Where Have All The Linkers Gone?

A unique combination of factors is having a profound effect on the “link graph” being created today, with many implications for those of us in the content publicity/link building field.

Mobile devices are impacting URL sharing

First and foremost among these factors is the “device effect.” The device effect means that a huge number of us are now consuming our content on a mobile device that fits in our hands, such as a smartphone or tablet.

A decade ago, if you wanted to go online, you generally had to do it on your laptop or desktop computer. Not today. The transition to a more mobile Internet has had a profound effect not only on the was people consume content, but also on the way people share and distribute it.

Not long ago, if you wanted to post or share a link with others, you had to know a bit of HTML, and you had to type the full URL out. The big shortcut back then was copy/paste.

The link graph of the mid- to late 90s had very little link spam compared to today, simply because it was too much of a hassle to actually create links. The idea of a link removal service in 1998 would have been laughable. (Actually, it’s just as laughable today — but that’s another story for another day.)

However, HTML editors evolved (early versions of Netscape had a “Composer” feature), FTP became popular and bingo — we were collaborating and creating webpages and link guides and felt like actual publishers.  (Anyone remember ZEAL?)

Blogs came next, and third-party services like AddThis and ShareThis made it simple for webmasters to encourage the sharing of website content. Such features allowed readers to share links with ease. This was all pre-mobile, and the exploding link graph of those days was a large part of why Google dominates the search landscape now – -they realized early on what all those links meant.

Now that mobile devices dominate our daily lives, true link authorship — meaning typing URLs out on a keyboard or copy/pasting them into an HTML document or blog post — has changed dramatically. There are statistics that describe the shocking migration to mobile devices by content consumers — one stat that amazes me is that mobile traffic in 2012 was 12 times as large as was all traffic on the Internet  in 2000!

Think about that for a moment. If someone had told you in 2000 that, by 2012, there would be 12 times more Internet content read or watched on phones (or things called “tablets”) than is currently consumed in total, you would not have believed it. In 2000, my cell phone didn’t have a screen at all — and it was still painful to watch online video on a desktop, even if you had a cable modem.

While I do not have hard statistics on the effect the migration to mobile devices has had on people’s ability to type in, post, and share URLs, I imagine it has to be profound. After all, how many links today originate via Facebook or Twitter sharing buttons that are embedded within content?

Add to the mix LinkedIn, Pinterest, and a few others that have managed to reach a relatively decent mass of button installs, and what we now have is a scenario where more URLs migrate from person to person via mobile device button sharing than by people actually opening up a laptop and posting a URL via a keyboard.

Even my own habits bear this out. On the weekends, I consume my email, Web content, etc., exclusively through my iPad and iPhone. I don’t go near my laptop. I used to bring my laptop in from the office to the house on weekends. I don’t have to do that anymore. I use an iPad almost exclusively when in the house, and iPhone when on the road.

How does this affect my link creation habits? Dramatically. I simply don’t “create” links anymore when I’m on those devices. I might share a link via the “Email a link to this page” option provided by the mobile Safari browser or click a “Tweet this” button via a mobile interface, but what I’m not doing is the bread and butter of the link builder’s daily activity: sitting at a desk, working on a large machine, entering link data into submission forms, inserting links into content via HTML code, emailing link requests, etc.

My actual link building work takes place with me sitting at a desk the same way as I did in 1994, and that is not likely to change for a long time. I honestly do not have any recollection of a time when I have performed the work of link building via my iPad, unless you count the sending of an email. And even that’s not an easy thing to do, as a properly crafted email link request is going to have to include elements that are not mobile device-friendly.

Try writing a blog post via a mobile interface and including a long URL to a cool page or video you found — it’s torture.  It would take less time to simply drive to your office, fire up the PC and write it that way. And, if you’re a link curator — meaning you seek out, evaluate and share topical links in clumps — you aren’t authoring your posts on a tablet. You have a mouse in hand and a 24-inch monitor in front of you. Friction is the enemy of link sharing.

Those of you who actually perform link building activities at the keyboard level likely understand what I’m talking about here. Heavy duty link building activities for clients still must take place predominantly on a machine that is not a tablet or phone.

Ease Of Sharing Means Ease Of Sharing Junk

With fewer people typing URLs and more people tapping “Tweet” and “Like” buttons, this means a great thinning of the link-creating herd must be taking place. As much as I love the social migration of URLs, there is simply no way you are going to convince me that URLs shared in this manner have the same signal salience as URLs shared by a curator on a keyboard.

Think about it this way: I have a librarian friend who is responsible for the library’s monthly “Best of the Web” feature. When he authors this feature, he’s on a computer with Safari open to a multitude of tabs. There’s no way he could author that column on a mobile device. He might come across a site or two on his tablet while doing research during the month, but when it’s time to actually produce the content of his newsletter, it’s back to the good old-fashioned keyboard and mouse.

This raises some interesting questions. Are links that require more time and effort to insert into content more credible than links shared by a one-second button tap on an iPhone? Put another way, does the ease of URL sharing on mobile devices reduce the credibility of those URLs shared because the share takes place via a button tap and thus may have been impulsive rather than carefully considered?

Is sharing URLs via mobile like playing Whack-A-Mole? Are these impulsive URL shares a bad thing? When examined in mass, does the method of sharing help surface the best the Web has to offer? If I’m in my car at a red light, and I read a headline and tap the “Tweet” button, have I just created a useful signal?

Ultimately, it seems to me that the URL share will be valued based on the sharer (hence why Google is pushing authorship and cross-device log-ins). Search engines must be able to take the billions of URLs ping-ponging across the Web and decide to what extent this noise contains useful signals. Links are not what is trusted — it’s the credibility of the person doing the sharing that’s trusted.

Beyond the mobile explosion, the main point or thesis I don’t want to stray too far from is that I believe we have entered a period where the manner and method in which we share URLs has changed forever; thus, the ability of search engines to determine intent and credibility based on manner, method, device and friction of the sharing process will be crucial to producing useful search results.

After all, which is likely to have more value: a share originating from an iPhone, or a share originating from a PC with a Library of Congress IP address?

In light of the explosion of links due to ease of sharing, I expect the value of the traditional curator/linker like my librarian friend to increase. These passionate subject specialists will become even more important to the search engines looking for intent and meaning.

Why? Take a look at a curated page of links, such as this page or this one. Someone had to make decisions about what to include on these pages — what to link to, how to link to it, and what to say about the sites being linked to. Time an effort were put into collecting and sharing these links — it was not done on mobile device with a one-second finger tap.

With Diversity Comes Strategic Opportunity

With so many ways to share and encounter URLs, it’s a very cool time to be a content publicist or link builder. There are more opportunities for URLs to be shared, discovered and surfaced. And good link marketers know how to get people to websites without Google — non-search traffic diversification has never been easier than it is right now if you’re willing to change your mindset and think like a publicist or traditional marketer.

What we perhaps didn’t see coming, however, was the possibility that the method used for sharing content could end up being a signal in and of itself. How will you adjust your strategy?

About The Author

Eric Ward
Eric Ward founded the Web's first services for announcing, linking, and building buzz for Web sites, back in 1994. Ward is best known as the person behind the linking campaigns for Amazon.com Books, Weather.com, The Link Exchange, Rodney Dangerfield (Rodney.com), the AMA, and PBS.org. His services won the 1995 Award for Internet Marketing Excellence, and he was selected as one of the Web's 100 most influential people by Websight magazine. In 2009 Eric was one of 25 people profiled in the book Online Marketing Heroes. Eric has spoken at over 100 industry conferences and now publishes LinkMoses Private, a subscription based link opportunity and strategy service. Eric has written linking strategy and advice columns for SearchEngineLand, MarketingProfs, ClickZ, Search Marketing Standard, SearchEngineGuide, Web Marketing Today, and Ad Age magazine. Learn more about Eric and his content publicity and link building services at http://www.ericward.com