Inbound links have been, are, and possibly always will be an integral part of the way search engines index websites. As a result, link building is at the very heart of SEO and has become an industry in its own right. However, what would happen if Google were to pull the plug? What if links were removed as a ranking factor entirely?
Far-fetched as it may seem, the value of links have steadily been eroded in recent years. Whether it’s the brand update, which artificially inflated businesses for their own brand name, or one of the many updates to results pages, organic results have taken a bit of a kicking.
Last month, Google announced that it was ‘switching off’ one of its link-related ranking factors. Now this could be something entirely minor, verging on the absolutely insignificant, but it does represent a small step away from the near total reliance on links as a mark of authority. They haven’t been subtle about their desire to use quality and social factors to influence rankings, potentially diluting the effect of links again.
Are Social Signals More Accurate?
The major issue with links as a ranking factor is, and has always been, the fact that anybody can artificially inflate an inbound link profile. For years, Google has been dogged with page after page of low quality content, boosted by an insane level of inbound links. Finally, last year, they snapped. Along came a Panda and savaged millions of sites almost overnight. The Panda update isn’t over yet either, with more pages being downgraded each month as it continues to be refined.
Google Plus (inclusive of +1) is arguably the greatest challenge to conventional link building yet. It is a custom built, Google-owned signifier of authority. Taking aside personalised results for a moment, there’s a strong likelihood that articles and pages that receive the most shares are likely to get a boost in organic rankings. Whilst this can also be gamed; as it is a Google property, they will be better positioned to view unnatural activity and rank shares in order of a user’s relative-strength.
The reason why links were used as a ranking factor in the first instance was simply to indicate which sites had the most authority. After all, if you see a product that you like, read a blog post that you enjoyed or want to share a business that you’ve used with friends or followers, traditionally this would have been done through a link on a site. As such, those links would effectively count as a vote for the target domain.
Misuse and Abuse of Links
This logic was soon tested though when the Internet became infested with low quality directories, link exchanges and endless spammy techniques. Whilst quality sites would always naturally attract links, often from other strong domains, others could do the same just by making a few choice investments. Whilst paid links are against Google’s rules, they have struggled to effectively police this behaviour, as shown in recent high-profile cases.
With all these factors taken into account, it’s far from inconceivable that links will begin to be phased out as a leading ranking factor. However, all search engines need to be able to find a viable alternative before flicking that switch. As effective as social factors may be in the future, currently there are still a number of issues – including gaming. On-page and off-page content may also be helpful, particularly now with the rel=author tags; but again, algorithms struggle when evaluating the quality of a piece of text. Without human reviews, which are on the increase, they can only really rely on establishing whether it is unique, evaluating context and perhaps look at citations. It’s not fool-proof.
Slow Erosion of Influence
Therefore, rather than abandoning links as a ranking factor, it is far more likely that their influence will simply be eroded by newer, more accurate measurements of quality. As mentioned, this has already begun to a certain extent with the major changes to SERPs and algorithms in the past couple of years, but it is far from a wholesale change or abandonment. A good link building campaign will still pay dividends within the organic rankings.
If links were to be ignored, a lot of sites – good and bad – would suffer. However, those who have already been working on developing a strong social presence, adopting best practices on-site and have taken the time to develop unique content would arguably feel the pinch less. But there are a number of dangers for search engines too; particularly as they are reliant on links to bounce from site to site and index the web. If they were rendered useless, some may be more reluctant to include links on their pages, creating a lot of dead-ends.
So whilst search engines have been slowly chipping away at traditional ranking methods, link building should only be refined – not removed. Until Google can fully understand context on a near-human level, it will still need to rely on an array of mathematical calculations and assumptions. Their algorithm is getting more complex by the day, but not yet to the extent where they can offload links – for better or for worse.
As always, your comments are more than welcome. What do you think about links as a ranking factor in 2012 and should they be phased out for more effective measurements of quality and relevance? Would search engine results be improved by negating links, or certain forms of links? What is the one factor that could one day eliminate them from the algorithm entirely?