Hyperlinks are dying and Google’s to blame

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There is something extraordinary taking place. Google’s war on spam sites is tipping the online world upside down and now threatens that most fundamental element of the world wide web: the hyperlink. There is a massive erasure underway of millions of links and it will only accelerate.

The communication lines are the spider’s silk but it’s the links that make the structure of the web. But because of Google’s battle with spammers, the hyperlink could disappear in its current form, and become a commercial product that’s bought and sold, instead of earned fair and square.

Let me explain:

When I ran into Matt Cutts, head of Google’s web spam team, at the company’s Christmas party, he said that Google would start paying more attention to sites that had lots of links from low quality content sites. Because that would be a signal that there was search engine optimization (SEO) at work, which means those links were likely paid for, in a bid to deceive Google.

It made sense since Google’s Panda algorithm, (a major rewrite of its core algorithm launched in early 2011) now had a measure of the “quality” of each page in its index.

Prior to this, Google was measuring the number of links coming into a site, and how many links were going to the referring sites. A link coming from a high ranked site was valued by Google as an important signal and it would raise the “pagerank” of a website.

SEO’s two-edged sword

This became a weakness in Google’s algorithm and huge numbers of sites tried to game Google. A massive SEO industry arose, which exploited hyperlinks and other chinks in Google’s algorithm. Creating high ranked web sites for a particular service or product, could often be as simple as buying large numbers of links from other high ranked sites, that are themselves created by other sites, etc.

These sites would often be disguised by populating pages with low quality content.

Google found it hard to distinguish between legitimate, original content on a site, and the spam, low quality web sites — until the Panda update.

Panda now gives Google a measure of the quality of a website. This means it can identify the fake, spam sites, created to link out to others, and it can punish the websites that are receiving those links, because it’s likely those links were bought and used to deceive Google.

Too much SEO = Deceit

If you are deceitful, you are not trustworthy, therefore Google will sink your listing to the bottom of its search results.

It’s a great method to shakeout all those businesses that have tried to trick Google — you change the rules around links — and all those companies that tried to game the system are neatly exposed.

What used to be best practices for ensuring a high Google rank: lots of links from lots of other sites, has now turned into a massive marker pointing to an over-optimized, deceitful site.

Unravelling the web, erasing masses of hyperlinks

This is why there’s an accelerating rush to erase hyperlinks. The world wide web is being unravelled. And Google is helping this unraveling, and helping the erasure of millions of links, by sending out warnings to websites that they have questionable links pointing to them.

According to Danny Sullivan, a leading search engine expert, writing at MarketingLand “publishers probably understand that links are important, but many of them probably really don’t understand what a mess the link situation is.”

He notes that some sites are receiving legal letters to erase links while some directories are charging others for not linking.

Pagerank assassins

Back in April 2006, I coined the term “pagerank assassination” a prediction that described the act of trying to sink a competitor’s high rank in Google. It’s taken six years and a major algorithm change but it’s now possible to do exactly that. We now have negative SEO.

Here’s how it works: You pay for thousands of links on low quality web sites to point to your competitor. Google thinks they are spamming its index and sinks them like a rock.

Negative SEO will quickly become a war of attrition that no one can win if everyone does it. The only losers are the ones that don’t do it.

Killing the hyperlink

The hyperlink, that simple yet tremendously important, fundamental building block of the world wide web is under threat because of Google’s new policies.

There’s now very little incentive for anyone to link to other sites, and all types of risks if you do. Consider this: If Google determines that the site you’ve linked to is spam-like in any way, you might be tainted as selling paid-for links — which is forbidden by Google.

Or, if you enjoy a high rank from Google because other sites have linked to you for pure reasons, but now those sites are measured by Panda to be low quality, you could be in trouble.

You can see how this would kill the hyperlink — it becomes a very risky thing to do.

Measuring ‘quality’ by algorithm…

The kicker in all of this is that Panda is atrocious at measuring the quality of content.

I’ve met with several publishers who have been pulling their hair out trying to figure why their post-Panda rankings plummeted, while scrapers that copied their content, now rank higher.

There are probably tens of thousands of stories, in many forums, of small online business saying that the Panda update, resulted in them losing a third or more of their revenues overnight, and having to fire people.

Panda, and Google’s preferential treatment of big brands, has had the effect of a mushroom cloud in terms of the destructive impact on small businesses. This comes at a time of high unemployment in the US where national and local governments are searching for ways to encourage small business growth.

[Aaron Wall at SEOBook has been doing an excellent job in covering Google's big brand focused strategy at the expense of small businesses.]

Damned by association

A low rank from Panda doesn’t mean you are operating a spam web site or trying to deceive Google. But because Panda can’t distinguish original content from copied content, or truly measure quality, you could be judged guilty anyway.

If you get a link from another site, even one that you know is a good, high quality reference, it now carries a risk to you. You might ask the web site to take it down because Panda might have judged the linking site to be poor quality, or it might do so in the future.

The hyperlink is in danger because you can be damned if you create a link out to others, and damned if others link to you. You ignore this simple fact at your peril because there’s few sites that can afford to lose their Google rank.

Also, even if all’s well with all your links today, that’s not true tomorrow. A future algorithm change could put you in peril from all your legacy links elsewhere.

The only good hyperlink is…

It’s a brilliant business strategy by Google [$GOOG] because it makes all hyperlinks potentially toxic. All hyperlinks, that is, except those provided by Google

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