Regardless of what Google will do in the future, we should also consider what Google can already do today. What were links meant to measure in the first place? Why did Google use them, and how did they help? We know that links help to filter out the garbage on the web, and they are still heavily used because link data helps to measure the popularity and authority of a site and page.
We know Google understands more than followed links and anchor text. Embeds have been called “links for videos.” Citations are “links for local.” Google uses URL text for discovery, even if the text isn’t an explicit link. The search engine has long understood which words are related to one another, and which brands relate to which words — as anyone who has used the Google keyword tool can attest. We just heard a presentation from Dr. Matt showing a correlation between social shares and brand mentions with rankings.
We don’t know everything about Google and the algorithm. Perhaps Google is using co-occurrence as a ranking factor, but can we really doubt the search engine looks at good-old-fashioned occurrence as a measuring stick for site authority and popularity? It’s not unlikely that Google is using a combination of data sources — mentions, links, offline brand metrics, etc. — to measure or confirm popularity.
We also need to back up and consider the degree to which popularity, awesome products, useful content and great web pages drive all popularity signals, and to what extent they are used by Google. Facebook likes correlate with site traffic whether Google ever looked at them or not. Even with great statistics and a few tests, we can’t be totally sure about how much Google uses which signal or under what circumstances. Why focus on simply building links when Google uses more than links? Why obsess over a small HTML element when we have the ability and skills to improve multiple metrics and build visibility with or without Google?