SEO killed the hyperlink

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.

The future

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.

About Jeroen van Eck

Jeroen van Eck is a consultant search engine marketing at the online marketing company E-Focus in the Netherlands.

7 thoughts on “SEO killed the hyperlink

  1. Aaron, great article, I think there are a lot of variables that go into linking, and link building for websites. I don’t think that links will ever fully go away, and I do think that social signals will become a stronger indicator of ‘not spam’.
    What links provide that social may have a hard time providing is context. For example a link from a website about dogs to a website that sells dog food may be more valuable than a link from a site that is about home renovations.

    Social mentions don’t always provide this type of context, mentions are typically in the 140 character range and provide a short piece of content to provide context.

    As well as much as it may seem that sites link internally I think a lot of sites do a horrible job of building on site context about what is relevant with in their own content. On one side I think it’s good that sites are thinking about internal linking, on the other side as you say here they often link to non-relevant content.

    Lastly every site is going to want to keep people on their site as long as possible this is more human nature and will likely never change, new sites want to retain you, even Google is in the business of doing this (think about how they show weather and other quick results now with out having to click through).

    Net-net I don’t think social will ever over take links, but they will help augment and filter the spam that is out there.

    1. You are right that social mentions don’t provide the context like links do. But they provide some kind of context: the author. The previous posts by the author provide context, the topics in which the author is referenced provide context. The website his profile is mentioned on provide context. It shift more to author than to content, which is harder to play.

      I agree with you social mentions won’t take the complete role of links, but they will become more important.

  2. Social mentions will just be about moving the goalposts for a while: You can already manipulate those to a high degree.

    It comes with a whole host of other issues, like volume not equalling relevancy, or truth for that matter. Crowds rarely exibit wisdom, in my opinion.
    Here you can normalize for the social weight of a certain account (like a personal pagerank), but you see people sculpting (i.e. begging for Klout+1’s) that and Likebaiters only reaching out to those with a high “relevancy”.

    It’s the same game, the chips just have another colour.

    1. I know it’s moving to another variable which will also be played. But this variable has some serious benefits, which I try to mention in the article.
      Volume not equaling relevancy also was a problem for links, they found a solution for that. There can also be a solution for social mentions. Relevancy can be extracted from previous messages. Crowds probably don’t exhibit wisdom, but I think they are more reliable than the people who place links, which are also the people who directly profit from links.
      It’s more like shifting from only one specific sample of the whole population, to a much larger sample of the population.
      It’s the same game with much more people players, with all different benefits.
      Probably the truth is somewhere in the middle and a combination of both factors will be a better solutions, but I think social mentions will play bigger role, at the expensive of links.

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