Saturday 03 December 2016

Are Likes Poised to Replace Links as the Web’s Primary Signal?

Originally posted on Steve Rubel’s blog.

For years the mighty hypertext link has served as the web’s traffic signal network. Links guide where our clicks, attention and, therefore, money flows. It has given rise to multi-billion-dollar businesses and even entire industries. As the blockbuster AOL/HuffingtonPost deal shows, we truly do live in what Jeff Jarvis calls “The Link Economy.” But maybe just maybe that economy could be peaking.

More recently it appears that an equally powerful network of signals has emerged just as certain kinds of links are being called into question in the mainstream press. Enter the like, which Facebook CTO Brett Taylor embraced in 2007 while with Friendfeed and Facebook copied in 2009. It has since flourished under Taylor’s lead at Facebook as it mushroomed to 600 million users. These millions have not only emphatically embraced the like on the social network itself, but more importantly across the millions of sites that use Facebook’s social plug-ins. Some 65 million Facebook users like things daily.

Unlike the link, however, likes arguably are arguably easier to create. Moreover, they are explicit endorsements rather than implicit ones. Therefore, they carry more weight once they are pulled through the lens of our friends. More so than links, this new network of signals allows content to find you, rather than you having to go find it. The rise of likes, just as links before it, will create all kinds of new businesses. And we’re just getting started.

Still, this poses an interesting question: could the like, one day come to dominate links as the primary way we find and engage with content? Is Facebook’s EdgeRank the new Google PageRank? It may seem improbable now but history is filled with metaphors.

For example, no one in the 1970s could have ever imagined a day when homes would be built without rooftop TV antennas. Nor, back then, could we have envisioned a world when the three primary broadcast networks that drove the Golden Age of Television would be less relevant. But that’s exactly what happened once mainstream adoption of digital cable and satellite services achieved a critical mass in the 1990s. The FCC ended analog TV broadcasts in 2009.

To be sure, links will remain a powerful signal for years to come – perhaps forever. Link-based algorithms like Google PageRank continue to power how search engines rank different sites. And, of course, with the rise of social media, links spread information (and misinformation) like wildfire. And Google and Bing aren’t sitting on the sidelines either. Both are increasingly relying on social ranking factors. (Microsoft is an Edelman client)

However, links as we know can be gamed – and more easily than likes. This has been going on for years. However, for the first time, the media is beginning to expose both best and worst practices. The drumbeat is getting louder.

So far, trust in search engines hasn’t eroded. In fact, opinion elites turn to search engines for news online more than online news sources, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer.

Still, the winds of change are blowing. And it may take years to play out. However, if you squint, you can already see how the seemingly innocent like is poised to shake things up.

Image credit: afagen on Flickr.


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on Monday, February 21st, 2011 at 12:40 pm and is filed under Home Page, Perspectives.
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