When the web was young, backlinks were the perfect way to measure a sites popularity. The sites with backlinks were more popular and the sites with backlinks from more popular sites were even more popular as you would expect. And all was well.
But in today’s world no matter how much bleach you apply to your white hat, you can’t get around that little bit of knowledge you’ve acquired. Backlinks = success on Google. And by knowing this and “exploiting” this you will knock out those websites that don’t attempt to do any “SEO”. Your white hat may look white, but really it’s gray. You will do all the right things to generate backlinks. Invariably as much as Google would hate to admit it, this breeds a competitive landscape. “You can’t win if you don’t play.” It has now become essential to “ethically” build backlinks in order to get organic Google search results. And this is very bad for the quality of links on Google’s search results.
No matter how innocent you try to be, the cat is out of the bag. It is far to easy to get a large number of “encouraged” backlinks to a given site. When you search on Google the really big players come up first. And this is good. They have such a huge number of backlinks that they can pretty much be seen as genuine. It’s the middle ground. The “long tail”. These are the problems. If a smart developer/designer releases a WordPress theme with a backlink and that theme is used by several hundred people they get lots of page rank. These wordpress themes can be used on popular blogs with plenty of pagerank themselves. This is “white hat” activity. But it’s really intelligently gaming the system. The SEO gurus know plenty of tricks to get backlinks and PR.
Because of this many Google “long tail” searches that are more specific are filled with SEO’d sites both white hat and black hat spam. I know quite a few people who actually are switching to other search engines because of the “backlink” spam. “Quality backlinks” are just too easy to get, especially if you are willing to pay money for them. And that goes on everyday.
Backlinks were a good idea at some point. Now they are only showing that you are trying really hard. The people that talk the loudest and the most often aren’t always the best. And proliferating backlinks to your site with all the right keywords to game the system doesn’t mean your content is the best either. It just means that you are good at generating backlinks.
Until spiders can have a clue what they are parsing it will be hard to impossible to solve this problem and still use backlinks.
Social networks like digg.com, stumbleupon.com and reddit.com are “the next new thing”. By having people vote on pages… the crap filters to the bottom. This of course will have it’s own set of problems – but invariably will be far better and more accurate than backlinks. At the end of the day some content will be brilliant and good – and still be undiscovered. However more data will yield better results.
How do you really judge the worth of a website? Is it how many people like it? The demographics of those people linking to worth for specific topics? How long people spend on the site itself? These are fascinating questions that search engines will be forced to answer in upcoming year – or they will be inconsequential.