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):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.