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What Happens When Link Popularity, well Becomes Less Popular?
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Original article can be found: on ASK Enquiro

The success of the Web has traditionally been based around linking, so much so that the search engine algorithms are based heavily on thinks like link popularity amongst hundreds of other elements.  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.  This is one reason why I was excited to see some of the focus from Google switch to real-time search results.  Many real-time search results do not necessarily have a lot of link popularity (at least not initially).  However these results tend to provide the timely information that one may be looking for.

Link building has become an often used tactic by search engine marketers and site owners to get their site placing in the prime real estate of the search results.  As you know this does not always mean that the most relevant result is being returned.  With linking, it’s not just about search engine optimization.   A well written piece, whether it be an article blog post, press release, or web page should be able to generate the link authority needs.  The ability to buy links and inflate a site’s link popularity totally depreciates the whole idea of link authority.

So what then happens when link popularity becomes… well less popular?  I am speaking from a search engine algorithm perspective.  What if the engines were to drastically change their algorithm so that link popularity was not as important of a factor as it is today?  Here are some things that I think would happen:
  1. Purchasing of links becomes less of an issue - Google is having difficulty in dealing with this widespread issue.  There are still numerous sites out there that have acquired links by buying them to artificially inflate their link inventory and improve their link popularity.  Again this presents an issue for the search engines and for the users of search as this can have a direct impact on the results that are being presented.   Does Google use “human raters” to assess the quality of individual sites in order to counter this effect (of purchasing links)?  Google has recently admitted that “employees” do have the ability to change index rankings.  This is a touchy issue and as Scott Cleland, on his “The Precursor” blog has stated:  “If links are a factor in determining the rank of content, and Google’s advertising revenue is derived from sites’ search rankings, how does Google ensure the human raters of the SDB are not influenced to reward Google-owned content or Google partners’ content that Google revenue shares with?”
  2. The search engines would need to place greater weighting on other elements – perhaps freshness of content, on-page elements, engagement with a given page, time spent etc all get a higher weighting and the true value or relevancy of a page comes out.  Google already factor these things in but if they shifted weighting of some of their algorithm components, you can bet that we would see a shift in the pages or elements that make up a search results page.
  3. Drastic changes in the SERPs – placing less weight on link popularity would mean that we would most likely experience drastic changes in the search results.  We might even see sites that had been ranking for a given key phrase no longer place as well as they once did.  Again it should all come back to relevancy.
  4. Backlash from link-optimized website owners – sites that have enjoyed successful rankings and presence in the search results might all of a sudden lose some of their visibility.  You can image what this could mean in terms of traffic and potentially revenue that is generated by these sites.  There would most likely be a number of lawsuits to try and put pressure on the search engines to return the results to where they once were.
  5. Truly authoritative sites would better populate search results – as mentioned, less focus on link buying might allow people to create content that is more engaging and speaks to their audience thereby providing more authority in the results that are returned.  Depending on the nature of the search query, more relevant results could populate the results that did not have their link inventories artificially inflated.
  6. Link Brokers go out of business – the folks that sell links for all of the wrong reasons would be left scratching their heads, but you know what, they tend to be pretty smart people and would look for other opportunities.
  7. The Web gets cleaned up – think about all of those spammy links that are out there.  Link farms etc etc, there are currently massive amounts of useless linking going on and it has diluted the Web.  Think about how much better it would be to browse the ‘Net without clicking through to sites that simply don’t serve your needs.  Less focus on links would eventually see a lot of these environments phase out.  Thee would simply be less garbage and fewer blogs and sites that are leveraged for the purposes of link building on the Internet.
Will the search engines ever place less value on link popularity?  Well with some of the past algorithm updates in Google, they have already made slight changes which have at times caused a ripple in the search results.   At the end of the day, Google and the other engines want to deliver the most relevant result possible.  I truly believe that.  However it is not an easy thing to do.  Is placing less value on link popularity the answer?  I’m not sure, but I know that it would be an interesting test if anything else.  Again we’re talking about link popularity not link authority.  Although with regards to link authority, this is another reason why some sites have gone the route of purchasing links.

I think that link popularity is a little overrated and that the engines will need to continually tweak their algorithms so that they are delivering the most relevant results to us the user.  With highly frequented environments such as social networks (read:  Facebook, Twitter) we might see a shift from search engine usage to other tools and sites that people will visit to find the information that they are looking for.  The popularity of the Facebooks, Twitters and YouTubes of the world proves that people just might visit their online destination of choice regardless of link popularity or even search engine of preference.

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posted by Jody @ 11:10 AM  
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