Google may rewrite your content to fix the web

If you’re serious about SEO, just doing what everyone is doing won’t cut it. You have to look ahead at what search engines might want or need tomorrow and try to get ahead of the curve.

Normally, I say the best way to do this is to think about users need but, sometimes, the way to do this is to think about the mistakes search engines have made and how they might try to fix them.

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First, a quick history lesson on how Google created the link-economy

The vast majority of SEOs agree that backlinks have a big impact on how well your site performs in Google’s algorithm and where you appear in search results.

Google loves to play down the importance of links but the amount of guidance they provide, and the priority they give to link management tools like the disavow tool, tells a different story.

Today, the answer is simple: Links to your site affect your ranking. Good links improve ranking, bad links can damage ranking. Forget Bitcoin, links are the true currency on the web.

The unfortunate side effect this has had is to make links things people are reluctant to give. Theories about “link juice” (🤢) abound and SEO practitioners continue to frett about how much value they may be giving away with external links. This all leads, overall, to fewer links between sites and that’s a bad thing for the web.

How Hypertext was supposed to work

The original vision of hypertext (that’s what the HT in HTML stands for) was for documents where any term that might be unknown, confusing, or alien to the reader was linked to additional information. This idea was powerful and is the cornerstone of the web as we know it today. Hypertext was supposed to make reading more interactive and information more accessible but it can’t do this without links being freely given.

Just imagine how much better the Internet would be if every article you read freely linked to other supporting material, citations, and definitions and how much easier to would be spot things like fake news articles if they lacked all of these… because this was how it started out, before Google.

Google treating links as a form of online currency, a “vote” by one site in favour of another, was the secret to their algorithms early success in returning high-quality search results. It was ingenious because it leveraged the efforts of everyone writing for the web and creating links between sites at that time, turning their individual knowledge of where “the good stuff” was into a tradeable commodity for Google.

Even back then Google made its money off the back of other peoples’ effort. Nothing has changed for them… but for the rest of us, we now live in a world where most webmasters are more selective about who they’ll link to than Regina George from Mean Girls.

So, Google broke linking, so what?

Google still understand the importance of links in terms of establishing the value of content and in understanding it in context. As they push forward with their use of Featured Snippets, yanking content out of your website and displaying it on theirs, they may also have noticed that these out-of-context snippets need a little something to make they really useful. Featured Snippets need links.

But, of course, this is Google and nobody but nobody tells Google what links are going on its first page. So, don’t expect links that are in the text that Google scrapes from your site to survive the transformation into being a featured snippet. No, instead Google appears to be experimenting with rewriting your content with links they’ve chosen.

It was @brodieseo who brought this to my attention, capturing a well-timed video of one of Google’s experiments.

Better for the web, worse for web makers (again)

There’s an ongoing cognitive dissonance at Google that prioritises the wants and needs of people searching for information over what is good, or even acceptable, for people creating the information that Google has made a business out of indexing.

Quite simply, many people think that Google mistreats content creators. It takes their content, repackages it, reuses it, recycles it, and makes billions through wrapping adverts around it. It moves into sectors that already have good quality search tools and disrupts them with its own offerings, prioritised its own products its search results above competitors. It even rewrites the rules on technologies it doesn’t like, forcing technologies like AMP onto developers by prioritising sites that follow its rules over those that don’t.

How does Google get away with it? Google gets away with it because it has a colossal monopoly. There are more sites for any one useful topic than can fit on Google’s front page and so businesses of all sizes continue to follow Google’s rules and pay for its mistakes.

What might happen in the future?

Google love to experiment and do lots of things to search that are only ever seen by a few users and never truly see the light of day in the widely available version of the search.

But, they do seem very keen on Featured Snippets…

I think you have to see this change through the lens of the other controversial Google change that has rolled out recently, where Google automatically scroll the user to a relevant paragraph on your site and highlight it when you click a search result. Google are already changing the way that your site looks – is it such a huge jump to imagine that they will start to inject links into that page as well?

What should you do today?

It may sound like I’m starting a rallying cry here for blocking Google from indexing your site, but I’m not. This is about making sure that your site gets the traffic that it deserves. So, the advice is this: make more links. Link to definitions, link to citations, become a bigger part of the egalitarian web and stop listening to people with worrying prognostications about giving away your “link juice” (still 🤢) and start building your website in a way that really helps your users.

If you don’t, Google may just choose to fix this mistake for you.

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