Search Engine Strategies 2007 has wrapped up and I think the hottest topic this year was linking and how links are treated by search engines.
The irony of the link debate is that regardless of your view about *paid linking*, we now see that the paid linking abuses combined with aggressive anti-paid linking policies of the search engines have distorted how *unpaid linking* works, and this is nothing short of tragic because links are the key to the web.
I’m very concerned about how Google’s obsession with paid linking and other linking schemes has dramatically changed – and often poisoned the waters – around legitimate unpaid linking of the type done in the early web. I don’t have a solution other than much greater guidance from Google about what they see as legitimate linking patterns. NOFOLLOW rings hollow to me as anything approaching a solution here.
Hyperlinking was the brilliancy that launched the web. Tim Berners-Lee is sometimes credited with this concept of the hyperlink as the foundation of internet relevance.
Enter Google’s Larry Page who developed pagerank as a measure of a sites general level of community interest. This was a spectacular insight, based on the notion of academic citations. Page realized that ranking sites partly with a measure of the web’s own linking patterns was a great way to enhance the relevancy for a query. In a sense this was a global Web 1.0 social network where user interactions were measured and factored into the ranking mix. In this early web world links flowed fairly freely and without monetary considerations. Links were a vote for other sites or a favor to friends with new websites or just a way to play around with HTML.
Enter the power of the internet as a medium for commerce, leading to loads of cash, from many players who wanted to *rank high at Google* so they could sell more stuff or simply set up sites that would rank high so that highly ranked site could sell ads or use affiliations with others who were selling stuff. This led to an explosion in paid linking, off topic linking, massive reciprocal linking, and other link schemes and scams designed to raise ranking for sites using non-natural linking that would trick the Google algorithm into thinking the site was really more popular (ie more linked to), than otherwise.
Enter Google’s “NO PAID LINKS!” policies and aggressive crackdown on the practice of buying and selling links. This takes many forms including site penalties, “no pass pagerank” penalties, and Google’s recommendation that the “nofollow” tag be applied to any link that is paid as well as many others such as ‘self referencing’ links from comments at blogs. Blog comment NOFOLLOW is a good example of how Google policies may be distorting the logical growth of the web. If somebody leaves an intelligent and extended comment at a blog with a link back to their site they have created legitimate web content and the linking structure of that content should be incorporated into the web linking patterns. As a user *I want* people who actively engage in blog comments to rise to the top and I want them to reference their own blogs! Also, by simply making many forms of blog commenting irrelevant to ranking I think we’ve seen *diminished* tendency for people to comment because as a blogger they want to rank and they know this won’t help them. NOFOLLOW at Wikipedia is another great example of a problem, since in many cases a WIKIPEDIA link is an *excellent* quality signal that is destroyed with NOFOLLOW.
Most significant is the fact that most onliners now understand how valuable links are in a commercial sense and therefore are resistant to linking for this reason. This is the real tragedy. There are exceptions like Robert Scoble or Jeremy Zawodny who go to some length at their blogs to link extensively to new and interesting content. However on balance many bloggers – especially those on the infamous “A list” – now reserve links for their friends or for indirect commercial uses such as helping other sites get a rank boost.
This last point seems lost on Google as well as many A list bloggers when they discuss the implications of paid linking schemes and pay to post blogging. Indirect monetization is still monetization and changing the links game seems to be leading people to change – quite dramatically – the way they publish and link. Or perhaps more importantly changing people so they do not link like they used to do in the good old days. This is my main beef – people don’t link like they would have in the old days because they think they are “giving away big value for nothing”.
Linking, once the very heart of the web, are now the wampum of the web, and this is leading to a lot of undesirable consequences.