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The War On Links
In case you didn’t notice, we are waging a war over links. Some would say that SEOs are at war with search engines, but I disagree. Search engines and SEOs have a symbiotic relationship; and without meaning to, we’ve killed the value of the link.
The link, once a simple connector from one site to another, has become the subject of intense scrutiny by SEOs, Google, and even the US Copyright Office.
Do you remember what it was like to really “surf” the Internet? The way you could bounce from site to site simply by following blogrolls and webrings? The rush of energy and excitement that would accompany your site’s inclusion into a popular webring of respected sites?
For those who may not remember, it’s basically the equivalent of getting a link from a highly trafficked site like Mashable to your 3D Pen campaign on Kickstarter. It can make or break your business.
The question I’ve heard repeated is, “Why do Google and even the US Government want to destroy this time-honored endorsement?”
Most argue that SEOs killed links with their overzealous attempts to achieve as much reach as possible for their clients’ sites (ahem, flouting established search engine guidelines). But I think search engines killed links. And I’m not so sure that eliminating webspam was the primary goal.
Links As Endorsements
While Google was the first site to publicly announce that they used the quality and quantity of links pointing to a site to determine (in part) how it was positioned, many others have followed suit. It’s only logical; a link to a site equals an endorsement of that site.
But that becomes problematic if you’re endorsing one person for something that doesn’t actually belong to them. I saw it myself just yesterday. I read a great article about Micromanagement by the blog at 15Five.com. I loved the tweetable snippet they offered:
I tried to “click to tweet,” but it was too long. So I tweeted this:
I was careful to give credit to the handle they wanted mentioned, @15Five, and to link to the source. But as more and more people picked up this brilliant little quote that I didn’t originally say, both the link and the attribution fell off.
Now, I’m sure that people who saw Ian Lurie’s RT of this post (which had already lost its attribution before him) think I’m the author of this fun and pithy quote.
This is a highly oversimplified example, but it illustrates why the US Government and some copyright attorneys think we could have an issue worth investigating. I asked Kathryn Eyster of Tepper and Eyster, a local intellectual property law firm, what she thought of this situation. She first clarified that there is no proposed legislation:
The Copyright Office was asked…to consider whether the current law adequately addresses the issue of copyright protection as it relates to new technology. The issue is how the “making available” and “communicating to the public” standard of copyright law applies in a digital context, when there is nothing to physically share. These terms are not defined in [the current legislation]. In its attempt to analyze the issue the Copyright Office has asked for feedback as to whether the state of the law is fine as is or whether it needs to be more explicit. Would amending the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) to include such a right violate the First Amendment?
Then Eyster’s opinion of the issue was enlightening:
Based on the purposes of copyright law, it does make sense to give the copyright owner control over the “making available” or “communicating to the public” of their work. This is merely the modern equivalent of the exclusive right to publicly display or publicly perform the work. Copyright was, after, all, created when it was much easier to control a work by controlling the copies.
The belief that everything on the Internet should be free because it is easy to reach runs counter to the purpose of copyright law – rewarding a copyright owner and encouraging creativity by giving exclusivity over their creations.
Eyster went on to say that if we don’t protect creative thought, there may eventually not be anything worth linking to. She also said that the Gizmodo article on the subject was “alarmist” and “oversimplified.”
Hopefully, your eyes were opened by this quote as much as mine were. It may be that the US Government is simply advocating that we all take some responsibility for what we link to, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I also suspect this will primarily be focused on “creative” content sharing like blog posts and not on social sharing as the Gizmodo article suggests.
Fear Of Linking
Nevertheless, between this application of copyright law and the fear surrounding linking, a situation has been created where the use of links in general is being diminished. If this continues, it’s natural to assume that the only way we could eventually get information is by doing a search. This may sound conspiracy theorist of me, but is it realistic to believe that this wasn’t the search engines’ plan all along?
Take a site like Yelp. Getting a listing in Yelp for your business if you are in a consumer service is a no-brainer. But the search engines don’t want that link to hold any value, so they strong arm Yelp into making it nofollow.
Schema And Scraping
Then, they scrape the data that Yelp provides about that particular business so that when you do a search, you don’t even have to click through the link to get the company phone number, prices and ratings… which, by the way, Yelp offers up for free through schema because it helps their Google positioning.
It’s a vicious cycle for the business owner, the directory and the consumer because there’s no way out. But one end result is certain: it kills the power of the link.
The consumer is more likely to search for the business website than to click through to Yelp and follow the link they have there. This is also true for many other sites, including Wikipedia, Tripadvisor, and others.
The search engines have carefully molded our behavior so that when we want to know something, we go to a search engine. They studied us and found that when we needed validation (the zero moment of truth), we looked for reviews. By pulling reviews into the main results, they made us less likely to seek out Consumer Reports (remember them?).
Then they discovered we looked for images. Then videos. Then directions. Then flight statuses. Then the difference between butter and margarine.
The steady creep into verticals like travel and hospitality is well documented. But have you considered that in addition to devaluing the vertical sites that provide these services, it devalues the links those sites provide to the merchant? So even before they’re nofollowed — or masked in some other way for fear of obtaining some outbound linking manual spam action — they’ve already lost tremendous value.
The Backlash & Unintended Consequence — Or Is It?
The behavioral molding and the fear combine to create an interesting consequence. I have done some work with a well-respected review site that existed before the Internet. It was one of the places consumers used to look for validation of a company or to hold a business owner accountable.
This site has been a high quality repository of links to other businesses (some good, others not so much) for the last 15 years. The owners recently asked me to look into their link profile because they were getting a lot of link take-down requests all of a sudden.
When I looked into it, what I found was shocking. Their balance of good links to bad links had shifted dramatically. When we studied the situation and asked a few companies why they had either removed their link to the client or made it nofollow, the answer was always the same — fear. They’re afraid Google will penalize them for linking out to a directory site. So they responded by removing the link to their highly beneficial profile of verified reviews.
Six weeks ago, I’d have said that was crazy; penalized for a single link, just because that site has a lot of outbound links? But today, after the scandals with MyBlogGuest, Portent Interactive, and Doc Sheldon, I am not so sure.
And while I would hope Google would put a bubble over a site like this one and protect it, I am not so sure about that, either. I’m watching the quality links to a 15-year-old business with an established and valid business model erode as quickly as the sand on the Outer Banks.
Is this what Google intended? I have to ask, because this business is in the review space. Which we all know is where Google is and wants to be. Is there a more sinister plot behind the devaluing of links and link directories?
While I’m not advocating that we all go attack Matt Cutts and march to Mountain View with pitchforks, I do think it is high time we held up the power that we have as marketers and demand explanations.
I understand and even agree with trying to limit the amount of webspam online. It truly has gotten out of control. But the fear-mongering of these penalties and the inconsistencies with which they are applied and revoked is something that I think Google needs to answer for.
As SEOs, we control a large portion of the search results. Google asks us to implement schema; to clean up spammy link profiles; to submit valid and useful XML sitemaps. And we have held up our end of the bargain (note I’m not talking to you black-hatters here).
What we need, rather than a punitive, “break their spirits” kind of discourse is a cooperative approach to systematically uncovering, dealing with, and attacking spam. I don’t like it any more than Matt Cutts does.
I am tired of doing searches and getting crap as a result. People worry that if their site appears too often on a disavow list that Google will take action against them. Honestly, they probably should!
But it would take an open dialog with SEOs to identify which of those sites are deserving of action, and which ones — like my client — may just be the victims of fear mongering.
Search Engines & Marketers Unite
When you enter mediation, your attorney advises you that mediation is difficult. It is only successful if both parties walk away and they are not 100% satisfied. We need mediation to end this war on links. Personally, I like my friend, the link. I’d like to save him from an untimely death. But the only way I see that happening is by putting a stop to the fear of linking and coming together in a productive discussion.
And with the US Government stepping in with what I believe are good intentions, we need to be a united voice (the search engines and marketers) so we can ensure that the application of copyright law doesn’t run counter to our shared goal of the free and easy exchange of information. It’s time to circle the wagons, resolve our own differences, and prepare for what’s to come.
Images used by permission of Shutterstock.com
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