Matt Cutts Says Yes, Links Will Inevitably Lose Value Over Time


In the latest Webmaster video, Matt Cutts answers a question that could have come from me (but actually came from someone named Leah in New York):

Google changed the search engine market in the '90s by evaluating a website's backlinks instead of just the content ... Updates like Panda and Penguin show a shift in importance towards content. Will backlinks lose their importance?

There have been some arguments – notably from Russ Jones in the comments on this post (extrapolated on by Rand Fishkin in a recent Whiteboard Friday) – that links will actually increase in value over time.

In the below video, Matt Cutts says the opposite is true. It’s not around the corner, but Google will eventually put less emphasis on links – not, however, purely because of link spam, but because most links to a site aren’t the best measure of the value of a single page for a given search.

Let’s walk through what he actually says in response to her question.

Cutts: "Inevitably what we're trying to do [as a search engine] is figure out how an expert user would say, this particular page matched their information needs."

Translation: Google wants to provide the best “answer” to the user’s “question” (whether or not the search query is technically a question). In a perfect world, the algorithm would be able to deliver that answer as well as an expert (or all-knowing god) in that field.

Cutts: "Sometimes backlinks matter for that; it's helpful to find out what the reputation of a site or a page is."

Translation: Historically, Google has depended heavily on reputation and authority when it comes to ranking pages – i.e., the New York Times can rank for whatever it wants. Sometimes backlinks matter in determining reputation, he says. They’re “helpful” – not the be-all, end-all.

Cutts: "But for the most part, people care about the quality of the content on that particular page, the one that they landed on."

Translation: To be a great search engine, Google needs to know what people really want when they want it. There’s a difference between authority and popularity, and for some searches, popularity matters more. And links aren’t necessarily the best way to measure popularity. (The NYT isn’t always going to have the best story.)

Cutts: "So I think over time, backlinks will become a little less important."

Translation: Cutts is admitting that links aren’t necessarily the best way to find the best “answer” for every search question. Or, even if links are the best measure we have now, they’re not the best possible measure. If Google wants to stay #1, they’ll have to change and get better.

Remember when we talked about porn? People don’t link to porn sites; they don’t have “authority” in the Googley sense. So how do they rank porn? And what other verticals might be porn-like, as it were? In other words, in what areas of search would people care less about reputation and authority? Cutts seems to be admitting that reputation isn’t that important to the average user, but the relevance of the content is.

Then Cutts says that Author Rank is helpful for identifying experts in a field, but …

Cutts: "Even if we don't know who actually wrote something, Google is getting better and better at understanding actual language. So one of the big areas we're investing in is trying to figure out how to do [something] more like a Star Trek computer, so conversational search: the sort of search where you can talk to a machine and it will understand you, so you're not just using keywords."

Translation: Google wants to get better at understanding what users want so it can be better at delivering that. His example is that if someone searches “how tall is Justin Bieber,” then immediately afterwards, “when was he born,” Google should know that “he” refers to Justin Bieber.

Sounds great (if not exactly Star Trek level), but unfortunately it seems like this is getting worse before it gets better. Google has gotten really bad at answering long-tail search queries. For example, the other day I googled “ten books that might be poetry,” looking for a particular article by that name. I didn’t use quotes because I wasn’t sure if I had the title exactly right, and I didn’t know if the number was written out or not.

backlinks will lose value in google

As it turns out, I had the title right, but Google ignored half the words in my query and just returned a bunch of random articles that included the words “ten,” “books,” and “poetry” – the article I was looking for was many pages deep into the index. I had to refine the query to include the author’s name to get it on the first page. (I only remembered the author’s name because it was me.) If we still need links, maybe it’s because Google is still so bad at conversational search.

Cutts: "As we get better at understanding who wrote something and what the real meaning of that content is, inevitably over time, there will be a little less emphasis on links."

Translation: Again, the idea here is that the best way to find the right answer for a given question is to fully understand both the question and the answer. Reputation will always matter, but not as much as the content of the page and whether or not it’s the best answer.

Cutts: "For the next few years, we will continue to use links in order to assess the basic reputation of pages and of sites."

Translation: Google still needs links because they haven’t figured all this stuff out yet. But note that he said “for the next few years” – not the next decade. That means linkless search (or much-less-link-dependent search) isn’t too far off.

Note, also, that there’s an opportunity here for the “next Google.” A smaller, more agile company, one that isn’t so wedded to links, could come along and figure out conversational search before Google, and that would change everything.

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May 06, 2014

Cutts: "As we get better at understanding who wrote something and what the real meaning of that content is, inevitably over time, there will be a little less emphasis on links."

The second part is clear - conversational search. What I don't understand is how can Google know that I am an expert? Author rank? Nobody uses autorship outside internet marking field...What do you think about it?

Elisa Gabbert
May 06, 2014

The first implementation of authorship markup was way too complicated. They'll need to figure out how to do it automatically.

Mark Johnson @Think_Traffic
May 06, 2014

Hi Elisa.Interesting analysis. As usual it is clear that Matt is giving the answer they would like to be the case. My view on the topic is this:Even if Google were as good at understanding content as a human, links or some other form of "off page factor" would remain an essential part of the algo.The reason is that, often the best answer (best page to rank) to a question is subjective. If you asked an actual human for the best answer to a question, they wouldn't necessarily tell you the same answer as another human.In other words, links, (or otherwise off page factors) are the democratic part of the web which allow search engines to guage how well received a web page is by the people who it is actually written for.In order to significantly minimize the importance of links, Google would have to be able to accurately predict how many thousands (or more) people would react to a given peice of content - not just understanding "the language" but things like:

  • the ideas being shared
  • the relevance to that person
  • how enjoyable it is to read
  • the humor
  • etc...
All factors of course which are personal to each individual.If a human editor were to try to rank a webpage, he/she would need to consider how other readers had reacted to that web page (via links, shares, mentions etc...)So in my opinion, to remove offpage factors altogether, Google would have to be better than a human at understanding the content. And when that happens we should probably worry more about the singularity and the innevitable skynet!

Elisa Gabbert
May 06, 2014

Hi Mark! Subjectivity is why we get more than one result on the page. But the top result could be determined by a combination of relevance (assuming they can figure out how to "read" the content by machine) and engagement factors like CTR, bounce rate, time on page etc. Doesn't mean that off-page factors will cease to be a part of the algorithm completely, they just won't be such a big deal.

Russ Jones
May 06, 2014

Matt Cutts: "So I think over time, backlinks will become a little less important."Matt Cutts: "Inevitably over time there will be a little less emphasis on links."Wordstream Staff: "That means linkless search (or much-less-link-dependent search) isn’t too far off."Seriously, guys, I am really trying to figure out why this is such a big push for you. It is starting to get weird. Why is it so important for Wordstream to push the position that links are going away? Nothing at all in Matt Cutts' statements indicated anything even close to "linkless search" or even "much-less-link-dependent search". In both cases when he made a statement about the future of links he used the specific qualifier "a little less". However, once again, I feel like I need to return to the mathematics in question so we can elucidate exactly what might transpire given Matt Cutts discussion that links will inevitably in "a few years time" become "a little less" important. My previous argument remains impervious to Matt's statements.Matt indicates that over time they will become better and understanding signals intrinsic to a document that might indicate not only its relevancy but also its importance and authority. Let's say, for example, that Google perfects this algorithm and can determine that an article is written by an authority and is 100% relevant to the query. Let's say in doing so, Google changes their percentage of ranking factors such that this new hypothetical on-page metric accounts for 90% of the algorithm, and links only count for 10%. Has Google succeeded in making links "count less". At face value they have, but ultimately not in a way that is meaningful to the SEO. The SEO needs only to counter that on-page metric (which inevitably happens with on page metrics) such that in sufficiently competitive spaces there are dozens of sites with highly relevant content written by well known authorities. In fact, you could have the same authority pen all of the articles. What you would need then is a non-finite metric, such as links, to adjudicate against the finite on-page metric. Now, you may respond, perhaps the authoritative metric is in itself non-finite. ie: just like links, authority is developed by some metric that grows. Of course, there is nothing that prevents the same author from contributing to multiple sites/pages, thus nullifying the metric. If Rand Fishkin writes a post on 10 different sites, they all share his authority. What differentiates between them in a meaningful fashion is their links.Now, I do not mean to say that the value of links will always remain the same. They will fluctuate in value relative not only to the algorithm but to the individual SERPs themselves. But we need to stop with this "death of links" nonsense. It is steering people away from techniques that actually work today in the hopes that "a few years from now" the "little bit less" that links matter will be trumped by some currently-unknown, undescribed metrics. 

Elisa Gabbert
May 06, 2014

Russ, we (me in particular) have just taken an interest in this topic, that's it, plain and simple. No ulterior motives. I'm in the middle of a full-day meeting but I'll respond at more length to your comment later on. In any case, there was truly no offense intended in pointing out that we disagree. I think we can disagree about where Google is headed without it getting hostile.  Hope you'll take me at my word that I respect your opinion.

Elisa Gabbert
May 06, 2014

OK, to clarify a few things:- We still think links are important, for now and for the near future. Have said this several times. I didn't say they are going away tomorrow. But a few years is pretty soon, in my view. Soon enough to think about it now.- We believe over time links will get less important. We said this a couple of months ago. You and some others said you think links will get more important. Those are two different predictions. Matt Cutts' statements are closer to our prediction. But we can be on opposite sides of this debate and still respect each other's opinions. Larry and I are not the only people in search marketing who think links will get a lot less important. See Michelle Robbins for one.- I am not advising people away from "techniques that actually work today" -- unless those techniques put the focus on the link as the signal of value rather than the content itself. Low quality guest blogging would be an example of a tactic that puts the value of the link over the value of the content. I'm not even saying those links aren't helping your rankings today, just that it's an unsustainable tactic. You can do it for short-term rewards, I don't care. But if you're trying to build a long-term sustainable business based on those kinds of links, I wouldn't recommend it. Good content earns editorial links and also feeds into the other signals that I think will gain more value, at the expense of links, in the long run.

Mar 09, 2015

I tried to sign up for your free tips on landing pages but the pop up disappeared before I could enter my email address... can you send that to me? Thank you :)

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