What is a Citation Link?

Strictly speaking, a citation link is a type of web hyperlink that is anchored by a citation or mention of the target website, web page, published content or author. Search engine optimization (SEO) professionals value legitimate citation links very highly, as they can help improve the targeted website’s reputation and rankings.

These hyperlinks are important elements of Google’s search algorithm… as long as they’re non-spam links.

Websites that are cited or mentioned by other (third-party) websites with citation hyperlinks are viewed by Google’s search algorithms as more trustworthy — especially if the third-party websites publishing the citation links are themselves reputable.

Example of citation links

At the root of the citation link are two elements:

  • Hyperlink – using HTML code, a hyperlink is created on a website or web page. That hyperlink points to another website or web page. The hyperlink code is sometimes referred to as the a-href code.
  • Citation – the hyperlink created is usually directly or indirectly anchored by a mention of the website, web page, publication or author being cited.

For example, the following HTML citation hyperlink is placed on website “Citer-B”:

<a href=”http://www.original-A.com”>Original Source</a>

This hyperlink creates a citation link that points to Original-A.com.  The anchor text for the link is “Original Source” in this instance. Because it is a live hyperlink, if a website visitor on Citer-B.com clicks on this citation link, they will be sent to Original-A.com.

Note that in the above example, the anchor text could be replaced by the following variations:

  • Original-A.com (domain name)
  • http://www.Original-A.com (URL)
  • Name or title of the website
  • Name or title of the web page
  • Name of the published content on that web page
  • Name of the author of that web page

Today’s professional SEOs avoid using a target keyword as the anchor for the link. In the past, this was the recommended way to manipulate Google’s algorithm for higher rankings. Not so today. Google now hits the receiving website (Citer-B.com in this example) with an “over-optimization penalty” (OOP) if they try to game rankings with such blatant keyword anchors.

Why citation links are important

From the Google search algorithm’s perspective this citation hyperlink is more than a tool that takes a visitor from one website to another. It is also a way for the Citer-B.com website to vote or “vouch” for Original-A.com. That vote may help Original-A.com rank higher on Google search results for certain keywords.

But a study of Google’s origins reveal additional information about why citation links, especially legitimate citation links, are so important.

Google was not the first search engine. But soon after their emergence, they quickly began to dominate the search engine industry. They simply provided a better experience for search engine users. More to the point, they helped search engine users find what they were looking for — without having to dig through 10 pages of irrelevant search results!

One of the main drivers for Google’s original dominance was its PageRank algorithm (named after co-founder Larry Page), which provided a way to measure the relative important and trustworthiness of websites. This algorithm was based on the academic citation model… which made sense when you consider that Page and co-founder Sergey Brin met while in graduate school at Stanford University.

In the academic citation model, a research paper, thesis or dissertation accrued more trust and importance through citations. The more times your academic paper is positively cited by other papers, the more trustworthy your paper (and its content) becomes.

And not all citations were equal. If your paper is cited by a reputable publication, respected academic or important research, that citation is worth more than a citation by a freshman doing a class term paper.

Although PageRank has continued to evolve during the past two decades, that academic citation model still informs the link valuation model that is still at play in the SEO world.

Google’s web spam team has become more diligent about penalizing web spammers, especially those that try to manipulate search rankings through questionable link-building tactics. However, it’s exactly because of Google’s renewed focus on going after spam link-building that legitimate citation links have reemerged in importance for SEO.


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