Imagining A Web Where Links Don't Matter

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.

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