As things currently stand, search engines rely on a tallying of links to determine how strong a website is. Whilst there are ways of measuring the relative strength of each link; the intention (negative or positive) and how it was created (naturally or paid) is still something of a mystery. This creates confusion amongst the algorithms and occasionally leads to poor results.
Therefore, in many respects, links are still a fundamentally flawed method of measuring strength. They are too easy to create and too difficult to monitor. Whilst they will probably always be used as an indicator of authority, the over-reliance on them as a ranking factor that we currently see will, in all likelihood, disappear. But what is the alternative?
In time to come there will probably be a suitable word coined to cover the next generation of linking, but for now I’ll refer to it as connections.
Connecting Social Profiles, Published Content and Domains
These connections are formed between profiles, websites and content. Whilst links offer an overt and visible bond between sites, connections can be entirely invisible. A connection may be made when a blogger or social media user mentions a brand, either in name or by including their @name. Essentially, it would be a more subtle, but hugely effective way of measuring global perception.
In many ways, this is what the semantic web is all about. Rather than delivering search results that are based on a series of generalised, but educated guesses, algorithms will be able to delve into your history, understand the intention and provide an answer.
I’ve talked about it before, but the rise of author profiles through the rel=author tag and the ability to prioritise your most important work is a massive step towards this form of connected web. By tying your name to published articles, all of which are then linked back to you, the search engines can then link that to the site you represent. This eradicates the need for forced anchor text links and provides individuals with the ability to build authority in their own right, rather than simply through a single domain.
But this will only go so far. There are plenty of sites that simply can’t or at least won’t stand to benefit from creating endless content in an effort to develop authority. For these companies, including ecommerce sites, the most important factor will be the building of their brand’s reputation.
The Personal Touch
Connections are a more organic process, covering social conversations and other online mentions/reviews. Interaction through social profiles is also key to building a conversation, developing loyalty and naturally increasing the number of mentions and shares for the site. However, this alone can’t really be used to determine consumer perception.
Effectively, the Internet and those who attempt to categorise content will have to become smarter. This means adopting more quality indicators and abandoning factors that have outgrown their use.
In a way, this is what Google has been doing recently. They’ve already switched off a number of link factors and have begun dismantling the power of the blog networks and spun content. These links for links sake, which could well have been impacting rankings up until a few weeks ago, should never have worked. The search engines understand this, but were seemingly powerless in identifying and tackling the issues and perpetrators.
A Big Job for Search Engines
With so much content being churned out, determining the quality value of it and whether it has been produced to build a link or share knowledge without human testing appeared to be impossible. Now though, things are starting to change. How far these changes go and the speed with which they take place is anybody’s guess.
However, in my humble opinion at least, connections will be rivalling links in the future. Working in unison, it will become much easier for search engines to ascertain whether links are from genuine sources, whether the general perception is positive or negative and generally showing which sites are popular, with whom and for what products and services.
Unfortunately, with many social networks still operating within partially or fully walled gardens, the breadth of any such understanding may always be limited. But in a semantic web, the processing of language ought to become far more precise. This will enable connections to be made through content and build personalised profiles for Internet users. Or at least that’s the theory.
In a world where links are king, negative SEO can see a competitor’s site dumped from the listing whilst shysters and charlatans sit in the top positions. However, where connections rule the roost, any such sabotage would be incredibly difficult. If the purveying mood towards a brand is positive, attacks from jealous rivals would have a limited impact.
Bad sites offering below-par services would suffer. However, those who deliver something that customers really value (and are willing to promote), no matter how small their niche is, will gain exposure within target markets. By spreading the quality indicators, the quality of results should also improve. Or at least that’s the theory.
I’m leaving this open to the floor though. The idea of connections dictating what we all see is perhaps wide of the mark. How do you view the future of links? Will only the highest quality survive, or will Google and their peers always rely on them as a key indicator? Can a search engine accurately track and understand content sufficiently, including within a social context, to determine user intention, brand mentions and link it back to the right profile/domain? Let me know your thoughts below.