Can You Spot The Paid Link?

In Time For Google To Give Up The Fight Against Paid Links? last week, I wrote about Google’s second major war against paid links that’s now underway. Today, I came across two examples that illustrate why this is such a difficult war for it to fight. How do you spot the paid link hidden among others? And when a major player like Scripps cross-promotes its shopping sites on newspaper sites it owns, is it violating the spirit of no paid links even though technically, no one is paying for the placement?

The Paid Link Blog Meme from Michael Gray tries to have some fun, but also seriousness, in demonstrating why the war is hard. Try to spot the paid links in the crowd — or at least, the examples he provides. And if you can, how do you know the site getting it wasn’t set up by someone trying to make someone else look bad?

The various pay-to-blog services that have sprung up have sparked the renewed paid links battle because of this very confusion. It’s easy to spot paid links when they’re all shoved in the same place, or use the same anchor text on hundreds of pages across the web or via other signals. But when these links are buried within textually-relevant content? Tough.

I also addressed the issue of the difficulty of knowing what’s "paid" in my article when people might be bartering, or scratching each other on the back or taking advantage of other non-paid relationships that still provide links in an almost paid-like manner.

Shopzilla Learns About Link Building from Comparison Engines provides some examples of this, demonstrating how Scripps – which owns newspapers and broadcast stations across the United States — is leveraging those web sites to drive traffic to its Shopzilla, BizRate and uSwitch web sites through links.

Check out this page about a toy being found on the road in Cleveland that motorists thought was an alligator. It was from a Scripps-owned TV news site. Down at the bottom we have these relevant links:

Comparison Shop for Digital Cameras and iPod Shuffles at Shopzilla & BizRate compares gas & electricity, home phone, mobile phones, broadband, credit cards, loans and car insurance

Now BizRate itself only shows up if you have JavaScript enabled — and then, is flagged nofollow (sort of a waste of time, since search engines won’t see that link at all, not running JavaScript). All the other links are regular, pass the link-love style.

These links are clearly only on this page because of the Scripps relationship and to almost certainly craft keyword-rich anchor text to drive rankings for the terms shown.

How are they doing? Hard to know if they are the main reason, but uSwitch ranks tops for home phone, sixth for broadband, fourth for credit cards. As for BizRate, it’s seventh for digital cameras and 10th for ipod shuffles. That’s five of the 10 key terms the links are targeting generating rankings. Not bad.

Will Google ban these sites? Not on your life. Knock down the value of the actual links in question themselves? Naturally. Wipe out the link-giving power of these sites overall. Hard to do, when dealing with trusted news sites. Wipe out too much, and you hurt relevancy in other ways.

Ban the shopping sites? Well, Google Warning Against Letting Your Search Results Get Indexed from last month covers how Google’s already fired up the read flags for shopping sites. This isn’t going to help the Scripps properties if they find themselves slipping out of Google.

But the bigger point remains. When it looks like everyone is doing paid links – and even what is "paid" continues to get confusing — is this something Google and the other search engines really think they can control?

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Link Building: Paid Links | SEO: Spamming


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • alimta

    Maybe. But it will be a sad day for the internet and for web users when we all give up the fight against paid links. So sites with large budgets will come up high on SERPS? I know a lot of people who read this blog would probably embrace the paid links economy because they are in the business of promising clients they can achieve high rankings, and they want a sure-fire way to make that happen. But it means the potential for lower quality search results.

    The paid links economy also seems not fair to those of us who have been white hat all along and never used paid links.

    I know I’m probably fighting a losing battle here.

  • eric_ward

    It might take a few high profile busts to instill enough fear to slow the paid link tide. We have all driven faster than the speed limit. You tend to keep doing so till you get a ticket, or until you see a police car hiding behind a billboard. Then you slow down. For a while. The scripps example is a beauty. Probably zero intent to fool the engines, but there it is. My (probably naive) belief is that in the overall web universe of trillions of links, a few million paid links will not become so common as to overide a well tuned algorithm. I also wish every engine would simply double-column the results. Left side results include basic inbound link analysis, right side results include a chlorine enchriched super cleansing only giving credit for links with 100% perfect pedigree.

    Like I said. I’m naive. :)

  • Lucky Lester

    If everybody started using other search engines then maybe Google wouldn’t be so quick to penalize us for the problems they themselves have created. Wasn’t there an article or two on here last week that said that 2 other search engines scored better than Google in terms of relevancy and such?

  • Danny Sullivan

    alimta, if you’re worried that budgets mean all, then you’ve already lost the fight. The point is that links have been bought and sold for some time, despite the pressure Google in particular puts out on this issue. The pressure is simply making the paid links harder for Google to detect. The solution, I suspect, is to accept that paid links are a fact of live and simply work out new ways to detected whether any link (bought, paid, bartered or whatever) should count as a vote or not.

    Eric, I’m fairly certain those Scripps links are there precisely to influence search rankings. It makes no sense at all for them to be showing up on so many pages where they are pretty irrelevant.

  • BrianL

    I keep hearing the argument that paid links only favor those with big budgets. IMO, if a site does well and the user it happy with it, the site makes a profit and can afford links. It may take some time for a smaller site to catch up with a big site with a big budget, but it’s not impossible. In some ways, the whole argument is like someone saying it’s unfair for Walmart to mostly carry big brands of cereal on their shelves. If a company wants space on that shelf, they need to work hard to get there, but it can be done (Kashi brand items for example). Walmart isn’t going to come out and say “we’re going to devote equal space to every brand that wants a piece because we want to be fair” and Google shouldn’t either.

  • Paul Pedersen

    It’s interesting reading the comments. Although I do not work for Shopzilla or uSwitch, I am intimately acquainted and can say that these links are not paid links. It’s just simple linking between sites like you or I do between our personal websites. That’s not deceptive. It’s just smart …and a common practice. It has also been on the footer of Scripps sites for several years now (since the purchase of these properties), and is not some new “trick” that has recently been implemented.

    I can’t say what the goal of the links is, whether it’s to influence rankings or drive awareness. But I will say, if it is to influence rankings, I think we would all agree that there are much more intelligent ways to do it.

    I would say, if anything, the comments have made more of a case that it is intended to drive awareness than to influence the SERPs. If you look at the banner advertising on the page, I would challenge you to find any that is based on the page content. None of it is …And that’s just the way news sites work. For them, right or wrong, links to other sites don’t need to be relevant. It’s more of a shotgun approach than anything. Why wouldn’t linking to their sites be any different?

    I would take a look at the sophistication at which news sites operate. Greg Sterling’s blog ( ) will give you a lot of insight into the lack thereof. Once you understand how their sophistication level, you will be less inclined to think “conspiracy”.

    I think those of us that work in the SEM industry tend to assume that the whole world knows to put “rel=nofollow” in the anchor tag. That’s just not the case. Most developers don’t even know to put a title tag in there.

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