Imagining a Web Where Links Don’t Matter

Originally published in MediaPost; it continues in the extended entry.

  Content is SO 2006, as far as search engine optimization goes.

Everywhere I turn, the SEO discussions center on linking and link
development. The appreciation of the value for inbound links to a
marketer or publisher’s site is one of the reasons why there’s such
corporate excitement over blogs and blogger relations, user-generated
content, and tagging.

Instead of just extolling the value of links, I started to wonder
what would happen if links weren’t so highly valued. Imagine if, in
this “Twilight Zone” exercise, you woke up one day to find that the
major search engines no longer used inbound links as a way to rank Web
sites or other types of online content. The effect would be calamitous,
on par with the Department of Treasury one day saying that greenbacks
would no longer be valued as currency.

To see just how much the value of the link has appreciated, below
are some of the ramifications of what would happen if links no longer
mattered for search optimization:

  Content would really become king. Keyword density, the
imperfect science of including just enough of the most important
keywords on any given page without spamming the search engines, becomes
more important than ever. Title tags and other meta data rise in
prominence so that no well-ranked site for any query that matters has
the word “welcome” or “homepage” in it. Copywriters’ salaries
skyrocket.

  Anchor text, the text coded as a link, becomes mostly
generic, as this too no longer needs to be optimized. Phrases like “buy
now” and “click here” serve as the standard anchor text, as opposed to
text that clearly dictates the link’s value proposition.

  Google-Bombing, where a large number of sites link to one site with specific anchor text to influence search results, doesn’t exist.

  Sitemaps — namely the consumer-facing version that help
search engine spiders crawl a site — continue to serve their purpose.
Despite the link value being negligible, they remain a useful way to
offer content to the engines.

  Press releases stop including links back to the
originating company’s site since it isn’t worth the trouble, even
though reporters and others reading the releases grew to like the
linking. The social media release and its cousin, the social media press release, die in their infancy.

  Social media becomes much more about self-expression
rather than connecting with others. The motivation for forming
communities, planned or ad hoc, falls off precipitously with no added
incentive to link to others.

  Blog adoption by corporations and business professionals
gradually increases as a way to create content and communicate and
solicit consumer feedback, but readership is difficult to build and
sustain without blogs’ prominence in search engine results.

  Tags exist as a way to classify content, but they’re not
promoted by marketers or publishers, as the content is just as easily
classified under a hierarchical taxonomy. Many publishers thus stick
with the top-down approach.

  Digg, which gained prominence as a way to rank news
stories, is bought by a major search engine after its technology is
improved to prevent gaming the system. With links unimportant, this
becomes the only way for other users to influence a site’s search
rankings. The sport of manipulating results this way becomes far more
widespread than Google-bombing ever was.

  Wikis are used for developing content-rich encyclopedias
on every topic imaginable. As image and video search improve,
“photowikis” and “videowikis” also become wildly popular for publishers
and marketers, and online museums
spring up as a way to organize multimedia content. Wikipedia remains
well-ranked for its content, but for subjects with little information
available, it’s nowhere to be found in natural results.

Much of this feels like a bad dream, and we’re fortunate that this
is all science fiction. While search engines can at any given time
change the value of inbound links in their algorithms for organic
search rankings, and publishers can also add a “nofollow” tag for links
they wish to devalue (read a treatise on those tags from Loren Baker at Search Engine Journal), the humble link keeps expanding its empire, spanning search engines and social media. Long live the link.

One thought on “Imagining a Web Where Links Don’t Matter

  1. Ahh, but, what if it’s not only not all about links, but also not all about SEO?
    What if a news release becomes about (gasp) sharing information or (wha??) motivating conversations among companies and their stakeholders?
    Just wonderin’. 🙂

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