Traffic Determines Google UI Snippet Links

Update: This article discusses how Google determines the snippet links – not how Google determines what sites return snippet links. I hope that clears things up.

There’s been a bit of discussion over these snippet links over on SEM 2.0 and no one really knows how Google is determining these links. I spent some time researching the links and I believe Google is using traffic data to determine these links.

First off a bit of background for those of you that don’t know which Google UI snippets I’m talking about.

For some sites, Google exposes “useful links” from within the site. For example, Google will show extra links from Berkley’s web site for a search on “Berkley”. Matt Cutts has said before that these links are generated algorithmically.

People who know Google well will go “Cool” and move on. Other folks will ask things like “Are sites or their links selected by hand–can my site get in on this? Is money involved?” And the answer is: it’s all algorithmic. The algorithms pick the sites where this could be helpful. Of course money isn’t involved at all.

But how exactly are these snippet links being determined?

First off let’s analyze an interesting example – A search for “adidas” will return to you 4 snippet links: Style – Originals – Performance – Change Location.

This is a good case study because adidas’s homepage only contains 5 links in total and out of those 5 links, 4 are shown as a snippet link. From a user standpoint, you’d be suprised that Google did not return the shop link as a snippet link. That’s because the link is to a page (shopadidas.com) not on the home domain, adidas.com.

Now let’s take a look at the Style link returned by Google. It’s actually a javascript link around an image on the homepage. Google has indexed the link and the alt text.

Interesting, so how is Google picking up the javascript link? They’d have to parse the javascript and that could potentially lead to some security issues. There’s an easier way though – Google could use toolbar data. If you are using the Google Toolbar’s advanced features, when you visit a web page, the toolbar sends Google some information including the url of the page. This data could be used to track linking data that Google’s crawler can not successfully crawl. In other words, with the Google Toolbar, you are Google’s crawler.

Could Google’s toolbar traffic be determining which links they are showing as Google snippet links?

Since you don’t have access to Google’s toolbar traffic data, you have no way of seeing what Google knows about a site’s traffic. But you can compare Alexa traffic to Google snippet links to see if there is a correlation. It’s easier to compare snippet links to Alexa traffic if the domain contains many sub domains, so I took a look at some of those domains to see if there was a pattern. Take a look at this excel sheet to see some domains that resemble Alexa traffic trends (go.com, cnn.com, zdnet.com, netscape.com, w3c).

Best example:


Craigslist’s snippet links are a perfect match to Alexa traffic. There are some discrepancies for sites with multiple “homepages” – for example yahoo, where people may start off at different yahoo properties and thus affecting Alexa traffic data. It’s hard to tell whether or not you traveled to another page from the homepage or you started from that different page – both ways, Alexa counts that as traffic to the page. Most likely, Google is only considering traffic that originates from the homepage.

Summary:
Google snippet links are most likely determined by traffic patterns. Since Google does not allow access to toolbar traffic data, there is no way to know for sure. Many site’s snippet links closely resemble Alexa traffic stats.

Findings:
Google snippet links do not return links outside of the home domain.
Google snippet links do not have to be from a text link, it can be an image link or even a javascript link.
Google snippet link text can be determined from an image’s alt text.
Google snippet links can be subdomains of the home domain.
Google snippet links are not determined by PageRank.
Google snippet links are displayed for the top result for a “brand” search or “domain” search. (For example, “zappos” and “zappos shoes”)

22 thoughts on “Traffic Determines Google UI Snippet Links

  1. Hi,
    A very impresive article indeed!! Infact, I always had this query in my mind but couldn’t figure out the logic behind the same.Thanks a lot for the google snippet info!!Looking forward to more insight knowledge into the same in future!!

  2. With Google tollbar installed, Google knows everything about us – what sites we visited, when etc. Even if we delete our cashes from PC, they probably record everything.

  3. Interesting, maybe this is the small percentage of toobar data google does use? Lee Odden did a mini interview with Matt which you might find to be interesting, I would link it but I don’t know the rules in here. Great blog, will link to it!

  4. Great analysis Michael – fascinating stuff.

    I’ve always figured Google was using clickstream data from the toolbar but this is the first data I’ve seen that seems to confirm my ‘hunch’.

    On the basis of the post alone I’ve subscribed to your feed. Great stuff.

    Cheers,
    Marshall Clark

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  6. I’m wondering why just some web site show them and others, if you search for its brand don’t…

    Maybe you have to be listing on Dmoz (Google Directory) ?

  7. Fantastic analysis Michael! Sometimes you see some things like this and while you are still trying to figure out the reason and “bias”, someone like Micheal does a more scientific analysis. Well done, but you still leave me with a few lapses, where do you place companies like Ford Motor Company?

    Right from the outset, I knew Snippets were influenced by traffic algorithms, but that even seems to leave some others out, which ordinarily, should be “up” there.

    As in the case of Ford, Edmunds.com seem to be ahead in the “Snippets advantage”.

    Check other high traffic websites such as ebay, amazon, apple, microsoft, etc, Ford doesn’t, that defies human logic.

    Anyone with a simple explanation?

  8. I thought about this too, my original conclusion was that google picked up on the meta data (hence pagerank making no difference to snippets), and that if the site had similar metadata on other pages, they then would be displayed as snippets as the meta data is the same on more than one site page.

  9. Its not the top 4 links by traffic, cause searchign for “dmoz” on Google – brings up “japanese” as one of the 4 links. Which hardly anyone goes to.

    Search for “orkut” and you get 3 links.

    So anyone got a real explanation?

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  12. The mere fact that these pages are SiteLinks could be what is making them popular, think need to come up with some other means to prove this theory. Maybe target a site pre-SiteLinks if it were possible to identify one?

    So far Google have stated its internal structure, and I’m with them that this is the major influence. I’m still trying to figure exactly how they could be measuring internal structure, but not found anything to count it out yet either!

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  15. Looking at my site’s snippet links, Google seems to have wrapped them in their own tracking code.

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  19. Google algorithyms continue to be a wonder for me. It is incredible the lengths they go to to encrpyt and obscure, but just as wonderful is the plethora of interest it creates.
    Webmasters worldwide would sleep far too easily if this particular egg were easily cracked lol.

    Great article, insightful and thought provoking.

  20. Google definitely is the search engine in the lead when it comes to providing the best results to the user, thanks for explaining the snippet links.

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