Links are becoming less important as Google gets better at understanding the natural language of users' queries. That's the message we're getting from Google's latest Webmaster Help video. It will be a while before links become completely irrelevant, but the signal that Google's algorithm was basically based upon is going to play less and less of a role as time goes on.
Do you think Google should de-emphasize links in its algorithm? Do you think they should count as a strong signal even now? Share your thoughts.
In the video, Matt Cutts takes on this user-submitted question:
Google changed the search engine market in the 90s by evaluating a website's backlinks instead of just the content, like others did. Updates like Panda and Penguin show a shift in importance towards content. Will backlinks lose their importance?
"Well, I think backlinks have many, many years left in them, but inevitably, what we're trying to do is figure out how an expert user would say this particular page matched their information needs, and sometimes backlinks matter for that," says Cutts. "It's helpful to find out what the reputation of a site or of a page is, but for the most part, people care about the quality of the content on that particular page - the one that they landed on. So I think over time, backlinks will become a little less important. If we could really be able to tell, you know, Danny Sullivan wrote this article or Vanessa Fox wrote this article - something like that, that would help us understand, 'Okay, this is something where it's an expert - an expert in this particular field - and then even if we don't know who actually wrote something, Google is getting better and better at understanding actual language."
"One of the big areas that we're investing in for the coming few months is trying to figure out more like how to do a Star Trek computer, so conversational search - the sort of search where you can talk to a machine, and it will be able to understand you, where you're not just using keywords," he adds.
You know, things like this:
Cutts continues,"And in order to understand what someone is saying, like, 'How tall is Justin Bieber?' and then, you know, 'When was he born?' to be able to know what that's referring to, 'he' is referring to Justin Bieber - that's the sort of thing where in order to do that well, we need to understand natural language more. And so I think as we get better at understanding who wrote something and what the real meaning of that content is, inevitably over time, there will be a little less emphasis on links. But I would expect that for the next few years we will continue to use links in order to assess the basic reputation of pages and of sites."
Links have always been the backbone of the web. Before Google, they were how you got from one page to the next. One site to the next. Thanks to Google, however (or at least thanks to those trying desperately to game Google, depending on how you look at it), linking is broken. It's broken as a signal because of said Google gaming, which the search giant continues to fight on an ongoing basis. The very concept of linking is broken as a result of all of this too.
Sure, you can still link however you want to whoever you want. You don't have to please Google if you don't care about it, but the reality is, most sites do care, because Google is how the majority of people discover content. As a result of various algorithm changes and manual actions against some sites, many are afraid of the linking that they would have once engaged in. We've seen time after time that sites are worried about legitimate sites linking to them because they're afraid Google might not like it. We've seen sites afraid to naturally link to other sites in the first place because they're afraid Google might not approve.
No matter how you slice it, linking isn't what it used to be, and that's largely because of Google.
But regardless of what Google does, the web is changing, and much of that is going mobile. That's a large part of why Google must adapt with this natural language search. Asking your phone a question is simply a common way of searching. Texting the types of queries you've been doing from the desktop for years is just annoying, and when your phone has that nice little microphone icon, which lets you ask Google a question, it's just the easier choice (in appropriate locations at least).
Google is also adapting to this mobile world by indexing content within apps as it does links, so you if you're searching on your phone, you can open content right in the app rather than in the browser.
Last week, Facebook made an announcement taking this concept to another level when it introduced App Links. This is an open source standard (assuming it becomes widely adopted) for apps to link to one another, enabling users to avoid the browser and traditional links altogether by jumping from app to app.
It's unclear how Google will treat App Links, but it would make sense to treat them the same as other links.
The point is that linking itself is both eroding and evolving at the same time. It's changing, and Google has to deal with that as it comes. As Cutts said, linking will still play a significant role for years to come, but how well Google is able to adapt to the changes in linking remains to be seen. Will it be able to deliver the best content based on links if some of that content is not being linked to because others are afraid to link to it? Will it acknowledge App Links, and if so, what about the issues that' having? Here's the "standard" breaking the web, as one guy put it:
What if this does become a widely adopted standard, but proves to be buggy as shown above?
Obviously, Google is trying to give you the answers to your queries on its own with the Knowledge Graph when it can. Other times it's trying to fill in the gaps in that knowledge with similarly styled answers from websites. It's unclear how much links fit into the significance of these answers. We've seen two examples in recent weeks where Google was turning to parked domains.
Other times, the Knowledge Graph just provides erroneous information. As Cutts said, Google will get better and better at natural language, but it's clear this is the type of search results it wants to provide whenever possible. The problem is it's not always reliable, and in some cases, the better answer comes from good old fashioned organic search results (of the link-based variety). We saw an example of this recently, which Google ended up changing after we wrote about it (not saying it was because we wrote about it).
So if backlinks will become less important over time, does that mean traditional organic results will continue to become a less significant part of the Google search experience? It's certainly already trended in that direction over the years.
What do you think? How important should links be to Google's ranking? Share your thoughts in the comments.