The Future of Links as a Ranking Signal

The Future of Links as a Ranking Signal

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The head of the Google spam team, Matt Cutts, has said that links will remain an important ranking signal for the foreseeable future. Links are so important to search engine optimization that, to many people, they are essentially the same thing. But will this always be true, and how might links change in the future?

A Look at the Past

When Google first hit the scene, all links were counted in essentially the same way. The number of links and the Page Rank of those links determined your Page Rank, and your Page Rank essentially determined how well you would rank in the search results, at least for certain queries.

On top of that, Page Rank was essentially a way of counting how many links pointed directly or indirectly to your page. In other words, shear quantity was about all it took.

This worked very well in the beginning, because the link graph of the web was completely “natural.” Nobody anticipated that links would one day be used to determine search engine rankings, so there was no link manipulation to speak of.
Ever since, web spammers and search engines have been in a constant war, with Panda and Penguin being Google’s latest attempts to thwart search engine manipulation.

The Web is Big

There’s no doubt ranking doesn’t work the way it used to. Links are still the single most important ranking signal, but quantity doesn’t cut it anymore. Links have to send traffic, and come from sites with a positive reputation on the web. Content itself is being analyzed with machine learning, and user behavior metrics are starting to take on a roll, as well as the sharing behavior on the web.

Despite this, there are still sites that rank well with relatively low quality links, thin content (read eHow), and poor user metrics. Why? The temptation is always to say that it’s because Google’s algorithm isn’t perfect (and it isn’t).
But eHow was deliberately left in the search results because the search results were actually worse without them. Relevancy itself still has to come first. Google would rather return search results that were poor in quality than return results that were completely off topic.

This is why it’s important to take Matt Cutts’ comment about links in context. When he said, “I wouldn’t write the epitaph for links quite yet,” it was after he explained that “The web is the largest source of data that we’ve ever seen before…” and “I don’t doubt that in ten years things will be more social, and those will be more powerful signals.”

The Future

The fact of the matter is that not every topic has a social component. Not every topic has great articles written about it. This is when links matter the most, because the other signals simply don’t offer enough data.

But Google can and will use as much data as it can to decide what the best article about a subject on the web is. And if there is a wealth of social and behavioral data about a topic, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if Google started relying more on those signals than the link graph for those particular topics.

Remember, Google’s algorithm is a many-headed hydra. It’s conceivable that links could work great in one context and have virtually no effect in a different one. I’m not saying we’re there yet, and if you abandon link building you are almost certainly leaving money on the table. But I would caution you to stay ahead of the curve and work on building as much positive data about your brand as possible.

What do you think about the future of links? Are we missing out on other ranking signals?

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