Google’s current stated policy on linking is that the search engine works because it “relies on millions of users posting links on websites, which collectively help to determine which site offer valuable content”. The search engine has spent many years refining its algorithm to ensure that this remains the case, but many webmasters question whether the system is working – are links really useful? Is the internet, in the way it is used now, “broken”?
Earning vs Building
In the early days of SEO, ranking well was as simple as having lots of links – regardless of where those links came from. We are a long way from that today. Google now takes into account factors such as how relevant the link is to the page in question, the number of other links on the page and the perceived quality of the page when it is trying to determine how to rank websites. This means that you can’t just “build” links. They must be earned. However, many webmasters are so concerned about the idea of losing “link juice” that they are reluctant to link to third party websites unless they make those links nofollow. Others fear that acquiring links from the wrong sources could get them into trouble with Google, so they feel the need to disavow links that they have earned, regardless of the source.
Google is Not Perfect
The algorithms that Google uses to detect “unnatural” links are quiet sophisticated, but they do generate some false positives, and this is what is of so much concern to brand owners. Some webmasters have been punished by Google for links that they did not solicit – for example links from product reviews written by bloggers of their own accord. It is possible for webmasters to recover from those penalties simply by disavowing the link that generated the penalty, but this is not ideal since it means that webmasters must be proactive about watching their Webmaster Tools profiles, and they are at the mercy of third parties whom they have no control over.
A Linkless World
Google is considering moving from a link-based ranking system to a trust-based system, and this could be a good move in the long term, since it would put less importance on links, removing a highly flawed and easily manipulated metric from the ranking equation. Links will always have some importance, however, and for now the only way to minimise the impact that perceived “bad” links have on your website is to earn as many “good” ones as possible.