Links: The Broken “Ballot Box” Used By Google & Bing

vote-buttonIn 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 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.

More Craziness

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.

Just this last week, Google sent out a round of new warnings. Then it said some of those warnings could be ignored. Maybe.

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:

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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:

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I also asked the head of Google’s web spam team, Matt Cutts, in June if we’d be getting past links, if they still worked as the “democracy of the web” as Google still says.

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“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.

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Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | Search Marketing Column


About The Author: is Founding Editor of Marketing Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search marketing and internet marketing issues, who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Nyagoslav Zhekov

    Danny, I’m sure Google (and I… hope Bing, too) have realized long ago that links are getting way too irrelevant a signal to be trusted as much as in the early 2000′s. The obvious evidence for this is Plus. They desperately need reliable, high quality, detailed social data and they figured out the only way to get it might be to simply “push” as hard as possible they user base. That’s why G+ is not a social network and it has never been meant to be one. It’s a data bank…

  • RyanMJones

    Social alone isn’t the answer though.  If we apply reductio ad absurdum and completely replace links with social mentions then we’d end up seeing Oatmeal’s fundraiser rank #1 for terms like “cancer” instead of webmd, mayo clinic, etc.  As for everybody getting a vote, what’s that old saying? Majority rule doesn’t work in mental institutions? 

    When I’m looking for information I want trusted sources, not whatever meme was most popular with my friends.
    Part of me thinks Google has to have already tried this as an experiment to see what would happen.  They had access to the entire Twitter firehose at one point, we’d be remiss to think they didn’t experiment with it.  I’m guessing the data they’ve gathered both from search query refinement / bounces back to the search page and human raters found that links still served value.

    I’m not saying social mentions have no value. They seem to be working great for further augmenting search results based on what my contacts showed interested in, but I don’t think we’re at a point where we can completely get rid of links and switch to social mentions.  That day may come, but we’re not there yet.  

  • Michael Martinez

    I have often said that the search engines could fix a lot of these spam issues by dropping their reliance on link anchor text.  They could still count the PageRank.  The idea that “links are votes” was never good to begin with.  Links were being gamed before Google came along anyway.  Citation analysis is flawed and Google’s proof of its good characteristics was based on their analysis of the Stanford University Website and similar highly vetted resources.  Once they got out onto the real Web the links became less helpful.

    Still, if the day comes when search engines take the links away, they will be criticized if they don’t engineer a soft transition.  People need to keep that in mind: “Be careful what you ask for, you just may get it.”

  • Ranking Signals

    I still don’t understand the problem with Google simply not counting links it determines to be SPAM (whether they are or not). No reverse SEO implications, no paying directories not to link to you, continue fighting to get real links from real authoritative websites. Is it really a mystery whether a website is or is not an authority (and/or a relevant authority)? 

  • SEMMetric


  • Danny Sullivan

    Google discounts links for reasons other than them being spam. It may feel some links are overcounted, such as a site-wide link that’s not spam just appearing often. It can’t count links that are nofollowed. It can’t count links that aren’t ever created at all.

  • Pixelrage

    The whole ‘backlinks’ issue has been outdated for far too long…and Google states that it’s pretty much inevitably here to stay? A shame.

    Just in doing due diligence on competitors, it’s amazing what you’ll see — hundreds, thousands of links from content-spun or “created to give backlinks” blog sites, paid links galore (blatant ones), mini-sites on different IP’s, etc. The lengths that people go through to exploit just this one ranking signal is ridiculous. Yet, I’m referring to competitors who have the #1, 2 & 3 spot on SERP 1.

    I’m also referring to post-Panda/Penguin results…a lot of good that did.

  • Anthony Goodley

    Danny I think the last point you made about how everyone gets a social vote, whereas only a small percentage of Internet users are webmaster and can link up to content they like in a manner that carries much weight, is a very good one. Sure people will game social networking sites, but as more users actively Like, Tweet, +1…. the gaming noise will mostly get drowned out by legitimate signals which makes it much more reliable than links.

  • Ruud van der Veen

    I agree with Nyagoslav Zhekov . Besides : Google introduced the link from other website as a fantastic signal from users for years. Why is it, that real users never had a website to link from. There were always other companies, collegue webmasters, link from one to another. And now is Google complaining. The world is n’t behaving like they like to have.

    In earlier years real content was nothing, only links counted to the top of the bill in the serp’s.
    Why don’t we have a search engine, competing Google, and counting on real users voices : real users in common are not interested, just a happy few.
    It’s still waiting for a new fantastic signal, not only Google +1, because it’s not serving the whole world.

  • Eric Meyer

    If the search engines aren’t already combining link data with social signal data, I expect they will very soon.  Especially since Twitter tends to straddle that line: a massively retweeted link to something is both a strong social signal and a link (or a lot of links, depending on how you look at it).  That’s why they’re still saying that links will remain a factor, it seems to me.

  • Cristóbal Mejía

    Finally! I have several years feeling the same, search for links, submit to directories, common you’r late Google, we need another way to rank sites. Social will be great option for now and 2 or 3 years in future, but then? what’s next? 

  • cjvannette

    The funny thing is, Doctorow didn’t nofollow the link to the SEO company he ragged on. Meaning he helped them out bigtime.

  • brown smith

    nice post keep it up

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