Analysis of Citations to the Main University News Site

Author: Zach Richard

When ranking websites on a search engine results page (SERP), there are a number of signals search engines uses to judge a websites quality. Search engine algorithms take into account more than 200 of these quality signals to arrive at their final score. Despite continued evolution of these algorithms, links back to a website or web page (or backlinks) are still known to be one of, if not the, strongest signals. Backlinks can be likended to the citations in a scientific paper, the more it's referenced by outside souces, the more credible it's likely to be.

Google's first and best-known algorithm to calculate value based on backlinks is known as PageRank and assigns a numerical weighting to each element of a hyperlinked set of documents with the purpose of measuring relative importance. As use of Google's search engine became more ubiquitous, people began to manipulate the PageRank concept to their advantage, recognizing that better search results lead to more sales. Google has since countered by continuely evolving their algorithm to account for content and quality. This is why it's best to do a regular backlink analysis, to determine a sites position in it's market and try to understand why it's ranking on the SERPs in the way that it is.

However, in higher education our goals are very different from the private companies jockeying for great SERP positions and pouring resources into search engine optimization (SEO). Findablility is valuable but as marketing professionals in higher-ed, we're often more concerned with getting our stories told and told well, as opposed to those stories converting into something that has a measurable ROI. Still, a backlink analysis can be valuable, providing insight into which stories are getting referenced most often and the types of publications that are referencing them, opening windows to future conversations when pitching or promoting university stories.

At the beginning of July 2015 an analysis was done to explore the relationships between articles on news.nd.edu and the websites that link to them. The top 392 link targeted pages on news.nd.edu were surveyed, yeilding 1,546 unique source and target URL combinations. The top ten target URLs by number of linking root domains are listed in the following table.

Target Page Linking Root Domains Total Links Facebook Shares Tweets
Homepage 29 651 19 61
Nobody likes a 'fat-talker,' study shows 25 37 60 27
Study: Telling fewer lies linked to better health and relationships 20 33 61 5
2014 ND-GAIN results show that Norway is most prepared for climate change 20 454 52 75
Notre Dame reports academic misconduct investigation 19 26 207 303
Cupid's arrow: Research illuminates laws of attraction 12 16 8 4
Notre Dame researchers develop system that uses a big data approach to personalized health care 11 12 13 49
'Trophy wife' stereotype is largely a myth, new study shows 11 11 56 52
Happy to get their hands dirty 11 12 0 0
Walking through doorways causes forgetting, new research shows 10 20 905 103

The top news source domains by authority linking to news.nd.edu pages are as follows:

  1. abcnews.go.com
  2. huffingtonpost.com
  3. washingtonpost.com
  4. forbes.com
  5. npr.org
  6. college.usatoday.com
  7. economist.com
  8. theatlantic.com
  9. businessinsider.com
  10. salon.com

Download the complete list of link sources and target URLs (893 kb)

It's interesting that, despite Notre Dame Football's partnership with NBC, niether nbcnews.com or nbcsports.com regularly reference the main University news outlet. (A quick analysis of links to und.com found no references from NBC in the top 200).

The following network graphs show the relationship between articles on news.nd.edu and the web pages that link to them. The size of each node denotes that nodes Page Authority, a predictor of how likely that page is to rank for relevant search terms. Page Authority is a score (on a 100-point logarithmic scale) developed by Moz that predicts how well a specific page will rank on search engines. It is based on data from the Mozscape web index and includes link counts, rank, Alexa Score, and dozens of other factors. It uses a machine learning model to predictively find an algorithm that best correlates with rankings across the thousands of search results. For the purpose of higher-education and in this case, higher education news, Page Authority can be viewed as the relative importance of the page in the news media landscape. The thickness of the vertices in the graphs corresponds with the number of times that page or property links to a specific target URL. In the first graph, where source links are grouped by page, all the vertices are relatively small, as it's inpracticle to link more than a couple times from a single article. However, when grouped by property, the differences in number of links from source to target becomes more apparent.

Zoom and pan the netowork graph in order to explore the relationships between news articles. Adjust the number of visible nodes to increase the connections displayed in the graph window. Hover over a node to view it's URL, Notre Dame news story paths are relative to news.nd.edu.

Links to news articles grouped by pages

View the graph in Google Fusion Tables

Links to news articles grouped by web property

View the graph in Google Fusion Tables

There is not a strong correlation between general pageviews and links to a specific article, since science and technology articles draw a disproportionate amount of references realtive to their audience and overall volume on the University news site. However, when viewed by popularity normalized by story output volume, discussed in a previous report, there is a correlation between the most linked to pages and their popularity. This could simply be the nature of science & technology research, which relies heavily on citation and corroboration, but could provide insight into strategies to gain more exposure for articles in other categories that have important stories the University wants to share.