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Matt Cutts Confirms That Google Has Tried Search Without Links

February 19, 2014
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When I suggested last month that someday, search engines could work without links, a lot of people thought it was an interesting gedankenexperiment (they didn’t use that word but hey, it’s one of my favorite words) but didn’t believe Google is really moving in that direction. The future, by definition, remains to be seen, but today in his webmaster video, Matt Cutts revealed that Google has already experimented with a version of Google that doesn’t use links as a signal:

A user asked:

Does the big G have a version of the search engine that totally excludes any backlink relevancy? I’m wondering what search would look like and am curious to try it out.

And here’s Matt Cutts’ response (emphases mine):

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 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 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.

As I said in my post on why guest blogging isn’t dead, it seems pretty obvious that Google’s algorithm is still hugely dependent on links. Further, Google can’t algorithmically tell the difference between a contributed article, a post on a multi-author blog, and a guest post if all the other quality signals are the same, so they’re trying to scare spammers into backing off a scalable tactic. But the fact is those links still help.

Here’s what I find interesting though:

  • Google recognizes that links are highly spammable, and if they knew how to filter out all the spam they wouldn’t have to scold and spook us so much. They’d just take care of it. (Email providers don’t spend their time telling marketers what not to put in emails – they just filter out the spam.) Google may be outpacing spammers for now, but spammers are catching up.
  • Google recognizes that there are other potential approaches to ranking results. They’ve already tried some out! Cutts doesn’t say what those internal experiments were based on, but we’re guessing the “Quality Score” style of algorithm as laid out here was where they started, looking at engagement metrics like expected click-through rate based on position.
  • Google doesn’t yet have a way to rank search results that is more effective than the link graph – but they have people working on it, and either way the door is open for other companies to find new ways to map the web.

I think Cutts' phrasing is telling, especially that "at least for now" and "still really helps" – the implication is that they want to move away from links or at least reduce their dependence on links as a ranking factor, but just haven't formalized a new system yet.

What do you think? I know I’m not the only one who would love to see that experiment!

Comments

Jaydip Parikh
Feb 20, 2014

Now this is NEWS, If this turned up then many SEO will be in touble. 

Jignesh
Feb 20, 2014

Interesting topic and really encouraged me to think in that direction too.

Today, most of the seach engines are really depending upon link quality and it plays an important role but in this scenario, when they

they stop considering links, there must be some importnat factors like social signals and other discussed in your blog will have good impact.

Nice article !

Elisa Gabbert
Feb 20, 2014

Thanks Jignesh! I'm sure social signals and other engagement metrics will play a role in future algorithms. It just makes sense because most people don't bother linking, they just share.

Larry Kim
Feb 20, 2014

Did you notice how matt cutts said that links still are still in "for now"??

the very fact that they're experimenting on what the system would look like without pagerank/links leads me to believe that the value of links can only go down from here. meaning, this is the golden area of links is starting to set on us.

Elisa Gabbert
Feb 20, 2014

Yep, Larry, I totally agree!

Larry Kim
Feb 20, 2014

why is google even telling us that they're working on a system without links. This should be confidential internal info. WordStream doesn't broadcast our future product plans like this.

are they trying to telegraph to SEO linkbuilders to cut the crap with all the link manipulation and demoralize them?

 

 

Elisa Gabbert
Feb 20, 2014

LOL, I don't know! Maybe Matt thought he was dispelling the linkless rumors but instead he just confirmed them.

Gord Collins
Dec 04, 2014

SEO without links?  That's how documents are connected and get their relevance. It's literally impossible to do it any other way unless you're thinking of using Google pigeons , Precogs from the Tom Cruise movie :)   The only way a page or site can be validated or considered relevant is through outbound links pointing at the validated page or relevant resource. 

Sohil Memon
Apr 04, 2014

If Google will really implement this, then World would be set on fire! So, what will be the new "Ranging Factor" then? No Keywords - No Backlinks, so what now???

Brendan
Feb 26, 2014

Nevermind backlink relevance, where do I get that shirt??

Serge
Feb 27, 2014

Thanks to your post "spammers" know that they have nothing to fear :)

Great insight though. Unfortunately I didn't catch that video, so it was interesting to listen and read.
So, if the "links strategy" still works, feel free to guest blog.
But the question remains, how Google is going to fight spammers afterall?

Search Engine Optimization
Mar 12, 2014

This is great post. Links will always play a major role - but new ranking factor lke soial signals and CRO-Data from Google-Analytics will be taken into consideration in the future. This wont change. New factors wont take links away. The will combine alle factors togehter to paint a greater picture.

ClearPeach
Mar 15, 2014

I can't imagine big G turning off backlink relevancy. As Matt stated it really helps them give the best, relevant to search results so I think its really not possible, for now.

Muneeb ur Rehman
Apr 04, 2014

Now blogging is more interesting with this. Now newbies can rank higher than the pro bloggers. Now we can drive traffic without backlinks

Tom
Jul 31, 2014

Interesting video, the question is what would they replace the links with ? 

Elisa Gabbert
Dec 04, 2014

Hey Gord, ads get ranked without links -- think about it!

Rick Noel
Feb 21, 2014

Interesting post Elisa. Links will matter to Google and webmasters for a long time to come. How one goes about getting them will evolve.

That said, I thinki social signals/proof will become more important especially with Google+. I suspect authorship and information like SERP pogosticking where available to Google (i.e. GA tracked sites), information like pages/visit, time on site, etc. will also become more important.

Mobile rendering and pagespeed will also become more important as Google if focused on evolving user experience to align with the evolution of personal and business Internet communications.

Elisa Gabbert
Feb 21, 2014

Thanks Rick -- agreen on social, authorship, time on site etc. become signals as they figure out how to use them.

Wolf
Feb 23, 2014

Links will always play a major role - but new ranking factor lke soial signals and CRO-Data from Google-Analytics will be taken into consideration in the future. This wont change. New factors wont take links away. The will combine alle factors togehter to paint a greater picture. The will fight spam harder as ever. Also Social Signals can be faked easier than links. So too put away Links is not the solution. User Signals also can be faked easy. So Links are still rule the Algo. This wont ever change fundamental.

Bryan Knowlton
Feb 24, 2014

Hey Elisa, I wanted to let you know that we talked about your post on the Daily Blogcast for internet marketing podcast.  You can find it on Episode 075 – Google Search Without Backlink Relevancy, Conference Notes Sell For Hundreds of Thousands, More BAD Internet Marketing Pick Up Lines

http://dailyblogcast.net/2014/02/21/075-google-search-without-backlink-relevancy-conference-notes-sell-for-hundreds-of-thousands-more-bad-internet-marketing-pick-up-lines/

Elisa Gabbert
Feb 24, 2014

Cool, thanks Bryan! I'll give it a listen.

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