While link building remains one of the most prominent signals for obtaining high organic search engine rankings, search engines continue to deliver less organic results on a year-over-year basis. Advertisements drive revenue and the incentive for search engines to manipulate results in their favor. Even if more searchers once preferred organic results over paid, search engines have found ways to slowly change consumer sentiment, likely by delivering better results aligned with searcher intent.
In technology-driven industries, the only real constant is change. Change in such sectors can happen quickly and heavily disrupt the status quo, eviscerating once vital companies. The word processor killed the typewriter, VOIP changed the model of the landline telecom sector and the bidet [should have] killed toilet paper. Alas, the next touted future disruptions in AI are set to disrupt nearly every industry, stealing many viable jobs in their wake. The following represent a few:
- Machines in manufacturing, logistics and processing
- 3D printing for everything from spare parts to consumable products
- Self-driving cars in transportation (including the subsequent decline in insurance claims)
- Blockchain and robo-advisors in financial services
- Internet of Things (IoT) for device tracking and management
- Spatial and quantum computing
- Artificial Intelligence (AI) in coding, communication and marketing
Job and industry-shifting technology will prove a boon in some areas and highly-disruptive in others. Content marketing, and link building in particular, is not immune to the coming wave of business bots, artificial intelligence and automation.
Impact of AI-Driven Link Building
Whether judging email or backlinks, artificially intelligent crawlers are getting better at filtering for quality. But, the AI-powered content creation tools are improving in lockstep. Here’s what this means for the future of the web, including the heavy-lifting activity of building links for SEO:
- Infinite Content. When the cost of content is fixed and not variable, it gives anyone with the machine capable of creating it, the ability to produce an unlimited supply. Yes, the demand for quality content will always be present, but what happens to the price of content when the supply is infinite and the cost is virtually zero?
- Link Velocity. In a world where the speed of content production (and thereby the speed of link acquisition) is unlimited, the velocity of procured links can be manipulated to highly-unnatural levels quickly. However, programming an AI content bot to build content and links at a natural frequency that meets the threshold of appearing “natural” is as simple as a line or two of code.
- Services Becomes a Product. When a service-driven industry, powered by humans, is overtaken by AI and bots, what was once an expensive, time-consuming link building service, quickly devolves into a systematized commodity product, complete with a minimal cost and monthly service plan.
- Quality Deserves Freshness. When content supply is infinite, it smacks in the face of Google’s QDF (quality deserves freshness) algorithm. Massive amounts of even meaningful AI-produced content may not hold the same ranking value of existing pieces deemed more “evergreen.” In a future day, content is likely to require some type of bifurcation or visual categorization to separate live alerts from long-form informational pieces. But, in the end, how will one know whether such information was created by a human or a machine?
But, when services become commodity products, nothing is left for differentiation. Publishing more content inevitably becomes a race to the bottom.
Penny Wise and Publisher Foolish
Tempting as it may seem to eventually automate one’s external content marketing and link building, there remain a few key hurdles:
- Not all content is created equal. Bots have yet been able to replicate the complexity and beauty of Mozart, the Mona Lisa or Rudyard Kipling. Similarly, quality-crafted content is timeless, evergreen and is what truly drives traffic and eyeballs. In short, it’s tough to replicate the wit and style of a truly gifted writer. This is one of the reasons, search engines heavily track spam, discount links whose content is created simply for contents’ sake and punish abuses that make backlink profiles appear unnatural. AI is smart, but it’s not that smart, yet.
- Not all content serves the same purpose. Content created by bots is generally used for shorter, timely, news-like pieces, not the long-form, witty and educational content typically seen in most written online pieces. When bots finally do emerge en masse, they’ll likely be performing the more mundane tasks of regurgitated news pieces and automated Twitter posts. We’re already seeing this in pockets, but not at a larger scale. The most beautiful, timeless pieces are more likely to be created by those with creative minds, something AI has yet to fully master.
- Content is not created in a vacuum. Content often does not stand alone, especially online content. This is the very reason hyperlinks were invented in the first place. As a reference they allow the user to further explore the arguments, details or claims of a given topic. They lead users (not just webcrawlers) to various cited sources where other quality content exists. A single piece of content, regardless of how good it is, is always best augmented by another piece, whether linking to it or linking away from it. Why does this matter as it relates to AI? Because not all content serves the same purpose, it stands to reason that even the best AI-driven content will lack the human element of reference (e.g. “here’s what my friend John Doe, says on the subject” –with inserted hyperlink). No, loss of the human element may mean we lose the attention of those that matter most–the humans.
While it may ultimately be tempting to outsource content production to AI bots or even overseas firms, the reality is that both the quality of the content and where it is placed is not something that should be left to chance. No, even the most deliberately-built content and links require a focus on the upper echelons of quality.
The Link Builder’s Dilemma
Even with deliberately-created quality content, risks remain for those hunkered to the idea that link building is the end-all of SEO and content marketing. In-line with the tenants of the famed book by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen The Innovator’s Dilemma, innovation in link building and content marketing includes a similarly-structured framework.
Like any good disruptive innovation, content bots will focus on and begin to dominate niches like those news pieces previously discussed. Smaller markets, according to the framework, have more fluid futures that are more difficult to predict. Larger existing players are therefore more reticent to become an entrant. In addition, demand for AI-powered content remains low as it still sits on the sidelines, but its eventual rise could quickly quell the current status quo.
Worse still, and even more likely, is the eventual shifting of search engine algorithms to move away from backlinks as one of the primary signals of value and authority for websites. Artificial intelligence may eventually find other ways to determine searcher intent and truly add value to those seeking information via online search. Dwell-time, social shares and other signals are more likely to prove the basis for delivering meaningful content to users.
Passing Judgement Carefully
When judging among various link building services, reading various online reviews of different services will at least help in determining one’s own quality score. But the future’s biggest threat to today’s status quo when it comes to bolstering traffic via relevant links is not the offshore link builders in India or even the AI bots, its the search engines.
Building links–and a business–with long-term staying power in mind, requires a strict focus on quality–something bots and foreign solution providers have yet to master. Whether outsourced or in-house, quality written content–for the foreseeable, immediate future–will likely remain in the hands of on-shored, human beings.