The current web was built around links, or in the case of the world wide web: hyperlinks. ‘The intention in the design of the web was that normal links should simply be references, with no implied meaning.’ (Quote by Tim Berners-Lee).
Of course links to other documents always have an implied meaning, mostly to refer to related information, further readings or to mention an original source, but always to be of help to the user. At least that was the original purpose of the hyperlink.
Search and hyperlinks
Since the web is built around links, the founders of Google thought a search engine should also be built around links. Apparently they were right, because Google grew out to be the most used search engine worldwide. Their algorithm delivered results which were much more relevant than those from other search engines. So the link based web also became the engine behind Google’s search engine.
As search engines became a more important part of the web, a whole business grew around using search engines to drive traffic to websites: the world we know as SEO. SEO has long been about using tricks rather than strategy to get rankings, simply because tricks worked. And since links were an important factor within Google’s search engine it was an important factor to manipulate to get higher rankings.
Links got an additional purpose. They were not only used to guide users, but also to increase findability. They slowly became a currency. And as SEO grew more and more important, links became less and less natural and more focused on search engines than on users.
The abuse of hyperlinks
Nowadays I see more blog posts linking to internal pages with no added value than to external pages with added value for the user. I see news sites who rather copy and rewrite content than link to the original source. News sites, whose purpose it is to inform, don’t offer links to external background information for the reader.
Why? Because money is not made on external properties, money is made on own sites. It is based on an old way of thinking: people come to you, the publisher. But links should make people come to the place with the most valuable content. If you have that you should get the audience, because people link to you.
The introduction of nofollow attributes for hyperlinks is a perfect example of the devaluation of the hyperlinks and the link-based search engine. We try to devalue certain kinds of links because they are not necessarily useful for the user. As an industry we slowly killed the hyperlink. I dare to state that the majority of external links isn’t placed for the user, but for SEO related purposes.
So what now? As we slowly killed the hyperlinks another way of referring developed along with rise of social media: the social mention. The social mention has some serious benefits over the hyperlink. First of all, more people have access to social mentions. Almost everyone has a social profile somewhere, only few have blogs or websites where they can place hyperlinks.
Secondly, social networks already show relations between entities, so the authority of the persons who’s referring is easier to determine. On top of that, social networks are trying to make a clear cut between companies and persons. For hyperlinks it is much harder to discover the author of a specific reference because it isn’t placed by a user, but on a website. The authority of the website is therefore determining the value of the link, not the authority of the author.
Will social mentions be taking over the role of hyperlinks? We have to wait and see. But social mentions already started playing a role in ranking search results. And since we killed the hyperlink and we know the advantages of the social mention, I would be really surprised if it wouldn’t.