Want to get more traffic? Check out how easy SEO can be.
Sign up!

Linking Affinity: An In-depth Discussion on Co-citation and Co-occurrence


Ever since Google began engineering algorithms to constantly fine-tune its massive search index, specialists on search engine optimization, web design, and content marketing have been at the mercy of every update or a new system altogether. This is not exactly a bad thing. If, for anything, the regular changes implemented by Google kept the aforementioned experts on their guard to prevent the sites of their clients and of their own from being seriously harmed when the algorithms begin rolling.

Let’s begin with Google Caffeine. It may be a lesser known algorithm among the lot that Google had released, but it pushed website owners to mend the loopholes in their site’s infrastructure to achieve high rankings. Two years after that, Google unleashed Panda which identified and penalized sites that posted content of poor quality. The spring cleaning of Google’s index didn’t stop there. A year after Panda enthroned content as king, Penguin was rolled out. This algorithm targeted sites that were optimized beyond what was acceptable through keyword stuffing and other black hat practices, and it put the upright websites in their proper place—on top of search engine results pages. Just recently, Google celebrated their 15th anniversary by setting the Hummingbird in flight. It is expected to enhance the way Google finds and delivers answers to search queries in terms of speed and accuracy.

The mere presence of multiple algorithms and the fact that Google ceaselessly updates them has changed the way SEO specialists build their websites and create content. Now, it’s not only the appearance of the website that should look great; the engine under the hood should also be well-oiled. But another significant development in the face of website optimization is how links are created and built. This aspect had gone through drastic transformation.

In the past, everybody was obsessed with linking keywords until it became spammy. Although keywords weren’t completely eliminated from the game, SEO practitioners adapted the practice of integrating them so that they remain in context without being superfluous. This eventually led to the conception of long-tail keywords which are now becoming more popular because of its compatibility with organic searches and its capability to generate traffic.

But as far as Google’s index is considered, achieving high rankings and gaining authority doesn’t stop at building links. In fact, a trend in establishing a brand’s presence online is beginning to rise in the form of co-citation and co-occurrence. While there is barely anything concrete about its methodology as of the moment, this article nevertheless wishes to shed light on what it is and how it’s going to affect the imminent future of search.

What Co-citation Is

Believed to be coined by no less than Moz founder Rand Fishkin, co-citation basically involves one website being cited by at least two sources without necessarily the inclusion of a hyperlink. The more places a site is mentioned in, the likelier it is to build authority by simply making a reference to it, even if it’s indirect. When Fishkin gave birth to the term co-citation, he was merely referring to the association of a particular term to a website or a website, a brand, or a URL. But with him being a pillar of the SEO industry, the name was quickly picked up by fellow players until it became the actual thing that it is now.

With the ability of search terms to manifest despite the lack of hyperlinks, co-citation is now being envisioned as a viable replacement to anchor texts. However, in his article Not All Anchor Text is Equal and other Co-Citation Observations, Bill Slawski implied that ranking because of co-citation alone and not exactly the keywords a website was optimized for, SEO specialists still need to depend on anchor texts since it remains a deciding factor Google has been using when gauging the relevance of a site.

Some say that co-citation is a pure form of building a brand because the association can be made without having to promote aggressively or at all. Since there are virtually no links involved, it will be tougher for black hat SEO practitioners to manipulate the words and, consequently, rankings. In some experiments where search queries were made using Google, the search engine turned up some results in the SERPs even if the pages were not optimized for specific the keywords that gave them their respective rankings. Co-citation is also believed to be the factor that gives your site generous traffic and a considerable ranking without having to apply full-scale application of SEO techniques.

So What is Co-occurrence?

Co-occurrence is fundamentally based on the premise that a search engine pulls together what it deems as relevant answers to the query submitted. Assuming that a particular website is adequately populated with keywords that the owner wants it to be recognized for, search engines will categorize this site and turn it up when it becomes relevant.

The thing about co-occurrence is just like co-citation—it doesn’t rely heavily on links. Ample mentions of a keyword or key phrase on a page can give a website bearing even if the article, for example, doesn’t link to anywhere else. While the term co-occurrence is relatively new to the expanding SEO vocabulary, the discipline behind it has been evolving fast and it wouldn’t be surprising if it soon reaches sophistication in delivering search results. Co-occurrence can also happen between search queries whose terms the search engines will associate with each other especially in the event that resembling terms were sought consecutively.

For instance, if you look up “gold watch” and “used gold watch for sale” in a succeeding manner, Google may infer that pre-owned gold watches are something people search online. The more people look for the item this way, the stronger the association between the two search queries making them related despite being turned up by different search terms or different contexts.

Generalized Edit Distance for Queries Patent

The trend of co-citation and co-occurrence propelled Google to establish a patent application to make searching easier while delivering the most pertinent results possible. This patent was made to improve the generation of query suggestions, keyword suggestions, query expansions, and keyword expanded matches. Invented by Google fellows Massimiliano Ciaramita, Amac Herdagdelen, and Daniel Mahler, this patent is meant to help expand search queries to make sure that Google understands and masters how to deduce the context of searches made.

In a separate article by Slawski entitled How Google May Reform Queries Based on Co-Occurrence in Query Sessions, he pointed out how it’s possible for SEO experts to work around the phenomenon of co-occurrence and take advantage of its capability to influence relevancy to search queries.

Remember that in co-occurrence, it is the words that you look for that matters and not necessarily the ones Google found in the pages it turned up. Slawski stressed that if you must capitalize on co-occurrence, the words that you want Google to associate with your brand and with each other should appear as close as possible in the page and that the syntax is correct and devoid of spelling errors. The more natural-sounding your structure is, the better the integrity of the terms that will manifest in co-occurrence will be.

It’s also important that you expand the variations of the base form of the words so that Google can discern which pages to give you after hitting Enter. For example, if you look up “how to become an editor” and then afterwards searched for “how to become an editorial assistant”, Google will make the connection between these two separate queries by simply examining the distinction of the key terms and how related they are based on the original form of the words used. You may have changed a suffix or added an auxiliary word but the patent is expected to read between these lines. In a manner of speaking, you can manipulate how the words in your content pieces are arranged so that it’s easier for Google to determine its relevance once a search is made.

The Future of Search Terms

Google may have relied for so long on keywords, anchor texts, and links but as the search indexing and ranking become more ingenious by the day, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the way search engines index and rank websites will be altered completely. In a Moz Whiteboard Friday session, Fishkin braved a forecast that the traditional ways Google has been operating on will eventually be superseded by the prevalence of co-citation and co-occurrence.

Fishkin also predicted that when time comes when we finally succumb to the co-citation and co-occurrence trend, SEO will need to reckon forces with the branding and PR departments. While the worth of links is believed to be gradually diminishing, traffic can still be driven to your site with the help of flawless writing and strategic placement of key terms.

This brings us back as to why it’s imperative that you should keep pace with the algorithms and updates Google releases every now and then. In our recent blog post about what Google algorithms mean for your website, it was stressed that the Hummingbird was engineered to make sense of searches based on the query terms used alone. It is this algorithm that establishes the connection between consecutive search terms and prompts the search engine to give the user the most appropriate answers in the shortest time possible. If you make it a point to fine-tune your website according to improvements on Google algorithms, you shouldn’t have a hard time fitting in to the most relevant searches made by your target audience.

As far as co-citation and co-occurrence are concerned, you need to keep well-informed of the trends and changes in your business’s niche so that you can tailor your content to the most probable search terms pertinent to your content. As usual, it’s also important that the content you produce are original and of high-quality because only this can actually add value to the massive index of search engines, plus the fact that it’s what the algorithms are looking for.