The Future of PageRank: 13 Experts on the Dwindling Value of the Link

The Future of PageRank: 13 Experts on the Dwindling Value of the Link

In a recent Webmaster video, Matt Cutts confirmed that Google has tried internal versions of its search engine that work entirely without links. The results are low-quality – “for now,” he said. But this suggests that the value of the almighty link has come into question at Google, and they may be working on a version of the PageRank algorithm that doesn’t depend so heavily on the link graph – which means PageRank as we know it might be on the chopping block. But when?

In light of this, we asked some of our favorite SEO and inbound marketing experts to answer the following three questions:

  1. Do you see the link losing value over time? Do you foresee a future where backlinks lose some or all of their weight in the PageRank algorithm? How far off would it be?
  2. Thought experiment: If Google search did work without links (as Russian search engine Yandex is attempting), what metrics would replace it?
  3. How – if at all – should SEO’s change their content marketing and link building strategies in the coming years, given inevitable changes to the algorithm?

We got great insights into the future of PageRank, links, and SEO from industry experts Aaron WallRae HoffmanBrett TabkeMichelle RobbinsJulie JoyceRand FishkinGlenn GabeBarry AdamsAlan BleiweissLarry KimPete MeyersEric Enge, and Dharmesh Shah (click their names to jump ahead). Prepare to have your mind blown!

Here are their answers, in no particular order:

Aaron Wall

Is the link losing value over time? Do you foresee a future where backlinks lose some or all of their weight in the PageRank ranking algorithm? How far off would it be?

The Future of PageRank: 13 Experts on the Dwindling Value of the LinkAlmost all individual signals lose value over time as more variables get added into the mix.

One could perhaps say that variables that are on the way up/gaining importance are an exception to this, but even in these cases as the search results become more ad-heavy it offsets some of those alleged gains.

Links have been losing weight for about a half-decade now due to the folding in of other metrics and increasing algorithmic and manual penalties. How far off x level of decline is really depends on loads of factors which are query and vertical dependent. Some queries are localized, some have paid vertical ads from Google, some have lots of usage data which can be folded in, some queries are mobile-centric, some queries have Google scraping-n-replacing the results with their knowledge graph, etc. All these variations on search impact different areas to different degrees. In some areas SEO might still be profitable even for small businesses for another half-decade or decade to come. In other areas SEO will have close to a zero percent chance of being profitable unless it is done by one of the players which is already favored algorithmically before they consider investment into SEO.

And even in some of those cases which look great, Google can arbitrarily shift outcomes overnight on a vertical-wide basis. Look at the historical algorithmic performance on SEMRush for Ask.com and BizRate. One entity is an extension of the home team, while the other clearly is not.

Thought experiment: If Google search did work without links (as Russian search engine Yandex is attempting), what metrics would replace it?

As mentioned above, there are some vertical-based metrics Google can use for things like location or similar. And then there are a nearly limitless number of ways Google could count their passive tracking of users from logged in user accounts, Google Chrome, Google Android, Google Fiber, etc. Google can further use things like credit card registration, YouTube usage data, location, search history, Google+ activity, etc. to determine which user accounts to trust more than others.

The differential and deferential policing of link-based activities is in effect a way of removing links, selectively. One way Google is “uncounting” links is through massive amounts of algorithmic and manual penalties. That in effect is a way of having links not count for some while allowing them to count for others. The broad distribution (and even amplification) of fear-based propaganda around links by various link analysis tool vendors only further removes some types of links from the link graph.

How – if at all – should SEO’s change their content marketing and link building strategies in the coming years, given inevitable changes to the algorithm?

Anything which is scalable and widely scaled will eventually be promoted as a form of spam, unless it is done by the home team. Thus the more differentiated one’s efforts are and the harder + more expensive they are to reverse-engineer and duplicate, the better.

One can focus aggressively on brand building and raise funds from venture capitalists tied in with Google ventures, such that they become exempt from algorithmic and manual review issues. Give Google a taste of the revenues and your chances of success increases dramatically. In terms of outcomes, it’s the difference between CustomMade or RetailMeNot versus TeachStreet or a small mom and pop e-commerce store. The search engine advertising driven biases the Google founders warned about in their early research were not so much a warning as a roadmap for Google. When Google buys MediaOcean we can expect TV ads to bleed even more directly into driving “organic” rankings.

Aaron Wall is the owner of SEOBook.com.

Rae Hoffman

Do you see the link losing value over time? Do you foresee a future where backlinks lose some or all of their weight in the ranking algorithm? How far off would it be?

The Future of PageRank: 13 Experts on the Dwindling Value of the LinkI think that Google would love to find a way to make links less of a component in search engine rankings, but I don’t see that being truly viable anytime soon. Links are essentially the currency of the web. I don’t think Google can change that at its core in the near future – especially since links are valuable outside of search engine rankings.

What I think is plausible in the next few years is having a better “checks and balances” system for links – where they can look at outside factors in correlation to a link to give that link more or less value. Right now, they look at the quality of the linking site. But, does the link get shared socially (and if so, who is sharing it)? Does a link bring traffic to the linked site (and if so, what’s the bounce rate, time on site, etc. of traffic from that link?) And how is a site traffic profile affected after link bursts? For example, if you average 100 visitors a day and then get an inbound traffic / link spike, does your traffic – after the initial spike wears off – increase to 120 visitors per day?

Then you get into what they’re hoping to do with Google+ –  who wrote the content containing the link? And what is that person’s area of expertise? For example, in a perfect world, Google would know that I am authoritative on SEO and affiliate marketing – and articles I write on those topics, and people I link out to, should be given more weight. But if I wrote an article on gardening, should that content / outbound links also receive more weight because I as an individual am considered “authoritative” in a different topic? What I believe they’re aiming for is to answer that question with a “no.”

I think that what Google is aiming to do is kill off the value of the “scalable” link. Everything they’ve been doing – from both a penalty and “where we want to go in the future” perspective appears to be targeting that.

Thought experiment: If Google search did work without links (as Russian search engine Yandex is attempting), what metrics would replace it?

I think they could use many of the aspects I mentioned above in that scenario. But I also don’t believe they’re looking to replace the link. If I were them, I’d be looking to have better ways to “validate” the link.

How – if at all – should SEO’s change their content marketing and link building strategies in the coming years, given inevitable changes to the PageRank algorithm?

I’ve been talking about a link building strategy that contains a heavy focus on traffic development vs. merely “link development” for almost a decade now. I think sites that build content to solve problems vs. “get search traffic” have had the advantage in regards to obtaining defensible search engine rankings for several years now and will continue to increase their advantage in the future by staying focused on that same strategy. “Content marketing” has existed long before it was called content marketing.

Typically, an SEO looks at analytics reports with a filter to look at only search traffic, and I think that’s a mistake. You need to be looking at reports filtered down to direct and referral traffic as well, because if those aren’t increasing with your link building and content marketing strategies, then you’re not building defensible links. And more importantly, you’re not building a defensible online business.  It seems counterintuitive, but by putting a larger focus on increasing the slices of your traffic pie outside of search engine rankings than most business currently do, you’ll end up with better – and more defensible – search engine rankings at the end of the day.

Rae Hoffman, AKA Sugarrae, is the CEO of PushFire.

Brett Tabke

Is the link losing value over time? Do you foresee a future where backlinks lose some or all of their weight in the PageRank algorithm?

The Future of PageRank: 13 Experts on the Dwindling Value of the LinkYes. The web has been rewritten in the image of PageRank. The link’s value is questionable. Google has used a lot of band-aids over the years to the Page Rank based algorithm in an attempt to keep it valid. However, it is clear that the value of the link as a metric is questionable in almost all occurrences today.

Do you foresee a future where back links lose some or all of their weight in the ranking algorithm?

I think it is clear it has *already* done that. Google is trying everything they can to “devalue” the link as a scoring metric. A link from a PR9 page used to mean instant top-page rankings under the appropriate keywords. Today, that same link means very little by itself. The value of the link is going to continue to decline.

If Google search did work without links, what metrics would replace it?

You remember the story of how Google figured out spelling suggestions? They looked at all the ways people misspelled britanny, and then let the users tell them which one is right. They do that for all their spelling suggestions. In effect, they are using user-powered intelligence to direct their spelling algo. They can do something similar for search results.

So there are a couple of ways I think Google could eliminate the page rank algo:

  • human-powered reviewers scoring pages
  • a user behavior derived algo
  • a hybrid of a/b

Consider if you have 1,000 people reviewing pages. Each person could visit 1 page per minute for 6-8 hours a day. That is 360,000 pages per day. That means in 1 week’s time, you could score the top results for (guessing) 75-80% of the links in SERP’s people actually see and click on. To refine it down even further, you could take the top clicked links and do a reverse QA check every week to get scoring from multiple reviewers and give it a group score. That means, you could basically “hand score” the entire set of top clicked SERP links in a couple of months. Now imagine you are doing that for say the last 10 years. Why would you need page rank when you have people rank?

Think about all the click and traffic data Google has to work with:

  • Google Analytics (the leading site metric on the web). Google knows where click paths come from, go to, and where they dead-end in a happy camper, or a “back button and try again.”
  • AdSense. Ads that people like and click on. Also gives them page view data.
  • Google Chrome browser.

That gives Google a huge set of data to score pages with for any query. They know what links people follow to find successful answers. With all that, why would they need a Page Rank algo? They could be almost to the point of eliminating both on-the-page and off-the-page criteria. They can just follow user behavior. They could let users train the algo the same why they let users tell them to identify spelling mistakes by offering them two choices and seeing what ones people pick most.

How – if at all – should SEO’s change their content marketing and link building strategies in the coming years, given inevitable changes to the algorithm?

I would start to focus on all traffic sources that don’t require search traffic. I would use those efforts as content fodder for the search engines, and allow the SE’s to send whatever traffic they send. I would pretend that search engines don’t exist and focus on everything else: full stop (yes, I know and I’m not happy about it either).

Brett Tabke is the founder of Pubcon and WebmasterWorld Inc.

Michelle Robbins

Do you see the link losing value over time? Do you foresee a future where backlinks lose some or all of their weight in the ranking algorithm? How far off would it be?

The Future of PageRank: 13 Experts on the Dwindling Value of the LinkI think links were a necessary part of the PageRank algo in the beginning, and for a very long time, when there were no other signals available. But that pool was (and still is) very easily manipulated – and it’s become a terrible signal at best. Google can keep playing link whack a mole, but I believe that if they want to present truly relevant and valuable results to users – using links as a heavily weighted factor (or even at all) – has to go. They know this, and we’re probably not more than a few years or less away from this happening.

Thought experiment: If Google search did work without links (as Russian search engine Yandex is attempting), what metrics would replace it?

Everyone is keen to believe social signals are or will replace links in importance, but that’s just trading one unreliable signal for another. I believe the real key to relevant results lies in tying offline, behavioral data, with the online data they crawl. Google’s in an interesting fix – they always try to tie a result to a person, what they know about you via your search history, social signals, etc. – but that’s not getting the job done. And it’s not even really necessary. Just because I order pizza online regularly, doesn’t mean I’m the one ever buying or eating that pizza. However, knowing that I physically walk into the same pizza place a few times a month, and am there for 45 mins to an hour – well that actually tells a story, about both my behavior and the quality/popularity of that restaurant.

So for local business search results, what’s the best indicator of a business’ relevance in a community? Joe’s Pizza has 1,000 backlinks and a 4-star rating on Yelp, but only about 2,000 people through the doors each month. Paul’s Pizza has maybe 100 links, is not even reviewed on Yelp, but has 5,000 people through the doors each month. Which pizza place should rank higher? Google understands this – that getting IRL behavioral data is necessary, which is why they are all in on the Android OS. They don’t care about making nice phones. They need a reliable tracking device, and not just for a maps button or default search – but for the data that can be obtained via that device and the apps, where it lives, where it shops, where it eats, what it buys.

The iOS platform presents a challenge for them for this kind of data acquisition – but they’re scrappy in Mountain View – they’ll just roll their own wifi hotspots, give you an app that supplies immediate authentication, you’re happy, get free wifi, and they can aggregate that very valuable “where” data. Mostly, I remain surprised that they simply don’t just partner with Nielsen. Nielsen already has all of this data (see below).

The Future of PageRank: 13 Experts on the Dwindling Value of the Link

They know so much more about the IRL habits of people – and it’s valid, powerful, anonymized data – all of which provides real, authentic brand/business signals. Google has a data bias though, they prefer to acquire it themselves. We are seeing some movement in this regard however, notably, the ComScore partnership.

Keep an eye on Google’s partnerships, and especially their acquisitions, this is usually the best indicator of where they are headed.

How – if at all – should SEO’s change their content marketing and link building strategies in the coming years, given inevitable changes to the PageRank algorithm?

SEOs need to market as if Google isn’t watching.

The acceptance that content actually is king, means SEOs are now catching up to where large brands have been all along. This turns the tables because for so long, the big brands “didn’t get it” – they either had minimal or nonexistent web presences. This was boon for online only businesses and gave the “little guy” a shot at the top – whether or not in the real world, that small brand was dominant.

The past few years (and algorithm shifts) have brought cries from SEOs that “Google has a big brand bias” – I don’t think this is true at all. Google has a data bias – and that means a content bias. And big brands have content. Stacks of content, decades of content, that they have finally gotten around to putting online. Brands don’t even have to do much to promote their own content – consumers happily do it for them. In natural ways and in varied places across the ecosystem that Google crawls. Nike is a perfect example of this – if Nike dominates an athletic shoe SERP, it’s not brand bias, it just makes sense.

As to the power of traditional marketing and branding, and how doing a thorough job of that can translate to winning in the SERPs, there is a very large brand, with decades of content, that had a site lie dormant for 2-3 years (no updates, no changes, no content being added). In less than three years, after relaunching, here’s where they were as of the 3rd quarter of last year:

  • Monthly unique visitors: 1 million
  • Monthly unique visits: 1.7 million
  • Monthly pageviews: 3.4 million
  • SEO budget: $0

They have a 2-person marketing team, and 1 full-time writer. They have no SEO team, they hire no SEO consultants. They have truly terrible title tags and URL structure. Yet for about 20 terms I polled, they rank in the top 5 for them all (usually #1 – #3).

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Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is the Content Development Manager at WordStream Inc., a provider of AdWords solutions and other tools for PPC and SEO. She manages the WordStream Internet Marketing Blog. Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.

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One thought on “The Future of PageRank: 13 Experts on the Dwindling Value of the Link

  1. If backlinks did loose all their value, I wonder, A) how long it would be before Google said anything, if they did say anything, and B) how long after that, would it take before anyone believed them.