Are Hyperlinks losing relevance as a measure of relevance?

The web started off as a network of hyper-links, which is what made PageRank (and Google) so effective. The assumption that important content linked to other important content, enabled Google to sift relevant content right to the top. And it worked well for a long time.

But a subtle shift is underway. Increasingly, relevance of content on the web is being evaluated using other techniques. Amazon (and Yelp) rank products (local businesses, in case of Yelp) by having users review them. Even the reviews are ranked by user voting. There are other sites – Stack Overflow, Seeking Alpha and others, which also use a combination of user voting and editorial control.

Think about it: Why aren’t these sites using hyperlinks to connect relevant content with other relevant content? Surely, doing so has its advantages (search engine algorithms could automatically rank content on the site).

There are three reasons why the long term trend is against hyperlinks (as a relevance indicator):

  1. Content is being added to the web at a high enough rate that publishers don’t have the time and resources to seek out other relevant content and link to it. Hyper-links are too heavyweight a mechanism.
  2. A hyperlink-based system requires content publishers to expend extra effort to find other relevant content and link to it; it’s more efficient to have the readers of content expend extra effort. After all, there are many more readers of content than content publishers. Hence the move towards user voting, likes, retweets, etc.
  3. And lastly, because these techniques use the human in the loop more effectively, they are more efficient (in terms of cloud costs) than purely algorithmic approaches (like PageRank).

We’ll see more of this in the coming years. Content will be ranked using engaged user communities. Hyperlinks will be less important in deciding relevance.

Post Script: If this all seems obvious to you, then consider this: many pundits consider Activity Streams to be the logical successor to hyperlinks, yet it suffers from some of the same problems. Click here for details.

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8 responses to “Are Hyperlinks losing relevance as a measure of relevance?

  1. Pingback: Information wants to be Organized « the human in the loop

  2. Pingback: Activity Streams are not the next Hyperlinks « the human in the loop

  3. Pingback: An Internet Device for the Illiterate Masses « the human in the loop

  4. Hi Bhupi!,
    Very interesting thought (like always 🙂 and I would very much like it to happen. When I started to think of how it would be implemented a few points came
    1) We do not have a standard method of capturing user feedback to content. Each content provider has to implement in its own way.
    2) One of the problems with this approach would be that the user feedback would be captured by the content provider and not the search provider. There is no way for a search provider to get this data from the content provider and there is no authenticity (the content provider can change the user ranking to increase the perceived relevance).
    I see these 2 issues being critical for this concept to be taken up by the mass market.
    //Munish

    • Munish,

      You’ve hit the nail right on the head.

      These are two issues blocking adoption of this concept, but there is a company that’s solving both these problems – Facebook. Some would argue that Facebook’s like button has become a standard method of capturing user feedback to content. And it also pushes information back to the search provider (Facebook), which fixes the second of your concerns.

      When I wrote this blog post, Facebook had not yet released the Facebook Like platform – but it’s interesting how fast technology moves – we have a company solving the two important concerns that you raised.

  5. This reads like a vote for Quora like services.

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