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Will semantic development kill link ads?

Thursday, 21 June 2007 seo standards webdev

How effective will link advertisements be if/when the web becomes even more semantic? Is there a future for the schemes that fund many bloggers’ habits.

I chirp on about “web standards” all the time — too much some might say and here I go again: [x]HTML markup should reflect what data means and there should not be arbitrary or presentation tags. This helps user-agents (be those browsers, bots or screen readers) understand what the content is and therefore what to do with it.

Search engines, in particular, have a lot to gain from people using semantic markup. They can parse things better and therefore gain a greater understanding about what the document is really all about and how to treat things when it comes to feeding it back out in a set of search results.

Non semantic tags

One problem with all this is there is there are a great many useless tags still used in web development and design. The <div> tag for one means absolutely nothing although in my and many other peoples’ designs, it makes up the vast majority of used tags on each page. It has certain set display functions {display:block; width:100%;} but what does it really mean? Absolutely nothing.

The closest semantic thing you could say to describe a <div> tag is that it that it sections areas out. While, by default, this is true, it’s seldom that <div> tags are left unstyled. They are heavily manipulated to provide design sections and a great way to structure things.

With the growth of semantics, I’m quite certain that non-semantic tags are going to die away to be replaced with a higher level of page styling and client-side templating so when somebody downloads a web document, they start with the core data. Each of the pages can refer the user-agent to a template which helps the user navigate around the rest of the site.

Link adverts are ones that, unlike Google’'s AdSense, are written onto the document at page-generation time, server side and so do not require JavaScript to be seen. Their popularity comes from search engines being able to read them. Spread your links across enough pages and the link gains power in the search engine’s rankings because it thinks that lots of people are linking to it organically.

Most link ads banding themselves about these days are text links. They’re short and focus on key phrases that get entered into Google. By buying up those sorts of links you can hope that your business gets better rankings when people search for those key phrases. Most text ads get very few click-throughs from real users and that’s not their intent.

Link ads usually feature outside of the content. Some are nested in the sidebar and some are dumped in the footer but the common thing to do with them is stick them out the way somewhere so the bots see them but everybody else moves along without noticing them.

So what happens if the web gets more semantic?

If the web does become even more content-focused in its development patterns, what’s going to happen to all these links? Because these links are traditionally kept in non-core areas of the documents, I think as the web semantifies, we’re likely to see a rapid decline in how much attention search engine bots pay them and therefore how popular they are.

This probably means the destruction of the whole text-link economy… Unless people put the links inside their content section but this dilutes the quality of the rankings…

Unfortunately until there’s a decent way to penalise people who abuse search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques, we’re stuck getting useless results for some queries. It’s hard playing fair when the scum of the internet is trying so hard to ruin it for everyone.