help your video rank better, get views, and gain authority.  But I think too many consultants are out there giving the impression that links alone are gold, that link-building is the new silver bullet for SEO.  Sam’s data shows that to be a misconception.  Conventional SEO work on videos is still a major factor in how many views your video will receive.


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