The purpose of this article will be to look at the overall trend in links and where they are going. This includes the potential for inferred links to replace link building services. For more than 20 years links have been commonplace on the internet. For much of that time, they were seen as a primary factor in ranking websites and pages. Links are everywhere. There are links to content, links to ads, landing pages, and products. This has given rise to heavily-promoted link building services as a means to help businesses professionally attain links.
However, compared to their prime some years ago, links are not the all-dominating force that they once were in terms of page ranking. The effectiveness of some strategies like link insertions, guest blogging and PR mentions have significantly declined over the years.
Links are still valued much higher than other things, but not nearly as high as during the outset. We all know that there are many factors that determine search engine optimization, how high a page ranks in a Google search. For a long time though, links were such a dominating factor that, if you could get more link clicks than the competition, that alone might make you rank higher.
By now you’re probably saying “yes I know this” and wondering where we’re going with it. We’ll break down the how and why later in the guide. The point is that the value in terms of page ranking for links has dropped so much, that within the next few years, inferred links could replace traditional links altogether. This would change the necessity and the very nature of the link-building service.
To be clear, we’re not saying that link building is dead, we’re just saying that the value of link building in terms of SEO has changed dramatically from what it once was. For that matter, SEO as a whole has evolved in many ways.
At the beginning of Google, when they first started ranking pages, a lot of value was placed on pages that had links for people to click on. These links would either go to a specific page, buy a product or do some other task related to that entity and its presence on the web.
From a logical standpoint, this made sense, links send people to a specific destination. If people are using those links, they must be of value to them. That means the page with said links is important as is the link’s destination.
Pretty basic, but you get the idea of why this would be important to page rank. The problem then becomes, are people truly clicking on links because they have value, or are they being persuaded to take any action based on context? In the beginning, Google did not have the ability to make that determination as it was only able to crawl pages and index links based on traffic.
However, in the intervening 20 or so years, the Google algorithm and the technology behind the page rank system have improved greatly.Google can now crawl a page and recognize the text on a page for what it is and see that users are being driven to click on a link in order to increase traffic to a particular product page, site, or another piece of content.
This has drastically changed the overall weight that links carry. While they are still far more important than other measures relating to on-page SEO, the value has dwindled to where fewer links will not plummet a page rank as much as it would have previously. In fact, a few high-authority backlinks are considered more valuable than a page loaded with links.
This devaluing of link spamming has led to the rise of curated content. Curated content or curated links are links to pieces of content specifically for a target purpose. Content curation is essentially the practice of hand-selecting (on the web) content that is relevant and authoritative to a particular niche and building links to that content. A few well-curated links to not only relevant but highly authoritative and valuable content pieces can do wonders for your site rank. In this way, link stuffing has gone the same way as keyword stuffing and is no longer a regular practice.
As we have talked about, the value of links in terms of SEO and page rank has gone down dramatically as search engine technology has improved. One of the reasons for this has to do with the ability of search engines to read the text on a page and determine intent based on the context within. This is a capability that was unfathomable just a few years ago. Google can now crawl a page, determine based on the text what they are trying to get a user to do, and value it accordingly.
In most cases, the text surrounding a link is trying to prompt a user to click on that link in order to make a purchase, fill out a form, peruse more content, or some other action. Google sees this and for the most part, says “oh cool you want people to click on that link.” If people do, it has value. However, coercion-based clicking is not marked as necessarily useful to users anymore so the idea that spoon-feeding your users links to what you want them to do in order to raise your page rank does not go over as well.
Let’s try an example. Say you’re hosting a blog about shoe inserts to help with foot pain. Your blog talks about the types of foot pain and somewhere on the page says “click here to buy Dr. M’s pain-relieving inserts.” A few people will likely be tempted and go ahead and click the link to go directly to the product. This is essentially motive-based traffic driving.
Years ago, Google would have seen this as highly valuable and would rank your page highly because of it. Now, however, Google says “yeah ok, you got them to click, which is great, but you kinda forced them into it”. Still valuable, but the motive of trying to drive a sale is known to Google and so it’s not the magic bullet it once was.
User opinion is also split on this tactic. While they don’t want the hassle of having to search for a brand or product themselves all the time, they don’t like the salesy push that some websites use either. They prefer suggestions or informative posts that simply state what options are out there over hard, sales-driven approaches.
This has led to the rise in the use of what are known as inferred links. In the next section we’ll discuss inferred links, what they are and how they may replace traditional links.
The term “inferred link” can be a bit of a misnomer. Inferred links aren’t really links at all, they are essentially mentions of a particular brand, product, or suggested action, that a user can then take and search for themselves.
The definition of inferred is “derived by reasoning or concluded from evidence.” This means that users can figure out based on statements that you’re suggesting to them a product or service, without you actually forcing them to use it.
To go back to our shoe insert example, if you were to instead of linking directly to a product, say something like “while we can’t say it will solve every issue, for these certain types of foot pain, we recommend a shoe insert like Dr. M’s” you would be giving the user enough information to search for the product on their own, without directly persuading them to buy it.
The key to the value of an inferred link lies in the ability of Google to determine the context around the link and the overall authority of the poster. In a way, this shifts the value away from the link itself and onto the credibility of the site, the author, and the publisher of the post. If users find the inferred link valuable, they will search out the product or service themselves. Google can track this and via context, rank a page according to its value.
Even without comparing the value of links versus inferred links, Google’s technology has been slowly moving towards this mode of thinking. By being able to read and understand a page, Google can determine what that page is trying to do. Couple that with the value proposition it has for users, and you get a more well-rounded picture of site relevance and authority.
We’re not trying to suggest that links have no value or that inferred links will somehow make all links useless. Instead, what we are forecasting, based on the trends of both Google and users in general, is that there will be a shift towards equal importance of inferred links and direct links. Both types of links will be found in content that is contextual and relevant.
At the current rate of advancement, within the next few years, we could see inferred links replace link building as the preferred method of content creation. This doesn’t mean that there will be a complete dissolution of link building services. We may see that inferred links will become the norm and traditional links will become a supporting mechanism.
At present, the balance in value of links versus other metrics is about 2:1 where in the past it was perhaps 10x that number. So, while we think inferred links will replace traditional links in terms of value for a number of reasons, there’s no evidence that links will disappear entirely or that link building will fall out of style completely.
What we’re more likely to see is a hybrid mix of inferred links and direct links working in tandem to promote brands without devaluing the user experience.
Don’t get us wrong, we’re not trying to tout one over the other. Instead, we’re trying to give an objective comparison of where things were versus where they are headed. Part of the Google process and page ranking, in general, has been geared more and more towards machine learning and user experience. The more Google advances, the more it values actual user satisfaction over link placement.
In the end, this shift will change how content marketing and link building are done and how businesses large and small do business. Businesses inherently have a motive behind everything they do, it’s pretty much why SEO is even an industry. As the focus shifts away from sales-driven content and more towards user-driven content, the way businesses promote themselves, their products, and their partners will have to change along with it.
Inferred links manage to do that in a variety of ways that direct links cannot. For instance, you can have a brand name be mentioned by a celebrity on Twitter, without ever linking to a particular product, and search traffic for that brand will still see a major spike. This is because inferred links build interest without actually forcing anyone to do anything outright. Not to mention that certain platforms by nature are not as link heavy as others. You expect to see links of some kind in blog posts and articles, but in a tweet, not so much. This is where an inference is the right way to go.
It’s a way for businesses to market themselves without marketing themselves so to speak. Users aren’t put off by inferred links the same way they are ads or direct links to products because they are free to choose of their own will. Social proof and other factors will still play a role, but users value the ability to make decisions for themselves.
We’ve talked a lot about the increasing value of inferred links and how they are quickly moving to replace traditional links in many places on the web. There are, however, a few notable downsides to not using direct links that can impact traffic and marketability of content and products.
For one, inferred links only work if the inference you’re trying to make is clear to the audience. Vagueness and ambiguity are not your friends when it comes to inferred links. Just as an example, if we’re talking about sweaters and the statement is made “wool sweaters are great, we prefer cotton sweaters from D&M though”, one could assume you’re trying to infer to the reader to check out cotton sweaters, or they could just as easily assume you’re telling them your personal preference.
A better statement would be “wool sweaters are great, however, if you’re like us and prefer a less coarse material, then the cotton sweaters by D&M are the way to go.” This gives the same type of recommendation, but with a more direct message to the user. You’re not forcing them to buy anything, just pointing out an option and giving them a valid reason to check it out.
Lastly, and this point plays off of the previous one, smaller brands are less likely to be able to make use of endorsements than larger brands. Larger brands have the capital to promote products by paying a celebrity to make mention of them on social media. A simple tweet by a famous person to try something can garner loads of traffic without ever needing to lift a finger. Smaller brands don’t have that luxury. Even if they receive an endorsement, that will only carry so much weight without the name recognition to go with it.
In these cases, smaller brands will still have to rely on traditional marketing strategies to be successful. This is primarily why direct links will likely still hold a place in modern SEO and in web marketing.
We hope you’ve found this guide to inferred links and how they may replace link building services useful. While we can’t predict the future, all the evidence points to inferred links becoming much more valuable to businesses and direct links taking second place. This means that link building as we know it will undergo a major change and the link building services of the past will have to adapt in order to survive. As they do, we will update our SEO link building guide for beginner’s to match the latest trends.
It’s important to keep on top of the latest trends in the digital space in order to make the most of your web presence and the marketing tools you have available. As always, reach out to professionals to get the help you need to stay on top of the market and make the most out of your digital presence.
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