Search Engine Optimization Tips from the Future: Co-Citation and Co-Occurrence

The prospect of suddenly disappearing from search results is one of a marketer’s worst nightmares, but one that too many of us have experienced in the wake of a major Google algorithm update.

Fortunately, the increasingly sophisticated methods that Google is using to rank websites may actually spare us from such fallout in the future.
advance seo tips co-citation and co-occurrence

The twin SEO techniques of co-citation and co-occurrence (which aren’t nearly as scary as they sound) may hold the key to future-proofing your search engine optimization, and creating better content in the process.

Co-Citation, or SEO Through Giving People Credit

The super simple definition of co-citation is the connection created by the mention of two or more pages, websites, or brands on the same website.

For example, I write an article about pet rabbits. On that page I mention a site about pet food, and one about rabbit hutches. Those two pages aren’t linked together directly, but they now have a relationship through the power of co-citation because I cited them both.

co-citation seo

Keep in mind that co-citation creates associations among sites that mention one another, regardless of whether or not they link to one another.

In fact, co-citation is sometimes referred to as linkbuilding without the links.

There have been rumblings about Google’s ability to estimate relationships amongst websites without using backlinks for years, but it seems that the first use of this term in relation to SEO goes to Rand Fishkin’s WhiteBoard Friday video from November of 2012.

(If you watch the video you’ll realize that he was, in fact, talking about co-occurrence instead of co-citation, which may have contributed to some of the persistent misunderstanding that continue to swirl around the term to this day.)

Initial mislabeling aside, it can seem very counter intuitive to consider that Google can establish relationships among websites that never linked to one another. In fact some authors still talk about co-citation in terms of links.

Under this link-centric interpretation I would have to actually link to both the pet food and rabbit hutch websites to establish a co-citation connection; a simple mention would not do it.

My personal take on the topic is that co-citation currently relies minimally on links to establish relationships, and that that focus will decrease over time. Google is doing its utmost to deprecate backlinks as a strong ranking signal, but it’s going to be a while before they’re totally successful in doing so.

So, while that process continues we need a definition of co-citation that can accommodate both relationships established by links and by non-linked citations.

I propose this definition:

Co-citation occurs when a website mentions two different online sources, thereby creating an algorithmic relationship between those two sources.

Finally, this doesn’t work for sites that are vastly different. If my rabbit article links to a site about growing your own carrots and one about pet laws in apartment buildings, those are unlikely to benefit from any co-citation magic because their content doesn’t overlap.

Co-Occurence, or SEO Through the Power of Good Writing

This topic is music to a content marketers ears, because it heralds an SEO future that rewards the use of synonyms, topically relevant keywords, and other general good writing practices.

Very simply, co-occurrence happens when terms get mentioned together often enough that they become linked in search results. When keywords co-occur with links, the anchor text and those terms are given a particularly strong algorithmic association.

co-occurrence for seo

“Rand Fishkin” and “SEO” are good examples of terms with a strong co-occurrence in Google’s eyes.

People all over the internet use these words in close proximity to one another over and over again. It’s likely that either of those keywords could be used as anchor text, with the other appearing in very close proximity to the link.

Therefore, Google associates Rand’s name with the concept of search engine optimization, and will give results that represent this correlation preference in search results.

Then, if Rand himself starts mentioning a new SEO authority, tactic, keyword, or tool when he writes about the topic, that co-occurrence will give the new term a serious boost in search rankings.

(This is yet another reason why influencer marketing can be so massively powerful, but that’s an article for another day.)

Under the principle of co-occurence, terms that appear near links will get associated with those links. This means that the anchor text that we choose is not nearly as important as the words that use around it.

If you want to get on this train and get out ahead of future algorithm updates, your path is clear: “stop obsessing over the head terms and exact long tail keywords to target, and instead bask in the joy of great content, regardless of keyword presence.”

Content marketers of the world rejoice!

So, what does search engine optimization start to look like if we embrace the idea of co-citation and co-occurrence increasingly driving our search results?

Search Engine Optimization Tips in a Post-Linkbuilding World

Neil Patel argues that “[i]n order to achieve co-citation, we have to have co-occurrence,” and to an extent I agree. When it comes to our own content, we have control over both the citations and occurrences we create.

In that case, co-citation and co-occurrence will indeed go hand in hand.

In the rabbit article example from earlier, I linked to a site about pet food and one about rabbit hutches from my article about caring for your pet rabbit. The article cites the pet food website in conjunction with the website that sells hutches, and also mentions feeding rabbits.

I have thereby created a co-citation connection between these two websites and given each one a co-occurrence relationship between their site and keywords related to rabbit care.

A smart content marketer will be able to latch onto this idea and use it cleverly throughout their writing.

But when it comes to off-page search engine optimization, our options for influencing both citations and occurrences related to our sites diminish greatly.

First, let’s talk in more detail about using co-citation and co-occurrence on our sites, then we’ll turn to the best way to get others to practice them on our behalf on other websites.

How and Why to Practice Co-Citation

The way to do this is simple: when you know there are relevant, high-quality websites related to your own content, link to them.

Your site benefits from citations in two ways:

1. Teach Google What You’re About
“Google understands and categorizes brands according to the other brands that they mention. Thus, you can associate your brand with other brands, and potentially rank for keywords for which other brands have historically had better results,” argue Neil Patel.

Basically, you’re establishing your site’s content by associating it with similar existing sites.

2. Link Juice Can Flow Upstream Through Citation
By citing high quality, authoritative sites you get some ranking benefit yourself. Link judiciously, and keep in mind the complementary technique of co-concurrence to ensure that the keywords you place near your anchor text are highly relevant.

Using Co-Occurrence in Your Content Marketing

It’s tempting to start trying to game the algorithm and creating rules for what terms can appear around your anchor text, but all these new SEO techniques are centered on helping Google figure out that you’re creating the best content out there. They aren’t geared toward gaming the system.

So the best way to future proof your SEO is to avoid any kind of manipulation.

Simply understand the keyword story that you want your brand to tell, and then weave those terms into and throughout your content.

Influencing Off-Page SEO Using Co-Citation and Co-Occurrence

It’s easy to do on-page SEO under this new paradigm: write amazing content that links to other relevant resources. But we aren’t in the post-backlink era just yet; we’ve still got to rely on external signals as well as those we can control.

The most straightforward way to deal with off page co-citation and co-occurrence is to continue the practice of producing the best content you can, and to hope that others will mention it, link to it, and engage with it.

For those who aren’t made entirely of patience, relationship building will most likely replace linkbuilding in your SEO toolbox.

You need to become a useful and valued member of your niche so that others will be able to find and reference your content.

This means engaging on social media (really engaging, not just randomly hitting “retweet” twice a day), commenting on other people’s websites and blogs, attending industry events, and otherwise cultivating meaningful relationships with people.

And you thought linkbuilding was time consuming.

It remains to be seen whether this type of connection-centered algorithm will actually be the SEO of the future, but Google’s signals all seem to point in that direction. So start making friends, sharing good content, and riding the wave of ever smarter search results.

The Bigger SEO Picture Emerges

Once upon a time SEO was simple: keywords everywhere. As many backlinks as you can manufacture. Rinse. Repeat.

But as algorithms become more sophisticated the patterns of search engine optimization are becoming more abstract. You can’t just pick a keyword and optimize a page for it; you’ve got to embrace the connectedness of the internet.

A myopic understanding of search results won’t work for much longer, but if you can step back and see the big picture, it’s gonna be beautiful.

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Andrea Fryrear
About the Author:

Andrea Fryrear

Andrea loves to dissect marketing buzzwords and fads looking for the pearls of wisdom at their cores. Her favorite topic is agile marketing, which she believes holds the key to a more fulfilling (and less stressful) marketing career for individuals and a more powerful marketing department for business. When not scrutinizing the latest agile methodologies, Andrea can be found on the volleyball court, at the park with her two delightful kids, or baking “calorie-free” cookies. Connect with her on Twitter @AndreaFryrear, or on LinkedIn.

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