Are Likes the New Links?
There is a change coming that mimics search as it existed in the early days. In the very beginning, search was developed to find answers and there were more people with questions than truly authoritative sites with answers. Authorities were identified by a combination of competent, well-constructed content and testimonial-grade inbound links (essentially a trusted testimonial system).
This led to a culture of link-building and eventually deceptive link spamming which eroded and eventually undermined the concept of trusted links. It is really difficult to identify a purchased link from an earned testimonial-grade link. Simply put, spammer link camouflage is just too good.
Google realizes that the big money has attracted the big spammers in the link arena and the best Google can do is continue with a perpetual war with link brokers and spammers. From conversations with colleagues, there seems to be a consensus that Google has lost the upper hand on the spammers. Yes, the recent and significant penalties on low quality, low TrustRank, bulk links have had an impact, but the battle is still far from over.
Internationally, link spam is often just "how SEO is done". Google grudgingly turns a blind eye without a serious attempt to detect it and levy penalties, because to enforce their link guidelines would be to leave their index barren, or because the language and technology issues are too expensive to warrant action. In many countries, link spam is openly discussed by the local SEO firms; in some cases, it is openly advertised by publicly traded SEO firms as the only SEO activity that is necessary - these firms do not even try to improve on-page quality because it is not necessary. Google is losing the international link spam battle and the top ranked site is often the site with the best spam instead of being the most relevant. So far Google has chosen to let the international sleeping dog lie but that will not last.
The Social Solution
Obviously, Google would like to find a better solution for determining trust and ranking than counting spammy links. With link spam winning, search engines are turning to signals received from trusted friends (Facebook Likes), reviews appearing in the LocalPack (7-pack local maps), and in referrals and sharing within social media as new sources for testimonials. By substituting what a user's actual friends like in the place of spammy links, ultimately what we see today as link spam will lose its impact. Getting into millions of friend groups means the cost of Like spam is very likely prohibitive, and certainly extremely high, and the ROI of the spam effort is lower. The net result is that links become less valuable and if handled properly will have almost no contribution; retrain PageRank to work with Likes and you restore PageRank to the potential glory it was conceived to be. Remove the reward and you remove the spam, and if the spam is removed then the vision is re-established.
We have to seriously consider what it takes to obtain a legitimate "like" from a friend. If you are at all like me, I only share or like things that I genuinely like. I do not spam my friends. And, as we are all aware, discovering a spammer in our midst will generally lead to having that individual removed as a friend. So, what does it take to be liked and shared by the social community? I suggest that, more than ever before, you need extreme quality in your content that addresses a need. There are myriad firms pumping out mediocre quality content flooding the engines with inert mass, and with people recognizing that these sites do not offer anything meaningful, often just regurgitated content from authority sites these pages will start to hurt rankings. As quality matters more and more we will see a transformation of the content base.
You must become significantly centered on amazing, unique and forward-thinking content that has a precise SEO effort to succeed in the future Web world.
Enter Local Results
Have you noticed that often, and with increasing regularity, LocalPack results are pushing the top organic result below the fold? This essentially makes the top organic results less valuable. I have often said that the top three organic results are the new first page, and this is absolutely true. Google is smart in this regard: diminish the prize in both contribution and size, and spam should diminish.
Between the "likes" replacing "links", and then the local results pushing down the organic results, the impact on traditional and future SEO traffic is significant.
Consumers have engaged each other to determine authority, essentially taking the trust into their own hands. By not winning the battle of link spam, Google is losing control of trust. While the role of Google "to make a trusted relevant site determination" still exists for much of traditional search, the human component of trusted testimonials has caused many searchers to migrate to their friends for recommendations. With social media, there is a great amount of trust - more than with a purchased link, and the migration is compelling.
In order to succeed in Internet marketing optimization as a whole, marketers must focus on building and maintaining competent content worth being "liked", then through all internet marketing channels let the world know about their quality content. Then the gaming of the system via link spam and purchased links will fail. We trust our friends and personal colleagues and so must the engines.
Like in the early days of search where trust was determined via recommendation votes (links), today trust is becoming synonymous with votes via likes and shares, and blatant recommendations. SMO is a critical element of Internet marketing optimization from here on out.
Companies who do not capitalize on the move to authority through quality content and trusted recommendations based on "likes" instead of links will find themselves suffering in traffic and revenue. The one significant step forward for Internet marketing optimization is that we can now optimize our sites knowing that spam hurts incompetent sites and from now on the more spam you use the worse your rankings will become.
We need to get the word out. Link spam is dying - long live Internet marketing optimization.