Should Webmasters Pick Their Own Quicklinks in Search Results?

Sometimes Google, Yahoo, and Bing will show additional links for a search result under the description for that result. These are often referred to as Site Links, Sitelinks, or Quick Links by the search engines. An example is the sitelinks that Google shows in a search result for the WordPress site when someone searches at Google for wordpress:

Google search result showing sitelinks for wordpress.com

None of the search engines presently allow site owners or webmasters to choose the links that show up as sitelinks or quicklinks in those search results. Google provided some hints as to how sitelinks might be chosen in the description of the patent on Google Sitelinks. Yahoo also gave us some information about the sources of information that they use when they include quicklinks for a search result in a white paper on Yahoo quicklinks. Microsoft also released a whitepaper on how they might include links such as sitelinks to give searchers a chance to find what they call final destination pages.

Some of the choices for sitelinks and the text for those links that Google chooses aren’t really helpful for searchers or ideal for webmasters, such as the the site link at the bottom right in an “SEO by the Sea” search result as seen in the next image:

Google search result showing sitelinks for wordpress.com

Fortunately, Google allows webmasters to block the use of specific sitelinks using Google Webmaster Tools, with a chance to explain why those sitelinks are blocked. The choices they list when someone is blocking a specific sitelink include:

  • The link is broken
  • I don’t want this page emphasized
  • The title is inaccurate
  • Other

I’ve blocked a number of sitelinks, primarily because the title that Google selected for those sitelinks were useless. For example, the link text “Hi Khazret, Thank you for the …” as seen in the image above doesn’t tell potential visitors anything about the page being linked to. I’ve set it to be blocked in Google, and they may remove it within the next week or so, when they get around to it.

Should site owners or webmasters be empowered to choose the links and the text associated with them when sitelinks show up for a site?

Microsoft and Quick Links

Microsoft came out with a patent application recently that describes a number of ways that they might allow people who run websites to indicate which links they might like to be shown as quick links, and what text should associate those links.

The patent inventors explain their thoughts on the benefits of this approach:

Permitting a webmaster to specify such desired link information is beneficial as generally, those building a web site are in a better position than the search engine itself to anticipate a user’s actual intended use of the web pages associated the web site, particularly when the web site is either less popular or otherwise has limited viewer-history associated with it.

Search engines will normally use the title text that a webmaster chooses in the <title> element as the main link for pages that show up in search results. Should they also enable webmasters to choose links, and link text for quick links?

The patent filing also presents a number of different ways that they might let webmasters tell search engines which links and text for those links that they would like to use. The patent filing is:

Indexing Explicitly-Specified Quick-Link Data for Web Pages
Invented by Tabreez Govani and Srinath Aaleti
Assigned to Microsoft
US Patent Application 20090204579
Published August 13, 2009
Filed February 13, 2008

Abstract

Systems, methods, and computer storage media having computer-executable instructions embodied thereon for permitting webmasters to explicitly specify links or other web pages that the webmaster believes visitors to the web site or web page are interested in viewing are provided.

Systems and methods for identifying explicitly-specified site-link data upon crawling the web site, indexing the site-link data in association with the web site or a web page, and exposing at least a portion of such site-link data when the associated web site and/or web page surfaces as the result of an input search query are also provided.

We’re told that a webmaster might tell a search engine which quick links to use in the following places:

  • Meta tags
  • robots.txt files
  • sitemaps
  • HTML A tags,
  • other places within the HTML associated with a web page (not shown), and
  • other specific files that can be served by the web server (not shown)

Here are some of the potential options

Specifying Quick links by Meta Tags

A webmaster might be able to use a quicklink meta tag to specify quick links and associated title on pages where they wish to offer quick links.

Example:

<meta name=”quicklink” content=”www.examplenews.com/pages/world/index.html World”/>
<meta name=”quicklink” content=”www.examplenews.com/pages/opinion/index.html Opinion”/>
<meta name=”quicklink” content=”www.examplenews.com/pages/business/index.html Business”/>
<meta name=”quicklink” content= www.examplenews.com/pages/jobs Job Market”/>

In this example, four quick links are specified linking to the URLs show, and providing “context-aware titles” for those links – “World”, “Opinion”, “Business” and “Job Market”.

The format for the link text in this example uses spaces between the URLs and those titles, but the patent filing tells us that other separators might be used instead.

Alternatively, a single quicklink meta tag might be used, such as the following:

<meta name=”quicklink” content=”url1 title1 url2 title2 url3 title3″/>

Specifying Quicklinks by Robots.txt File

A webmaster might also be able to specify quick links in a robots.txt file in the following way:

Rules-for-path: /
Quicklink:/pages/world/index.html World
Quicklink:/pages/opinion/index.html Opinion

This example shows one rule for each quick link. A number of quicklinks for different URLs could be listed. “World” and “Opinion”.

Specifying Quicklinks by XML Sitemap

Webmasters could specify quicklinks in a sitemap by adding rules for an XML sitemap:

<?xml version=”1.0″ encoding=”UTF-8″?>
<urlset xmlns=http://www.sitemaps.org/schemas/sitemap/0.9>
<url>
<loc>http://www.example.com/</loc>
<lastmod>2005-01-01</lastmod>
<changefreq>monthly</changefreq> <priority>0.8</priority>
<quicklink>
<url>/pages/world/index.html</url>
<title>World</title>
</quicklink>
<quicklink>
<url>/pages/opinion/index.html</url>
<title>Opinion</title>
</quicklink>
</url>
</urlset>

Specifying Quicklinks by HTML A Element

Another option for webmasters would be to specify quick links in HTML anchor elements. A new attribute for HTML A elements would be used, called “qltitle.” Here’s an example of a link that includes that attribute:

<a href=”http://www.example.com/pages/opinion/index.html” qltitle=”Opinion” />

Using a Quick-Link Submission Tool

Rather than including specific instructions through a meta tag or robots.txt file, or XML sitemap or A element, a search engine might instead allow webmasters to specify quick-links through the use of a quick-link submission tool.

Priority Rules When More Than One Method is Used

The methods listed above are all possible ways that a search engine could use to allow webmasters to choose which quick links to use. If a search engine allows the use of more than one of the methods listed above, then it might have to come up with a way of deciding which to follow if they contain different information. Rules might be set to determine which approaches the search engine would give the most weight to, and which to give the least weight to.

Context Sensitive Quicklinks?

Site links at Google will sometimes show up for the same page when it appears for different queries as the top result. Those site links are usually the same, regardless of which query is used.

What if you could specify conditions to associate with site links, so that if a page shows up for different queries, that different site links are displayed?

The Microsoft patent filing includes a way for different quicklinks to be shown based upon the query used to find a page:

It should be noted that in addition to providing appropriate URLs, and context-aware titles for each desired quick-link, if desired, webmasters may also specify one or more conditions to be associated with a quick-link as part of the quick-link or explicitly-specified site-link data, the condition(s) generally being based upon the content and/or context of a received search query.

For instance, a condition indicating that if a search query regarding top news stories is received, the quick-link associated with the “World” context-aware title is to be presented whereas if a search query regarding the unemployment rate is received, the quicklink associated with the “Job Market” context-aware title is to be presented may be provided as part of the quick-link data.

Conclusion

Giving webmasters some control over which quicklinks are shown with a page sounds like a good idea on the surface.

Of the methods that Microsoft presents in the patent filing, my favorite is the meta tag approach.

Should search engines allow webmasters to specify which quick links or site links are shown with their pages in search results?

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39 thoughts on “Should Webmasters Pick Their Own Quicklinks in Search Results?”

  1. I agree with you on this in principle, and I like the quicklinks meta tag idea. That being said, if the search engine algorithm decides which page to rank highest for a certain phrase in the first place (and what title to display), why would it do differently with quicklinks?

  2. When you block a sitelink in the webmaster tools, does Google replace that link with another suitable one? One of my sites recently received sitelinks, and a couple of them are not entirely relevant, but I’m nervous about blocking any of them for fear of losing the links.

  3. I like the idea of a meta tag, and I can see someone writing a plugin for that now.When I look at the data from my site, I can see posts that are “how-to-s” are the most popular, but such quick links may not help with conversions. I like those posts as a way to establish my authority (and they have helped garner clients), but the point of the site is to drive a potential client to hire me. I think that sitelinks to those posts may not always be helpful, so having some say in the matter would be nice.

  4. I agree with the sentiment that web masters *should* know best the pages of their site that their audience are interested in. Valid comment also from David Leonhardt about se’s doing in the main a great ranking job. I would support web masters being able to provide an indication as to which pages would be best appearing as site links, but I would not endorse the ability to apply a priority to them.

    Damien

  5. I doubt the qltitle attribute would go down well at W3C :D

    <link rel=”quicklink” href=”http://example.com/page” title=”title” />

    would probably be the best solution IMO.

    The potential for abuse is probably too big for SEs to implement this: disgruntled wed designers, hackers, software vulnerabilities etc. could make SEs look stupid. They have already decided that you can’t trust on-site factors, in particular ones that are not visible in the browser, so it is probably unlikely they would go for this. Another possible idea would be using some sort of 3rd party like DMOZ. If you have a DMOZ listing, submit your suggested site-links there and get them verified by a human.

    I’ve noticed that Google seems to be trailing sitelinks for sub-pages based on anchors. Have not seen that before yesterday in the UK. Not sure how that would fit in.

  6. “Another possible idea would be using some sort of 3rd party like DMOZ. If you have a DMOZ listing, submit your suggested site-links there and get them verified by a human.”
    You have got to be kidding.

    “Should Webmasters Pick Their Own Quicklinks in Search Results?”
    I cast my vote for yes, but I doubt that’s ever going to happen. But what would be useful is if Google showed us some performance metrics for sitelinks in Webmaster tools, which would help us better evaluate them.

  7. Hi David L.,

    With some exceptions, it does seem like it’s pretty common for most of the major search engines to use the <title> that webmasters use as the link pointing to pages. Google has sometimes used titles taken from DMOZ instead, and Yahoo has sometimes used titles taken from the Yahoo Directory as well.

    It is interesting that Microsoft was the one to propose this approach, even if it was in a patent filing. Looking at a large number of search results at Bing since its release, it seems like Bing is more likely to replace what a webmaster has specified in a <title> than Google or Yahoo.

  8. Hi Takeshi,

    I’m sure that the concern that you have, that if you block some of the sitelinks that Google has decided upon that Google might replace them with less relevant links, is one shared by lots of people. I’ve felt the same way.

    I’ve seen replacements that were improvements, and replacements that really weren’t. Fortunately, you can “unblock” links that you’ve blocked, and also block sitelinks that are replacements. Unfortunately, if you unblock a quicklink, that doesn’t mean that it will return.

    This is another reasons why it would be nice to have more control over quicklinks.

  9. Hi Frank,

    Thank you. A plugin would be great. If Microsoft decides to give siteowners more control over quicklinks, I wonder which of the methods they might decide to use. It’s possible that they might go with something else that isn’t listed in the patent filing.

    Your point about “How to” posts is a very good example showing how a webmaster might know better than a search engine which links, and which link text might be the best choices for a site.

  10. Hi Damien,

    If search engines used one of these methods to at least let webmasters suggest possible quicklinks, I think that would be an improvement over the approach that search engines are following now. I do appreciate having sitelinks when some of my pages show up in search results. but I do wonder about some of the choices for links and link text that I’ve seen.

    I do wonder, if Microsoft were to use more than one of the methods listed, if webmasters might be tempted to suggest different “text” for specific pages in the different methods – say using one phrase in a meta tag, and another phrase in the robots.txt file. I think that’s why the patent filing mentioned that it might come up with rules deciding which method they would give the most weight to, and which they might give the least weight to.

  11. Hi Charles,

    Good to see you. I don’t believe that submitting possible sitelinks to DMOZ would be a good approach either. I’ve seen DMOZ editors repeatedly state that the Open Directory Project has no interest in listing every site that might be appropriate for a category, regardless of whether it might be a good fit or not. As a human edited directory, I also don’t think they have the manpower to handle those submissions or to do some level of verification on those.

    I would really like to see the search engines come up with a way of letting us offer suggestions for sitelinks, too. I have more hope for the possibility now that I’ve seen at least one of the major search engines suggest it in a patent application. If Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft could all agree to the use of “nofollow,” “XML Sitemaps,” and the “canonical” tag, then a way of suggesting quicklinks that those search engines might follow may not be out of the question.

    Performance metrics for sitelinks in Google’s Webmaster Tools would be a great addition. I like that idea very much.

  12. Hi David,

    The standards being worked on at the W3C do add a number of new possible uses for different values using the “rel” attribute. When I was reading the patent filing, I was wondering why Microsoft didn’t include that approach as a possibility myself.

    The use of site links for internal links on pages, or what you’ve called “trailing sitelinks for sub-pages based on anchors,” does seem to be new for Google. I believe that Yahoo and Bing/Microsoft Live may have been doing that for a while. I’ve also noticed that Bing has been including internal anchors (such as http://www.seobythesea.com/2009/08/should-webmasters-pick-their-own-quicklinks-in-search-results/#comment-184155 ) as separate search results listings as well. Both seem to be indications that search engines have started doing some indexing on a smaller level than pages. For wikipedia entries, those sitelinks for links on different sections of the same page makes sense – they are likely more useful for searchers than links to other Wikipedia pages.

  13. Hi all,
    When you use Yahoo SSPro their inclusion program it gives you the option to imput the quick links on the homepage in the search results. The system will also give you tracking data and you would be suprised how small percentage who actaully click on the quick links however the main link often get clicked more. So maybe it doesn’t matter what links you have but just that you have some.

    /M

  14. Hi Meeni,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. Yahoo does allow people to choose sitelinks under their paid inclusion program. I’ve looked before, and I haven’t found a reference to it on any of Yahoo’s public facing pages. They do show quicklinks for sites that may not be paying for those links, such as the homepage for NASA. The Microsoft patent filing doesn’t mention or allude to payment for the chance to choose quicklinks.

  15. Hi Joe,

    I’m wondering if it’s possible that Google was being cautious, and decided to approach sitelinks in steps, by starting out providing them to some sites, and then providing some control over blocking them, with some possible next steps that might give webmasters more control.

    I do like that Google allows webmasters the chance to provide feedback to them when those webmasters block sitelinks. It would be great to see them do something with that information. If a lot of sitelinks are blocked by webmasters based upon reasons such as there being better choices for links or that the link text being used wasn’t that good, that might convince Google that they should give webmasters more control.

  16. I do think the ability to block irrelevant sitelinks for Google in the webmaster tools is helpful. It does make one wonder why they didn’t go a step further and list all the available pages they see as possible sitelinks and then give the webmaster a simple opt-in choice as to what they would choose to put there. Although I admit that might be open to abuse which maybe why they have decided to do it the way they have and also being the fact the sitelinks may vary from one search result to another in terms of what are the most relevant sitelinks to display for that search query..

    Joe

  17. Hi Jacob,

    It would be nice to have the option to suggest sitelinks. Right now, Google doesn’t offer that opportunity, though you can block ones that you don’t like. Hopefully you’ll start seeing sitelinks for your site soon. Fingers crossed.

  18. If & when i ever get SiteLinks, I would hope that I would be able to pick which pages should get them! I would think that webmasters tools would allow that option? Or even better, I would think that Google would give users a say in which pages they feel most deserve to be a part of the sitelinks.

  19. Hi Bill.

    On the matter of how titles are chose, it seems to me that for the quicklinks, Google often picks shortened titles (but this is just an impression; I never actually took that close a look). Something ofr a future post, perhaps?

  20. Hi David,

    Google does sometimes shorten titles, and it’s likely an automated process. It can sometimes produce results that may not always be helpful for viewers and site owners.

    For example, they shortened the text in a link to my “Search Engine Optimization (SEO) category to “Engine Optimization (SEO)” which might appear more appropriate for a site about working on cars than web sites.

    It might be a good topic for a future post. Thanks.

  21. Hi Bill

    Yes I’d agree with that. Most likely a staged release which is releasing control slowly as they make it work better. The ability to block is good and as you say one would hope they (OK its Google we are talking about so they almost certainly are) would be reviewing the sitelinks that webmasters choose to block and looking for trends within that data that help them improve the way sitelinks work and display.

    Joe

  22. Hi Bill

    You write “A webmaster might be able to use a quicklink meta tag” – do you mean that the meta tag works or they are just planning to do that? Is that for future Bing development? As I am not clear on that?
    I also use the Google webmaster tools to delete links though its a bit time consuming if you have a number of sites and since you have to explain yourself. Not to mention the people that dont have an account are bascially stuck with what G gives them (which seems to be based on number of clicks on that specific link?). A universal meta would help a lot esp when you are launcing a new product and would like it to be visible in the SERPs.

    Thanks

  23. Hi Joe,

    I’ve got my fingers crossed that they will do a detailed study on the effectiveness of sitelinks, and release it to the public. :) And then take action, like letting webmasters have more control over sitelinks.

  24. Hi Bilety lover,

    You can’t use these meta tags yet – and it’s possible that Microsoft may decide not to allow webmasters to use them ever. But it’s possible that we might be able to do so in the future. What would be really nice is if all of the major search engines decided to release something like this as an agreed-to standard, like they did with the canonical tag, or XML sitelinks.

    Keep an eye out for it in the future, and don’t be surprised if you see it. We may not, but if a quicklinks meta tag comes out, you’ve now been forewarned. :)

  25. thanks

    Out of interest I asked Google to remove one of the links on the 8 of july. They removed it a couple of days later – or maybe even automatically cant remember now – and they displayed a link I wanted (a relatively new page). I just checked now and the links have changed again to something else (another one I dont want). In the webmaster tools I got 7 links (4 are displayed in SERPs) – worse is I dont want any of the 3-7 … seems I need to ask google to block all of them. Ugh. I thought only Microsoft was a pain seems Google brainiacs are not much better..

  26. Hi Bilety Lover,

    I’ve experienced success and failure when blocking some sitelinks with Google as well. Some have been replaced by better pages and link text, and others have been replaced by pages that I don’t like. I’ve unblocked some where I liked the page being pointed towards, but didn’t like the text used as links to those pages.

  27. Hi David,

    I like the idea of enabling webmasters to specify quick links as well.

    The methods for implementing this are from Microsoft as described in the patent filing, rather than something I made up. I’m not certain that any of the methods that are mentioned really make a difference regarding whether they would be implemented site-wide or consistently across a site.

    I do have a question for you, though. Should quicklinks be the same for a site, regardless of which page is shown in search results, or the query used? What about sites that have different clearly defined sections? For example, if someone searched for [espn baseball], would it be helpful for the main ESPN baseball page to be the top search result, and quicklinks or sitelinks to different pages within that section of the site showing up? Would that be helpful, or would it be confusing?

  28. I love the idea of specifying quick links especially given that some sort of suggestion would probably speed up when your site gets them. The one part of the article I find a bit of a problem with is the method for implementing the suggested quick links.

    To me, meta and link tags don’t seem like the obvious choice for something you want to have site-wide and have consistency with.

    Instead I’d rather specify something like that in either an XML sitemap with specific markup to show which parts are quick links, in robots.txt where are special pages are noted, or through some new standard file where links of that nature could be found.

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  30. Ulitmately it should be down to the webmaster what info they’d like displayed on the search results page IMO – you (as a web master) have control over your title and meta description tags (and thus can change your search listing) – so why not be able to change the links to the most important sections of your website?

  31. I’m with Microsoft on this one, as powerful as search engines are there’s little doubt that the creator of a website has a better idea of what people are looking for from their site than the search engines. With that in mind I’m all for webmasters being provided a little more control over site links.

    Of the proposed methods I think META tags would make the most sense since they are already widely understood by webmasters. The introduction new files to dictate the sitelinks would just overcomplicate things.

  32. Hi Techdesigns,

    I agree with you, but I understand why a search engine might be hesitant.

    Search engines don’t always show the title that you’ve picked for a page, sometimes using something like a DMOZ or Yahoo Directory title for the page instead. Many search results also don’t use the meta description for a page unless it contains the query terms used in a search that results in the page, and it’s possible that they might not show the meta description even if it does contain the query terms.

    It would be nice if we were able to offer suggestions for quick links, with the understanding that the search engines might show something else. We have some control, in that we decide what anchor text is used to point to those pages, but search engines don’t alway use that text in quick links either.

  33. Hi Stu,

    I like the meta tag approach as well. The patent application doesn’t mention the possibility of using a (link rel=”quick link text”) approach, but I think that would be a good way to go too.

    One thing that I think we would see if we were able to offer sggestions for quicklinks, and the text for those links, is that the search engines might start comparing the link text that we suggest with the actual anchor text that appears on the site in links to those pages.

  34. Great thought prevoking post again. Im my opinion the Meta tag option would make webmasters the most happy. They know the important links and what anchor text to display. I am in agreement with several posters; if I delete a link in webmaster tools will it be replaced and will it be for a better or worse one?

    I am a little nervous when it comes to removing a link. anyone had any success getting removed links replaced with more site critical links with good anchor text?

  35. Hi Lee,

    Again, thanks.

    I’ve blocked a few sitelinks in Google, with mixed results. Sometimes the replacements are better, and sometimes they aren’t I’ve had as few as 3 showing at a time, and as many as 8, after using Google’s webmaster tools to block some of the sitelinks.

    I understand your caution in removing one of them, but I wasn’t really pleased with some of the ones that they were showing, and they do provide you with the chance to write in feedback about the ones that you remove. Hopefully, if enough people do, they will improve, or they might even give webmasters an opportunity to suggest sitelinks, using methods like the ones described in this patent filing.

    I like the meta tag approach the best myself, as well.

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