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Has Link Popularity Run Its Course as Part of Search Algorithms?
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
By now you have most likely heard of the whole JC Penny SEO fiasco where an investigation by the New York Times found thousands of unrelated web sites in the retail industry were linking to JCPenny.com.  Yes another linking scheme.  The process was done by linking very specific keywords. Based on the detail of these links it was evident that someone planned this process.  The SEO company for JC Penny was quickly fired, but one thing that comes out of this is just how easy it still is for people to game and manipulate the search engines.  Ok,  JC Penny got caught, but what about all of the hundreds (thousands?) of other sites that are leveraging this tactic?

If you have been paying attention to Google in recent weeks you know that they have picked up their crusade against the war on spam.   This is a good thing people.  The search results from Google have become... well poor.  Webspam has started taking over and people, Google included, are not happy about it.  But fighting webspam is not an easy thing to do.  Rand Fishkin had a great post about webspam where he shared his thoughts on why Google may be letting so much spam and manipulation go unpenalized.  His thoughts included:

Scalability of Spam Fighting Tactics - it could be that the ability for Google's team to combat web spam has diminished due to the increasing size, complexity and demand in search.

They're Working on Something Big - for many years, Google would let lots of spam they clearly knew about pass... for a while. Then, they'd release an algorithmic update to defeat a huge layer of spam or seriously cripple certain types of link manipulation.

Too Much Baby Thrown Out with the Bathwater - perhaps, as link manipulation and spam have grown in popularity, Google's found that they can't penalize a technique or sites employing it without dramatically reducing the usefulness of their index...

Live and Let Live - It could be that although Google's public messaging about webspam and link manipulation hasn't changed, internally their attitude has. Perhaps they've found that sites/pages that buy links or run low quality link farms aren't much worse than those who don't and having relevant results, even if they've used black/gray hat tactics, isn't highly detrimental to search quality.

They're Counting on New Inputs to Help - Part of Google's initiative in acquiring social gaming companies, building social platforms and making data deals with folks like Twitter could be to help combat spam.

These are all great thoughts and with most of them, there is reference to link manipulation.  Herein lies the answer as to one of the best ways to deal with webspam, in order to address the issue of link manipulation, change the link popularity mechanism of the algorithm.  Placing even less emphasis on poor quality links and artificially inflated link inventories can only help clean up some of the garbage that we are seeing in the search results.  I previously wrote a piece asking the question "what happens when link popuularity well becomes less popular?"  In the post, I mentioned,
The fact is that the engines do place a lot of weight on link popularity and link authority.  My concern is that pages with high link popularity do not always serve up the best result for my needs as a searcher. 
I have worked with some big brands out there.  I have also worked with some small mom and pop sites as well.  Through great content, some focused keyword research and a little bit of link love here and there, I have experienced great success with these sites.  Not once have I ever tried any form of link manipulation so I know that great results can be accomplished without link manipulation.  While it is getting increasingly difficult to produce these results due in part to increasing competition, focus on link popularity and web spam, it simply takes time to develop a strategy that works not only for search but for online in general.

Has Link Popularity Run Its Course as Part of Search Algorithms?

I know that Google has made and continues to make algorithm updates to deal with webspam.  For Google's webspam team you just might want to look at further tweaking the link popularity piece of the algorithm.  Until you do, webmasters and black hat SEOs are going to continue to artificially inflate their link inventories for their client's sites.  Right now it is like an election and people are stuffing the ballot box with phony votes.  As a searcher and user of Google (and Bing and Yahoo and ASK...) why should I have to sift through the irrelevant sites with artificial optimization and link inventories that populate the results of my search queries?  Quite honestly, the link popularity piece of the algorithm has run its course and needs to be revamped.  Google knows this, why do you think that they are factoring in elements such as social aspects to their search algos?

The fact is something needs to be done about this.  Will Google penalize all of the sites that practice link manipulation?  Of course not, but they will make exceptions and make examnples of well known brands (BMW, Google Japan, JC Penny anyone?).  For site owners and online marketers, you can do your part as well.  As Vanessa Fox put it with her take on the whole JC Penny issue:
The best scenario is not to go down the path of manipulating search engine algorithms, but instead focus on solid search acquisition principles (building a site search engines can access, creating content your audience wants, raising awareness of that content…).
Search engines like Google and Blekko cannot fight webspam alone.  What they can do is control and penalize the number of sites that are trying to game the search results.  Everyone wants to place number one for "insert search term here", but they cannot, so there has to be some mechanism to determine as to why site "A" appears before site "B".  I get that, but there should be harsher penalties for sites that are guilty of deceptive practices for getting to the top.  There are stiffer penalties for manipulation or fraud in the offline world, perhaps the online world needs to catch up.  A temporary ban of a big brand in the search results might not be enough to prevent people from trying forms of link manipulation.  Until the algorithms adjust the importance of link popularity expect more of the stats quo with a few sites being made examples of along the way.

Knowing that there are hundreds of factors that make up the search algorithms and the fact that link popularity is one of the key factors of the algorithms means that people will try to take advantage of link manipulation until, well until this aspect of the algorithm changes.  We all know how difficult it is to get quality links.  The fact is that if you provide useful and informative content, and ensuring that people can find your content (whether it is through search or other mediums) you will obtain quality links pointing back to your pages.  Again it just takes time and the ability to provide value via your content.

My advice to Google and other search engines is simple.  Revisit the link popularity aspect of your algorithms.  Should a link continue to carry as much value as it does? 

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posted by Jody @ Wednesday, February 16, 2011  
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