One of the reasons the Internet flourished out of the gate was that there was a built-in reward mechanism for individuals or companies who wanted to provide information and serve as an authority on a given subject. You would find people putting up websites to claim their little piece of intellectual territory where they could be an authority on a subject in a medium where the playing field was fairly level. There were a number of benefits to staking your claim in cyberspace, not all of them tangible or directly tied to profit:
- Validation of one's peers
- Enhancement of one's reputation
- Site traffic, which may be monetized through advertising or other means
- Incremental business (possibly) achieved by demonstrating one's expertise in a particular field
There are a few others, but I want to concentrate on these few.
When Google revolutionized search, it created a surrogate for authority, based on a number of factors like PageRank, the number of inbound relevant links and dozens of other parameters. Other search engines had come before Google, but Google was the first to make inbound links such a key component of its relevance algorithms.
Of course, this served the Internet well in Google's early years. Now, I'm not so sure that Google Juice is aligned closely enough with true relevance. The situation is harmful in many ways.
Inbound links factor so much into Google's determination of relevance that links themselves have become a commodity. If Google didn't exist, I wouldn't have to run two anti-spam plugins on Movable Type (and still have to clean out several hundred spam comments and trackbacks that manage to slip past the filters). Moderators for message boards and online community sites wouldn't have to dedicate so much time to cleaning out spam links. We wouldn't have this problem with spam blogs.
I'd like to propose to Google that inbound links simply matter too much. They're no longer a measure of how important people consider a given piece of information on the Internet to be. More like they're a measure of how far someone is willing to go to make a piece of information seem like it's important.
As content providers, many of us work our butts off for potential reward. Let's say I publish an article on Giant Purple Snorklewhackers one day, and I take home $100. (That $100 could be in the form of ad revenue, or in the form of less tangible things like intellectual capital, enhanced reputation, PR value, etc.) Then some spam blog comes along, rips off the article verbatim, aggregates it with a bunch of other articles about Snorklewhackers, and reaps the benefit of being deemed more relevant to Snorklewhackers. The spam blog does this not by producing content itself, but by running a stupid little script that scrapes content from the top search results and re-posts it.
In that way, spammers are stealing my reward from me. More precisely, they're diminishing the value of the reward I receive for publishing original content. It's as if I busted my butt to bring home $100 and looked over at my next door neighbor, who is happily running off perfect copies of $100 bills on his copy machine.
As anyone who has ever read Ayn Rand can tell you, when the reward is no longer really a reward, or when parasites and moochers chip away at that reward to the point that it becomes nearly valueless over time, the people who really drive the economy stop contributing.
There are quite a few things that can be adjusted to bring Google Juice back into alignment with true relevance. Among them:
- Development of a P2P community to identify and de-emphasize spam blogs, spam sites and other swipers of original content. What Cloudmark is to e-mail spam is what this community should be to blog spam.
- Mechanisms for the online community to identify and report copyright infringement and spam to search engines.
- De-emphasis of inbound links in Google's relevance algorithms.
- Harsher and swifter penalties for anyone found to be swiping and reposting content in its entirety without attribution.
Any of these would likely help. My concern is that I don't see any of them making headway right now. And the longer we wait, the more inbound links become the surrogate for relevance and the more the market shifts toward emphasizing substanceless links.
We need to fix this. Please leave your suggestions in comments.