OCTOBER 2008 IN
RICK ASTER’S WORLD

The Dark Side of Links

Google has discovered the dark side of links.

No company has profited more handsomely from web links than Google. The heart of its operation is a search engine that displays links to web pages on a topic of your choice. And Google picks the likely most relevant pages to show you based largely on the quality of links that connect to each page. As far as Google’s search engine is concerned, links are an absolute necessity.

But Google is also the host of Blogger, and there, links may be a sign of trouble. Days after Fish Nation made the move to Blogger, Google flagged it as a possible spam blog. Why? Basically because Fish Nation uses lots of links, so you can find out more about what you’re reading about, and many of the links are not part of what Google’s spiders regard as a complete, coherent sentence.

No one at Fish Nation could take this personally — Google’s own search engine would fail the same test — and it didn’t take more than a glance for an actual person at Google to see that Fish Nation was a real news blog. Even so, the proliferation of spam has forced Google to recognize that links can be a bad thing.

If you think about it, spam wouldn’t exist without links. Oh, I know, seven years ago there was spam email that told you to call a phone number. I remember telling Internet beginners, “If an email message from a company you don’t know tells you not to respond by email, then you know it’s a scam.” Such transparent attempts to rip people off don’t work so well now. To be effective, though, spam has to redirect you somehow while remaining anonymous. So it uses links.

The essence of a spam link is that it misdirects you. It announces itself as a source for something, then points you to something else. Spam links have become a nuisance on Twitter too. There, more than half the users who sign up turn out not to be people at all, but robots that combine nonsense or plagiarized text with advertising links. Twitter has done pretty well at weeding out the spam robots, suspending their accounts usually within a week, but the potential for spam forced them to change the way they operate and creates an inconvenience for legitimate users.

This is a fundamental weakness of links that has no simple solution. In the end, we cannot have quality links and perfect anonymity at the same time. For a link to mean anything, it has to come from a known entity with a proven body of work. Hence, it cannot be perfectly anonymous. Knowing who we’re dealing with online will be the key to our future online success.


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