Dangerous Links: Why & How Google Wants to Abolish Hypertext
Are links unnatural or even dangerous like some SEO experts repeat after Google? The Web is built upon so called hypertext.
Why is hypertext called hyper? It’s not because of all the hypes we witness on the Internet. The hyper-aspect stems from hyperlinks.
Yes, links make the Web what it is. You must be thinking: Are you kidding me? How that? Let me explain below!
Reading Books vs Hypertext
Before the Internet you could only publish and read in a linear way. As a reader you would start at page 1 and read on. Of course you could read the end of the book right at the start.
I did in school when we had to tell the teacher how a book we had to read ended. You could even read page 50, then page 1 and then again page 100.
In the print era most people would start at the beginning and finish reading at the end.
Newspaper readers would read just the few articles they liked, skip the ads and look up the weather report right away.
Some people would even read more than one newspaper or book at a time, read this one a bit and then the other one.
When hypertext arrived, that is text containing links to other texts, linear reading became a thing of the past.
On the WWW you can open up a wormwhole-like hyper-channel from inside a text and land on another text in real time despite it being an a different server at the other end of the world.
The really revolutionary thing about the Internet is not the “series of tubes” it consists of according to a popular anecdote. It’s not that you can view cute cat images or receive tons of spam in your inbox.
The most important aspect of the Web is the hyperlink.
In reality the Web is just part of the Internet, I use the phrases interchangeably here for the sake of simplicity. For example email is not part of the Web, it uses the Internet though.
The Web is defined by hypertext. Without hypertext aka links there is no Web. There is just a collection of documents that aren’t connected.
The Open Web
The nature of the “open” Web is free and egalitarian. In theory everybody can publish and link to others. Of course the early Web was still a bit difficult to publish on.
I tried in 1997 for the first time. It was easy in a way (I hand coded my first webpage in Windows Notepad). I was a student in college sitting at a dead slow clumsy computer.
I could publish to the whole world with just a few keystrokes. That was an amazing feeling. It was really about equality and opportunity.
My university allowed me and other students to publish for free on their webspace.
A few years later Google appeared and decided that equality is inherently a bad thing for their business model.
So they created PageRank. It’s name stems from Larry Page (not the Web “page” like you might think). So Larry Page and Sergey Brin decided that some sites and links are more equal than others.
Google Introduces the Inequality of Links
While the technology behind each link is the same one link is more valuable than the other according to Google. They created a meritocracy based on the number and authority of links.
A link from the New York Times would count more than one from my free DIY college page.
Google became the dominant search engine by analyzing hypertext instead of simply counting words. Older search engines just counted words on a page.
When Google became popular many people noticed that links are a currency by themselves.
Then the big link trade began and it still takes place. Now that links are not created equal anymore you can also trade or buy them.
Some links are worth more than others. Some links are even sold for thousands of dollars. Of course Google frowns upon this practice.
Making Links Scary
Still links are pretty egalitarian to this day. Anybody can still link to anybody else. Links can be automated.
Also there is even some level of anonymity when you link to someone or someone links to you. There is no name or image attached to a link.
In the early days of the Internet most governments and conservative pundits were scaring people that the Web is mostly about guides on how to build bombs, child molesters and Nazi propaganda.
There were many attempts to make links illegal. For example in Germany you assume responsibility the minute you link out to a site.
You can even get sued when somewhere on that site you link to illegal material appears. Thus people are scared of linking out.
Many use bizarre disclaimers that are meant to protect them in case they link to something of questionable legal status but those won’t help in most cases. You’ll have to fight in court despite of them.
Google’s Fear of Links
Google now tries a similar strategy: for years the common Google-speak was to call links they don’t like “dodgy links”. In recent years they dubbed those links “unnatural”.
The next step is already on the way: it seems links are now dangerous. Of course not all links, just some links, the over-optimized ones, the ones just built for SEO reasons.
Guess what average people will remember after reading such an article? Exactly: “dangerous links”.
They won’t be able to really remember which links exactly are dangerous. They will get even more cautious when linking out or even allowing incoming links.
For years many newspaper sites have been ridiculed by Web-savvy webmasters for forbidding linking to their sites in their TOS.
Already most people get link removal requests from all sorts of webmasters and their Asian outsourcing SEO service providers. Now that links can be dangerous this situation will worsen.
Don’t fret though! Google has already the solution. They are building their own secure proprietary Web for us. It’s called Google+ or AMP depending on the context.
They might come up with a new name or scheme any day. It doesn’t matter. What they want is what their competition from
already has: a closed walled garden type of ecosystem they control and wherein they can trap users.
The Proprietary Google Web
Google already tried to force you on YouTube to use your real name. For a while each time I wanted to comment they asked the same question again.
I couldn’t say “no”. They asked again without giving me a clear choice of saying “no”. Only reloading the page would help.
On Google+ most people used real names or nicknames you can easily identify which aren’t really anonymous but that service failed.
Links, aka hyperlinks aka hypertext are dangerous? Why? It’s because no single company can control them.
That’s why Google wants to replace them with proprietary metrics and connections. The first step in doing so is convincing people that free and neutral links are dangerous for them.
Once people stop using hyperlinks the “better” Google alternative will solve the problem.
Google’s proprietary strategy is so apparent I wonder why nobody is talking about it. Prepare for the forced identification Google activity dystopia.
Google will protect us from dangerous links by creating their own Web where every move is tied to your identity and closely monitored.
* Creative Commons image by Andrew Barclay.
Great article, in some ways SEO’s have brought this upon themselves. We have tainted the link graph to a point that search engines are now looking at other avenues for trust signals.
In large part the practice of buying and selling links is to blame. Big corporations do this too.
For example I have evidence of one of the biggest companies in US blatantly buying links. This is on scale similar to Overstock and JCPenny.
If you are intersted I can share the details with you.
Contact me at amandaforsetti (at) gmail.com
Matt Cutts already pointed in an older video (but I can’t remember right now which one), that their intention is to (slowly) move away from the link based ranking factor. so it was mentioned (albeit briefly in a span of a second).
I think it’s logical to try to move away from links as a ranking factor. Because the links will always be easy to manipulate, and the time & effort to keep up with this phenomenon, would be better spent elsewhere.
One other thing that Google is doing in this direction (beside the author thing) is getting better at identifying people’s intent (both people searching and intent behind any given content). And mostly oriented to social media. As Matt Cutts said last month at SMX West:
“Processing the social data won’t be the limitation. The challenges and limitations come down to noise or intent.”
Intent will be another determining ranking factor, that will help them move away from links. And it’s a damn good one in my opinion.
Also, if you study the latest research projects they were involved in, you’ll see a pattern on this idea: research conducted to develop new and improved algorithms, to detect novelty and intent behind texts, images, videos and more important behind social signals like shares, likes hash-tags and so on.
When there is model that matches user intent (buy, inform, mindless browsing, love, hate, hang out, watch, listen, find, smile, cry, laugh, pro, against – or whatever) with intent of the author and novelty behind each piece of content, it will become increasingly hard to remain decently relevant, by links alone.
I’m not a professional or expert of any kind and these are just my own observations. I hope it makes sense…
Hey Amanda! Thank you for the feedback. Yeah, I know. I have seen large corporation buy links myself. Outing some of them may help but also may taint the whole practice of SEO.
Mike: Thank you for the valuable feedback. I’d love to see the video he mentioned that in case you can find it! Yeah, semantics and intent are the directions into which Google is moving. IMHO they want to fast-track the process of moving on from the link graph by killing links off altogether with their FUD campaigns.
Very good article, my new fact of the day is that PageRank stems from Larry Page, not that it makes much difference. My question is what is to stop people from buying and selling Google+ activity and author rank much like links are being sold (manipulated) right now?
I think Google would definitely love to use Google+ as a much stronger signal. I think that’s why they are tying more of their other services to Google+ like Local and Blogger… but in order fro Google+ to be a stronger signal it has to be more widely used.
Sam: People sell Google+ votes already but this is Google’s playground and its much easier to track and to the votes can be discounted with ease.
Chris: Yes, that’s what Google wants you too. Make the people miserable first and then promise to end the misery. Ages old strategy.
A lot of these ideas are still relevant today! It’s hard to have an egalitarian web when Google has so much power. Thanks so much for your insight.