The Evolution of Ranking Signals: Google Is Getting Past the Link


There's always been a fair amount of discussion that Google's reliance on links is the bane of the internet. From the insanely dynamic tin foil wearing crowd to those that muse. From the link economy to the spam that litters social sites and blogs. The never-ending thirst for more links has turned some people I know into freaking link machines (yeah, I'm lookin' at you – BOOYAKA).

But why? You get the impression from some folks that it is some evil master plan or sheer bumbling and incompetence. I submit to you that those people have never built a search engine of the magnitude of what Google is today. It is a certainty. And let us not forget that Yahoo and to a lesser extent Microsoft have also had the same apparent link addiction. But can no one tell me WHY?

The Spam Funnel Effect

Now, from first glance at the situation, we can observe one compelling reason: it can be easier to address spam. Yup, it may seem counterintuitive that this factor many blame for the rise of spam can within itself be a weapon, but it's true. Consider that when you have a signal that outweighs the others, it becomes a magnet to spammers. In short, you need links to rank. So do the spammers.

Google Spam Funnel

You (as the search engine) know exactly WHERE to look for spammers because they are invariably drawn to these points of value. If there are dozens of high-value signals, you will need to have dozens of spam bots patrolling and correlating data. If you limit the scope, you limit the places you need to look. I call it a spam funnel, and it's a smart way to do things when faced with limited technology/resources.

It was effective for ranking/popularity signals and availed itself to a logical spam funnel as well. Once your spam bots flag an entry, further resources can be sent to look for secondary spam signals to make a final valuation of the page/site in question (more on spam signals here).

That was then, this is now

That is a logical concept. It still doesn't fully explain WHY. For that let us look at some of the issues that lead to this point. Or at least some thought on potential aspects leading to the addiction.

Does not compute – right away we have to remember the speed of search evolution. With link-centric algorithms such as PageRank at the core, they have undergone a massive evolution tied to this approach. There simply weren't other approaches that worked as well on indexing, retrieval and spam reduction levels. Even latter evolutions such as Personalized PageRank did little more than adapt more dynamic signals to the linkscape. Fact: it works.

More power Cap'n – the next consideration is that the more signals you have, the more processing you need. Not only for indexing/retrieval but, once more, the spam reduction as well. Just because they CAN come up with new signals doesn't mean implementing them all is feasible in a large-scale implementation such as Google.

Or at least that's part of the journey we've travelled in the search world. Each year there are new methods and technologies which can be leveraged. There is every indication that we're getting closer to a world where links might actually get some competition.

Gospel of the Geek

Gospel of the Geek

Along the way Google has looked at speeding things up on the processing side with elements such as Personalized PageRank, which was touted as a faster, more efficient way of calculating PageRank. This was also an early glimpse of the incorporation of user data and personalization. This is important when we bear in mind the need for better processing and more signals, while reducing spam detection requirements (which personalization can do).

Those long-time readers of the trail will know my ongoing interest and frustration with the world of behavioral metrics. While it often seems intuitive to the casual observer, signals gleaned from user interactions are often noisy for search engineers (bounce rates for example). It isn't always self-evident given individual factors, what exactly the data may mean. From many studies done it seems that one would need a larger number to get any type of truly meaningful data.

Add to that the problem, once again, of policing new signals in an effort to reduce web spam, and we can start to see the problems that would require greater processing.

We've also seen more in the area of query analysis as we've seen with the QDF (query deserves freshness), real-time search efforts and other temporal data elements over the last 4-5 years. These approaches combined with rise of social means the potential was there.

It simply requires better processing abilities. Just look at the myriad of ranking signals available here.

Time to wake up

What's changed? Well, for me at least, it all began in 2006 with the Big Daddy infrastructure update at Google. This is when the real depth of behavioral elements, in the form of personalization, came into their own (supposition peeps, only the Googlers know for sure). It continued along on the trail towards link liberation, which only became more possible with the rise of social networks/media that gave even more possibilities.

We're now looking at the next major infrastructure update (that we know of) in the form of Caffeine. The interesting part about this one is that it has been accompanied by an apparent need for speed. To me, this further implies that Google is looking to get the most from their systems to deal with ranking/indexing methods beyond PageRank centric approaches.

One thing we know already is that the recently implemented "personalization for all" signals a move toward behavioral and social signals (implicit and explicit user feedback) beyond anything we've seen before.

SEO is still dead, or is it?

So, what's it all mean? There is every reason to believe that we're at the dawn of a new age where links aren't the only valuable signals. Of course, I might be wrong, but it does seem to add up. In the near future I'd say that more efforts will be made to strengthen the value of other factors, primarily:

Temporal data – Historical elements can be valuable in many ways from indexation decisions, query analysis and retrieval as well as spam detection. Sure, they've been around for some time, but deeper usage seems to be important in the direction we're headed.

Behavioral data – Given the ability of personalization to curtail spam (you can't spam yourself, there's no point) we can assume that this trend will continue. Stronger infrastructure may be in part to enable a wider delivery of these features.

Social data – Google has been fond of using the social graph, and if we look at the above points, it will play nicely with them. Unlike the more spammable "real-time" data, social data is far more trust-able. Once more, you also won't keep people in your network that are obvious spammers.

And there is actually so much more. Those are just a few that are more obvious ones. I guess the main point I am trying to make is that there is every reason to believe we're going to be seeing a shift in how Google goes about (organic) search. It seems we might just have to re-align ourselves with strategies beyond mere links, links and more links. We haven't even touched on the improvements in relevance and semantic analysis computation.

It is yet one more reason to remember that as search engines evolve, so will SEO. The demise of SEO has consistently been wrong and I can guarantee that if anything, it will become more challenging.

What do YOU believe the future of search (and ranking signals) holds? Sound off in the comments!

(Further Reading: The Ultimate Resource: The Google SEO Guide)

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Scott Clark
Jul 13, 2010

Great overview. I think you're pretty close the mark on most of the post. For me, what requires most adaptation is in how we engage clients. SEO has been making a steady journey out of the programming lounge and into the client's lap. The client's involvement - participation in SEO efforts is increasing rapidly. This will inevitably result in new friction, new winners and continued job security for SEOs who get it.

Jul 13, 2010

Hi there Scott, thanks for dropping in. That's an interesting take. I would agree we have made strides in educating our consumers over the years, but there is still a long way to go. Part of the problem is that a lot of SEOs are still stuck in yester-year with tactics and concepts. It surely doesn't help. I have to de-program a lot of clients these days... never fun. But I can wholeheartedly agree that SEOs will need to evolve past link whores and hype merchants in the coming years.

Vincent Ammirato
Jul 13, 2010

We've been moving away from the day-to-day chores of link baiting/whoring and towards educating our clients. We try to identify principals in the client's company who are friendly, passionate and eloquent and train them to originate, amplify, and reinforce their own signals.

It is a whole hella lot better than cramming every nook of the web with useless bullshit.

Jul 13, 2010

Have to agree with Vincent. Educating clients on what they should be doing and the best ways to do it is much more appealing, though it's often an uphill battle, to say the least.

Jul 13, 2010

I agree, I think Google is realizing the importance of links within their algorithm is only contributing to a large amount of spam - also as you said - the recent updates signify that a shift toward social media and real time content is coming as it is already playing a role within results. However, I don't think that links will be devalued to the degree (at least anytime soon) that spammers will stop using this method, or that I will stop recommending developing a white hat link acquisition campaign. Another thing is that scammers, spammers, and con artists are always going to find some way to take advantage of the newest trend in ranking factors, I think people knock Google too much for this personally, whatever they do there will always be someone looking to unethically exploit it.

Very insightful post, thank you!

Paul Dumas
Jul 13, 2010

Google likely will be VERY careful in diminishing the importance of PageRank since it is at the core of nearly everything they have done since '96 (or so). However, it does seem likely that Google has added various components whereby they give value for the amount of "chatter" a site is generating at any given time. From blogs to social media outlets deemed to have authority, it seems obvious that Google is attempting to tap into the "buzz" factor. For small businesses, this is going to require a total paradigm shift when it comes to SEO and internet marketing. Call it the TMZ effect - for better or worse.

Tom Demers
Jul 13, 2010

Hey David,
Awesome post: thanks so much for dropping by with this and opening up the discussion.
One of the things that you and some others (Slawski, Aaron, etc.) do really well is continually put yourself in the shoes of the engines: the trick in predicting where they go next is to continually remember what they're trying to accomplish and why they put in place the factors and signals they have now.
I agree that social and personalization are very natural extensions of the philosophy that brought them to links in the first place, and for me the overarching theme is that Google feels that identifying trusted sources that people have marked as something they like makes for good SERPs.
Another thing I think is interesting about a move towards increased emphasis on behavioral and social data is that a lot of the same core disciplines (like creating content and tools worth remarking about/linking to/bookmarking/etc. and building relationships) that make for high quality, sustainable link building will likely be the most effective tactics for influencing personalized and "socialized" SERPs.
Again great stuff David: thanks so much for sharing this here!

Peter Young
Jul 14, 2010

Great post David, always love these types of posts (and thanks - I think - for the reference above)

As you may have gathered from my muse, I expressed concerns as to the reliance of links in Google's algorithm particularly given the fact they are not able to police consistently against many of their own guidelines

As a result, utilising other user signals such as page behaviour, social influences etc are increasingly likely to influence visibility, and this can only be a good thing in my opinion.

Jul 14, 2010

@Vincent... lol.. nice brother! You are on the path towards the Gospel of the Geek. I truly detest lazy link building; aka link whores. Keep up the good work man!

@Bill... it can be with all the CRAP that is written out there, all we can do is keep trying to educate. It is a large reason why I am still writing some 5 years on.

@Rebekah - there are even more signals they can better enable with more power including deeper semantic analysis and behavioural. I have to believe a deeper more granular personalization will also go a long way towards beating up on spammers. If your SERPs are personalized TO YOU, then spamming them becomes a mute point... can't spam yerself. Ya know?

@Paul - I can't see links going away altogether any time soon, but I do feel they will not be the holy grail they once were over the next few years. Oh and BTW, Google wasn't even around in '96 ;0)

@ - Tom no probs man... always like getting out and about, can't think of a better place to do so. As for the predictive stuff, I like to give peeps the knowledge to 'think like an engineer'. I tend to look at past elements and evolutions, patents and of course, research papers coming out in the IR world (the future of search). Between them we really can begin to see where things may be heading. All part of 'future proofing' one's SEO...

@ - Pete... like I was saying last night in the Dojo chat, really read different than I I had just read yers at the time of writing this, so it was the first to come to mind. But hey, a link is a link right? hee hee...

Again, thanks to ALL that commented, tweeted, sphunn the post... always appreciated when spreading the Gospel of the Geek my friends!

Dan Patterson
Jul 15, 2010

Sure, links are all the rage now, but it was all meta keywords back in the day. Search engines will continue to evolve like they always have, but like you said above I don't see links going away very soon. I agree that by making it such a major factor it has made it easier for them to police things, so if they keep with this trend social factors are the next place to go.

Thanks for sharing. This is honestly one of the better posts I've read recently on how SEO is evolving or could evolve.

Chris Reilly
Jul 15, 2010

Here's the thing... Any old spammer is now going to be *delighted* by search engine algos using behavioral data. Paying 1000 people on mechanical turk $.01 to just search your keyword and click your site (then view a few pages if you're truly concerned with bounce rate) is FAR cheaper than buying links.

Some things can't be algorithmically eliminated, hence the paid link reporting tools...

Jul 15, 2010

Very great post - but looks a bit futuristic to me. A machine can get used to a human's behavior if that person regularly follow the same over a period of time. But when even humans can't guess others behavior how could search spiders do that specially with dynamic minds that all of us have!

But yeah - other factors would make search experience more convenient.

Evangelio del Geek según San David | Dictina
Jul 15, 2010

[...] Visto en The Evolution of Ranking Signals: Google Is Getting Past the Link [...]

This Month’s SEO Roundup | The Blog of
Jul 15, 2010

[...] #6 The evolution of google’s ranking signals [...]

Jul 15, 2010

@Dan - yuppers... I remember the days. It surely has made things easier putting such a strong weight on links from a spam detection aspect. I have no doubts that relevancy would be better without spammers to be honest. In the IR world, on test beds, they have been able to use a great number of other signals effectively. The problem arises when U open it up on a large public facing engine such as Google. I do hope the new infrastructure helps. And WOW, thanks on the compliment. Just thinking out loud really... a search geek's musings.

@Chris - Actually not at all. Here's the gig; up until now personalization (aka behavioural data) has been aggregated. Meaning, that they take commmon user types and group them.. then THAT is personalized. If they have a more powerful system in place and personalization can be done on a more granular person-by-person level, then it makes sense. Why? Because you can't spam your self. If your actions only affect YOUR search results, all the slave labour and bots in the world won't make a difference. This is what I am curious about moving forward in the search evolution.

@John - wanna know the creepiest patent I ever covered? It was one from Microsoft on biometric feedback for computers... Can U imagine that personalization? "Gee Dave, I sense you are not pleased with these search results" - now THAT would be just plain creepy.

Friday Recap: BlueGlass and Sass | seo cloak
Jul 16, 2010

[...] industry. Less known is what’s going on with the search engine’s ranking signals. Is Google getting past the link, looking to temporal, behavioral and social data? It’s looking [...]

Friday Recap: BlueGlass and Sass | Online Marketing Blog
Jul 17, 2010

[...] industry. Less known is what’s going on with the search engine’s ranking signals. Is Google getting past the link, looking to temporal, behavioral and social data? It’s looking [...]

Terry Harmon
Jul 17, 2010

It seems like the next logical step for organic ranking is to rely heavily on social data. With the advent of the social graph (and facebook basically trying to take over the internet) it's too hard to turn down all the juicy data.

Friday Recap: BlueGlass and Sass | Google Seo Guide
Jul 18, 2010

[...] industry. Less known is what’s going on with the search engine’s ranking signals. Is Google getting past the link, looking to temporal, behavioral and social data? It’s looking [...]

Weekly Search & Social News: 07/20/2010 | SEO Facts
Jul 20, 2010

[...] The evolution of ranking signals; Google is getting past the link – was a post from yours truly over on the WordStream blog last week. I was making a case for where we may be headed in search. Please do drop by and leave yer own 2c on the matter. [...]

Dominik Johnson
Jul 23, 2010

Hi David,

awesome thoughts of ... and great written as well ;o) The think is that geolocation service, translation, speech combined w/, call it today "social media" will have a huge impact on search w/in the algorithm factors "looking more and more like human behavior" but one think will not change: "search centric approach"

Wish you a great Friday - Thank God it's Friday

Best from Bavaria

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Jul 24, 2010

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Aug 02, 2010

[...] The evolution of ranking signals – David Harry [...]

Doc Campbell
Aug 21, 2010

Great piece, David. I feel vindicated by the fact that a search geek like yourself has a similar opinion of the coming changes to search technology.

I agree that links aren't likely to disappear... only lose much of their weight in ranking pages. As semantic analysis develops, it'll finally give the SEs the ability to eliminate much of the potential for link spam. In the long run, it'll be better for both users and SEOs.

Let the link whores spam the local McDonald's with their job applications... something commensurate with their abilities.

SEO Turned on Its Ear « Ramblings of a Madman
Aug 22, 2010

[...] At this point, not to be outdone, I’ll make my prediction. First, however, I must admit that while I came to this conclusion on my own, I am not the first to give voice to it. For one, my Sensei at SEO Dojo, David Harry (@theGypsy), recently wrote a guest-blog on WordStream,  entitled, The Evolution of Ranking Signals: Google is Getting Past the Link. [...]

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Jan 27, 2011

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Feb 16, 2011

[...] All is not lost my friends. One of the better developments over the last few years is all of the new (potential) signals and and infrastructure to deal with them. To a certain extent there is every chance for Google (and other engines) to get past the link. [...]

Feb 23, 2011

Google is creepy! When they crossed the line from presenting results to attempts at mind-reading, I think it's time we all evaluate what we want from a search engine.

I want the same results for "lasagna recipe" as anyone in the world. I do not want results skewed by my browsing behavior! It's not only an encroachment on my privacy, but it's a poor idea.

Don't we want to be a little surprised sometimes? If I wanted my "usual" recipe, I'd use bookmarks.

Personalization & live search have actually caused me to use Bing more & more. To each his own I guess.

Jeremy C
Apr 15, 2011

Google, is a but creepy ^ but on the other hand I can see where they're coming from. Tailoring results to customers (searchers) does seem like the best way to gain MORE active, and repeat visitor searches, so wheres the balance? I think that's what we're all waiting for,

Emil-Anton COMȘA
Jul 03, 2013

   It works almost the same today as in 2010!

Emil-Anton COMSA
Sep 13, 2016

It works almost the same today as in 2016 !

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