Is it possible that links will no longer be a ranking factor in the future? Some of the big search engines already have considered this possibility. We will analyze how some of the biggest search engines, Google and Yandex (the biggest search engine in Russia), tackled this problem.
Yandex, announced that the Russian search engine will no longer take into consideration links as a ranking factor. According to Yandex's representatives, the "no link" algorithm was already launched, and it addresses only a set of commercial keywords and works only in some regional areas.
Yandex and Their No-Links Policy
Before saying that what happens in Russia, stays in Russia, let me tell you why this change in the Yandex algorithm might actually have an international impact. The Russian Internet industry might not interest you, but being such a big player, Yandex might indicate in which direction the search engines are heading.
Image Credit: Forex.co
To begin with, let me tell you what is Yandex and why should we care. While almost anywhere around the globe, Google is synonymous with Internet, there are some places that make an exception from this rule. And by "some places" I mean Russia, the largest country in the world.
In Russia, Google has only 25 percent market share, while Yandex holds about 60 percent of the Russian search market and is a major player in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Turkey.
Yandex implements the latest cutting-edge search engine technologies, and if they are trying a "no-links" approach, it might mean that they have something worth looking at.
Why is Yandex Dropping Links as a Ranking Factor?
The Russian commercial SERPs in Yandex and Google are some of the most spammed keywords, where black hat SEO techniques are used to quickly rank shady sites. Given the situation, Alexander Sadovsky, the head of search at Yandex, announced last December, at the Internet Business Conference in Moscow, that the Yandex's algorithm will be a "link-free" algorithm, starting sometime this year.
The Russian representative outlined the fact that this change applies only to commercial queries and it will only work in the Moscow area. This represents approximately 10 percent of Yandex's searches.
Yandex's importance being outlined, let's put the spotlight on the leading Russian search engine's decision of not considering links for commercial queries as a factor in ranking.
Yandex proposes an algorithm that can rank websites according to over 800 factors, nullifying in the same time concepts such as link building strategy, paid links, or the value of a link. None of these matter for Yandex when it decides which sites to rank.
Sadovsky also mentioned that the new algorithm would omit signals from social links. Quite a change, isn't it?
This change means that links are not longer taken into consideration for ranking sites and the only data they use are on-page data and user behavior data.
Will Google Remove Links in the Near Future?
I was mentioning at the beginning of the article that Yandex's decision doesn't concern only Russia but the whole international search industry as it could settle a new trend in the search ecosystem. Matt Cutts last month discussed whether Google has toyed with the idea of excluding backlinks from its algorithm.
Here's part of his answer:
We don't have a version like that that is exposed to the public, but we have run experiments like that internally, and the quality looks much worse. It turns out that backlinks, even though there's some noise and certainly a lot of spam, for the most part are still a really big win in terms of quality of search results. So we've played around with the idea of turning off backlink relevance and, at least for now, backlink relevance still really helps in terms of making sure that we return the best, most relevant, most topical search results.
What is the Link Replacement in the Ranking Formula?
Consider these first steps as experiments. Yandex is testing the ground for a possible extrapolation of this change to all Russia and Google is really hanging about this idea. Maybe in the future, the rest of the search engines will get inspired from these attempts.
Link value is null, link building is useless...but what does matter now? What should be taken into consideration in the attempt of obtaining a good placement in search results?
According to Alexander Sadovsky, more weight and consideration should be given to the user's behavior within the websites. We should direct our attention to usability factors, bounce rate, "crawlability," and quality traffic.
However, let's say that I have a new site. Then what? How do I even start to generate traffic with a "no-link policy"? The Yandex representative gives us some suggestions:
- Advertise offline
- Buy online advertising
- Direct mail
- Email marketing
The whole idea is to get traffic to your site, so that Yandex could analyze and interpret that traffic through whatever means they can. They probably will use internal analytics data, external data from ISPs, and traffic providers in order to monitor the Internet activity and draw conclusions based on that. It is highly improbable that they could scan all the Internet traffic in order to see what every user is doing, but if they can scan a large portion of it and extrapolate valid information out of it, this could be double.
The Future of Links
Since Google flirted with the idea of turning off backlink relevance this might mean that links may be loosing their relevance. "At least for now," as Cutts emphasizes, inbound links are an important indicator that are at great help in returning relevant results. As he said, "at least for now, backlink relevance still really helps."
Google is always improving their algorithm and searching for ways to create better non-influenced results.
At the beginning of the search engines, links weren't taken into account at all. If we make a short journey in time, we will see that about 16 years ago, ranking was based solely on on-page factors.
As the landscape became really easy to spam, search engines changed the rules of the game and began to take links into consideration, giving them a vote of confidence as they were harder to manipulate. As the landscape changed more and more, search engines have brought different metrics into discussion, in order to make the search more relevant and provide a positive experience for their users.
As the context become more complex, backlinks gained a higher importance. It's hard to say whether links will be taken out of the equation, but what may happen is that links are we know then today may change and links may become more complex entities. The Knowledge Graph might change the concept of a link, since this algorithm tries to understand content and connect the dots.
However, for the moment, backlinks are an important piece in the SEO puzzle.
Even if the search engines will stop counting links as a ranking factor, they'll always be important for the traffic they send.
From my point of view, the future of search will bring in new and revolutionary algorithms. In order to drop links as a ranking factor, the search engines would need another powerful metric to replace it.
Links as a signal tell the system who is talking about whom. That is why they are so important. The only potential metric nowadays would be "Internet traffic data."
If they will go the user behavior route for ranking sites, they will need to have access to a really large amount of Internet data to cover most of the Internet users. Google already gets traffic data from:
- Google Chrome Browser.
- Google Search Engine (bounce rates).
- Google Toolbar.
- Google Analytics.
- The Google Fiber ISP Project.
- Any Google service that you include on your site can analyze your traffic data.
- Google Free Wi-Fi.
- Google AdSense.
They already have lots of traffic data. Even so, it seems that it isn't enough, in order to be able to extrapolate it to the whole web and rank any site based on a "no-link ranking factor" policy.
Without links as a ranking factor, you will have to effectively focus mostly on how to improve the users experience on your site and provide better and better products and sites.
Don't focus solely on Google as the main traffic source! Diversify ... with or without links as a ranking signal.
With the hope that the best is yet to come, how do you think the SEO landscape will look like without links as a ranking metric?