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Links: The Broken “Ballot Box” Used By Google & Bing
In 1998, Google launched a search engine based on a good idea: counting links as votes for good content. Google, as well as its rival Bing, still largely operates the same way today. Unfortunately, using 1998 voting technology makes little sense in the world of 2012 — and the cracks are showing.
The cracks aren’t showing when it comes to search quality. Both Google and Bing still leverage links as a way to provide relevant answers to millions of people each day. Sure, there’s always examples of odd outliers where relevancy fails, examples that especially get seized upon by those upset over Google’s recent Penguin Update. But by-and-large, counting links still works.
The Votes That Don’t Get Counted
It still works, however, because millions of links aren’t counted at all. Over the years, people have bought, sold and traded links in ways that, if Google didn’t act, might allow sites to gain more popularity than they’ve really earned.
Meanwhile, publishers that really have earned the right to links have been denied them, as other publishers have adopted the “nofollow” mechanism as a way to fight spam.
For an example of this, consider any Wikipedia page. Wikipedia has no innate knowledge. All of its pages are sourced off facts and information that come from others. These others get listed at the bottom of Wikipedia pages with links, but links that use nofollow blocking, so that they don’t act as votes in search engine calculations. By rights, these sources have earned those votes But, they get denied them.
Most people who use search engines have no idea of all the vote discounting going on. Most searchers, I’m guessing, just assume Google has some magic formula to figure out what’s relevant. I’d wager that most publishers have no idea of it happening, either. More publishers probably understand that links are important, but many of them probably really don’t understand what a mess the link situation is.
They’re beginning to learn, however. The cracks, as I said, are showing.
Cracks In The Link Foundation
Here’s an example from earlier this month, on the Talking Points Memo. Josh Marshall, the editor and publisher of the popular political blog, highlighted how he received a request to remove links — a fairly rude and demanding request. Wrote Marshall:
In other words, the estimable businessmen and women at realinsurance.com.au have been paying SEO companies to spam the comment sections of sites around the globe. But now Google’s new search algorithms are making that legacy spam really damaging. So now they’re sending out cease and desist notices to the victims of their earlier spamming demanding that they search their archives and remove their spam.
All those annoying and unsolicited link requests that people have endured for years? That’s right, a new wave of link removal requests has been launched.
The new link building is link unbuilding.
Here’s another example of the new world of linking. Boing Boing highlighted last week how a company sent a removal threat with strong legal overtones. Drop that link, because it’s not authorized by law! Wrote Cory Doctrow:
I’m sad to say that this appears to be the kind of legalcomic dipshittery that will come to define the coming century.
Actually, I’m sad to say that this appears to be the end result of search engines using an outdated method of determining what should rank well. It’s as if they’re using a heavily patched version of Windows XP to keep things running.
Both examples above we’ve already covered at our sister-side Search Engine Land, well before they made it out to more mainstream publications, such as In Wake Of Penguin, Could You Be Sued For Linking To Others?.
We’ve also covered another new development, places charging to remove links: Here’s A New Twist: Directories Now Charging NOT To Link. That’s right. It used to be people wanted to buy links. Now they might want to pay to remove them.
All this has been especially sparked by Google’s actions over the past few months. The company issued warnings to publishers about having bad links in late March. The Penguin Update in April further penalized for them. Publishers hit started desperately trying to get rid of whatever links they figured were bad.
Who Can Figure This Stuff Out?
If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is confusing — and fundamentally confusing because Google has gone from where it started, a system where all links counted as votes, to a system where Google tries to figure out which votes it wants to count.
A vote might not count if Google decides the vote is because of an affiliate relationship. Or maybe it will. Infographics are a popular new way of gaining votes? Maybe those will be next up on the “do not count” list.
Don’t forget, Google’s making all of these decisions in an environment where some publishers actively withhold their votes while other publishers sell them. Add into all that the fact that most people, as I’ve covered before, don’t actually vote at all. Most people don’t go out and ensure they’re linking to good content from their blogs. Most people don’t have blogs.
Google itself can’t even figure things out. Google had to penalize its page for the Chrome browser after it was determined that Chrome was promoted through paid links. Google never intended for that to happen. The promotion company involved said it never intended that to happen. I believe them both. But it shows how confusing the world of linking has become.
Make no mistake. I’m not blaming Google for all the horrible link spam that has gone on over the years, nor for the spate of link removals that are now happening. Google didn’t force people to buy links, spam comments, to insert links into blog templates or any number of things that common sense would have told you either is stepping over the line or obviously wouldn’t be sustainable.
In particular, I find it unfortunate that the mess Google finds itself in enables some with terrible content or outright spammers to cry that they’re poor, innocent victims.
It’s also the same mess that Bing’s in, because it does some of the same discounting. It’s just not as transparent about it, so Google takes most of the attacks. But when Bing rolled out its new “link disavow” tool, that was a sign that Bing stuggles just as Google does.
But We’re Stuck With Links
Both Google and Bing have a link problem. The links cannot hold. They need something better. There’s only so much patching that both can do. But we seem to be stuck with links as votes for the foreseeable future. At least, that’s what Google and Bing tell me.
I’ve been doing the rounds asking what comes next after links. I asked the head of Google search, Amit Singhal, that in May:
He stressed that Google uses many different signals for ranking pages (see also our Periodic Table Of SEO Ranking Factors, and that various signals can reinforce each other, but he didn’t suggest any change to links being the predominant signal that many believe them to be.
Bing vice president Derrick Connell said similar things, that links are one of many signals but social signals wouldn’t be taking over for them soon:
“I wouldn’t write the epitaph for links quite yet,” Cutts replied, explaining that the web was still the biggest source of signals out there, that most links aren’t blocked from passing credit and that people can still get them.
I’m not convinced. Even if most links aren’t blocked, that omits the fact that most people aren’t linking at all. It overlooks that Google’s doing a huge amount of behind-the-scenes discounting.
Honk If You Hate Links
Links suck. It’s hard to get good links, and even when you do, you might find they don’t count. Meanwhile, who wants to be wasting time “disavowing” links? There’s got to be a better way.
I remain hopeful that social signals will overtake link signals as the predominant way that search engines rank content. I can already see how that happens with personalized results both on Google and Bing. Who you know, who you are connected to, those social signals can be far more important than links. But I want to see those signals used more in the aggregate for everyone, too.
Won’t social votes get spammed, as with links? Of course. Gaming will always happen. It already does in social. But I feel like social is going to be a more robust signal, because there are more people able to cast social votes than link votes, plus social votes may be more easy to assess trust to than with web sites.
My past column, When Everyone Gets The Vote: Social Shares As The New Link Building, goes into this in more depth.
- What Is Google PageRank? A Guide For Searchers & Webmasters
- Google Sending Warnings About “Artificial” Or “Unnatural” Links
- Google Launches “Penguin Update” Targeting Webspam In Search Results
- In Wake Of Penguin, Could You Be Sued For Linking To Others?
- Here’s A New Twist: Directories Now Charging NOT To Link
- Matt Cutts On Penalties Vs. Algorithm Changes, A Disavow-This-Link Tool & More
- Google’s Matt Cutts On Affiliate Links: We Handle Majority Of Them
- Cutts: Infographic Links Might Get Discounted In The Future
- Link Building Means Earning “Hard Links” Not “Easy Links”
- Insanity: Google Sends New Link Warnings, Then Says You Can Ignore Them
- Google Updates Link Warnings To (Sort Of) Clarify They Can Be Ignored (Maybe)
- When Everyone Gets The Vote: Social Shares As The New Link Building