What happens when links don't matter anymore? [SEO Theory]

by Tanner Christensen November 10th, 2011 

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Let's quickly try something different, what do you say?

Take a minute and think of all of the friends you have that are on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+. Take note of anyone who comes to mind. Are your parents on any of the big social networks? What about your best friends? Your old crushes, high school and college roommates, or even your favorite restaurants or grocery stores? No need to be specific, just get a general feel for the vast number of people you know who use social sites regularly.

Have a good idea of the number of people who use social networks? Ok, good.

Now try to think of all the friends you have who own or run a blog or website of some sort.

I'm willing to bet that there's a noticeable difference between the number of friends you have on social networks and the number of friends you have with their own website or blog. Is that about right?

Great, now comes the really juicy part of our experiment.

Of your friends or acquaintances who have a blog or website, how many of them regularly post links or videos or photos to Facebook? How many of those same people post links to their actual website or blog? My guess is not very many, at least not any more.

It used to be that links pointing to a website were a major factor for determining the value it held in the search engine results pages – it's still a vital factor for search ranking today, actually – but things are changing, as you can see from this little thought experiment.

You and I are now sitting in a large shift in how people are linking to other websites. Even bloggers and website owners are more likely to post a link on their Facebook wall or Google+ page than they are to actually post it on their website or blog.

Why? Because interactions on social networks are much easier to do than actually writing up a blog post or article.

This shift in attention and linking brings about a reasonable concern for SEOs today, a question I'd like to open the conversation with: what happens when suddenly people stop linking to great content on their websites and instead use social networks for sharing their favorite links and interesting content?

Of course, all signs indicate that Google and Bing are beginning to put a lot of weight on the number of mentions or votes or “likes” a site has on social websites, but is that enough for moving away from the number of actual links a website has?

The answer (from any professional SEO) at this point is “no.”

Google still relies very, very heavily on the number of unique, authentic, and relevant links pointing to a page to determine it's rank in the SERPs.

Maybe the shift away from on‒site links and more active social networking will, potentially, help the search engines weed out the bad content from the really good content, because getting links will only become harder the more social networks are involved in our every‒day, online interactions.

When it's much easier to simply post a link to Facebook than it is to blog about a photo or video or interesting article, will the search engines see this as a critical time to shift the way they rank websites and will social interaction suddenly become the “go to” for higher rankings?

What do you think? How will the future of linking (or the lack thereof) impact search engine rankings? Is it possible that the search engine of the future will be almost entirely socially‒powered?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

Understand "like" building:

Tanner Christensen

Tanner is a creative online entrepreneur who has been writing on creativity, design, business management, and web development for more than nine years. Recently he founded Aspindle creative publishing house.

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5 Responses to “What happens when links don't matter anymore? [SEO Theory]”

  1. Ron says:

    I don't think links will be taken out of the equation completely.
    Maybe social media sites will be the new google, and google will be a thing of the past (not likely, but who knows)

    Google used to be informal, easy to search for information.
    Now it is an advertisers wet dream.

    I think people will to go where information/content is really really good and fresh, and less advertising. Not everyone wants to whip out there wallets every time they have a question
    Just my thoughts
    -Ron

  2. Maciej says:

    I agree I don't think link will ever stop being the benchmark but I can see significant wight being removed from certain types of links. This industry is do dynamic that nobody really knows what is around the corner. Things will always change to clean up the bad apples.

  3. Tom Shivers says:

    Social media is mainly a crowd building/influence building tool that can bring in real links when it gets to the right bloggers. The problem is not all industries or people use social media (gasp), so search engines will probably never "unplug" from the link graph.

  4. Gert says:

    Interesting post … I believe the number and quality of links will stay one of the main metrics for the search engines for a longer time …. even in times of twitter, facebook or google+, great content is still linked to – maybe now a quality link is worth even more, as somebody has taken the time to describe a service and set a link to it.

  5. I can't image how social will ever be more valuable than links from high authority/trust sites. Social is far more easier to abuse than link building.

    How hard is it to create dozens of FREE accounts and start autofollowing people and retweeting your work. Weeding out the real account from the bogus accounts is a challenge that will become increasingly difficult. I can think of several Twitter accounts with Klout over 40 that are almost 100% autopilot. While Klout is like PR and can be manipulated, it is still an indicator of authority that search engines will have to evaluate.

    To make a long story short, social media CAN and WILL be manipulated and abused just like link building. Links will always remain the most useful signal.