Debate continues about Google’s war on paid links. But regardless of where you stand, I think most people would agree buying and selling is risky behavior. You don’t really want the world to know you’re doing it. And if you’re going to engage in paid links, I think many would agree you shouldn’t be trying to trick people into something that might cause them harm. This week, from my inbox, an example of a company going wrong on both counts.
I get requests for us to sell links from Search Engine Land and Sphinn all the time. We don’t do that. Personally, I disagree with selling credit to other sites in this way. From a business perspective, it would be pretty hard for a leading industry site about search marketing to think it could sell links without that being noticed and dinged by Google.
When I do get requests, they’re typically sent to a generic webmaster address, with a pitch that mentions our sites. These consistently reflect stupidity to me. They come from people who have taken no time at all to understand what our sites are about (often they have a generic pitch about how links and search engines work, you know, because that’s something we clearly have never covered here).
Send me a stupid request like this, and I’ll typically send it over to Google. Don’t like that? Then don’t be an idiot and send these type of things to me. Link requests like this simply demonstrate pure incompetence on the part of a paid link broker.
On now to this week’s fun. Normally if I have a few minutes, I’ll ask a follow-up question about link pitch. Then typically, someone takes a closer look at my site and runs away quickly. Not this time. This conversation went on and on. Let’s dive in.
We are currently wondering if you accept “paid” advertising on your website. We are looking to place a text link URL reading “search engine optimisation” which will then link to [SITE URL REMOVED] once clicked. Ideally, we want this to appear on the home page and carry through all pages of your website. Please can you let me if this is possible and if so, how much?
Notice there’s no mention of any risk. This is fairly typical of messages like this. They also tend to suggest this is advertising of some type. And it is, but again, advertising with a risk to those who might innocently accept it.
This was sent to our Sphinn forum site, and you’d think the person doing it would have some idea that we know about paid links. Certainly they should have enough brains to know that no, we’re not going to do something like this — nor would they want us to.
I mean, when you have the likes of Google’s Matt Cutts — who heads Google’s spam team — visiting Sphinn on a regular basis, that’s the kind of link he’ll notice. It’s sort of like waving a red flag at a bull. And if this SEO company is too stupid to realize that when building links for themselves, what type of mess will they get their clients into?
I wrote back:
We don’t currently do this. Aren’t there some kind of search engine issues involved if we did it? I thought I read about something like this on some site about SEO news, that Google doesn’t like it?
And was told:
Many websites do this – for a fee. However, I understand your concern; would it be possible to get a link on your home page or through a select amount instead?
I suppose we could sell a link on just our home page or certain select pages, but you didn’t cover my concern. Will that get me in some type of trouble? Or is it only an issue if you sell links on every page of your web site. I just remember reading something on some site about internet marketing news (can’t remember which one) that somehow it might be bad or get you in trouble.
Twice now I’ve mentioned reading some sites about internet marketing and SEO news. If this person had carefully researched Sphinn, it should have registered that there was no way they’d be wanting a link from us. But nope. They came back with:
It’s called outbound links and they are relevant to what you do. It’s basically a form of Search Engine Optimisation. The more relevant the link is, the better it is and can even create a higher page ranking. As an SEO and PPC Google Qualified company, this would not be in our best interest to link up to companies that can get either party in trouble. Feel free to check our website so you can see just how credible we are. We have offices in the UK, Spain and the United States. This shouldn’t be an issue at all.
Wow. Before this, I had indeed checked out the company. They offer a range of online marketing services and proudly sport a “Google AdWords Qualified Company” logo. And in this message, that’s being used to confuse me to think they’re somehow “SEO qualified,” something Google doesn’t do.
A slight ding to Google here. I understand the ad side of the house is different from the search team. That’s why you still carry ads that appear for terms like cloaking or from paid link ad companies, despite the search term telling site owners not to do such tings. But maybe that church-and-state divide needs to be broken down a bit more. One of the qualifications to be Google Advertising Professional probably should be that you don’t lie or mislead clients, paid search or not.
The response was also amazing that I was being reassured that they’re credible in the same breath where they’re lying (or incredibly ignorant) that this is a trouble-free activity. I responded:
I can see the “AdWords” qualification from Google on your site now that I’ve looked, but where’s the thing about being SEO qualified by Google. I didn’t realize they did that.
The site looks really credible. But I still am worried about that paid link stuff. I read it on some news site, Search Engine Land or something like that maybe? But I can’t remember. Anyway, I went over to Google’s web site to see if they had stuff. I found this page.
They make it sound like selling links is bad, unless I use this nofollow thing? Is that what you want me to do?
Honestly, I figured this would be it. I mean, I’m mentioning Search Engine Land now. And I’m pointing at Google’s page that warns against buying or selling links, unless link credit is blocked:
Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.
As I said earlier, people disagree on whether Google should take this stance. They even disagree over whether people really do get punished (big sites tend not to be banished from the index). But I think virtually everyone would agree that there is risk involved, if you care about your Google rankings. And so far, this company hasn’t acknowledged that in its pitch to me. So after pointing out what Google says, they responded:
Within the article that you sent me, Google does specify: “A site’s ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to it” and “Both the quantity and, more importantly, the quality of links count towards this rating.”
As we are a credible and relative company, this does not do harm and if anything, is a good link.
“Not all paid links violate our guidelines. Buying and selling links is a normal part of the economy of the web when done for advertising purposes, and not for manipulation of search results. Links purchased for advertising should be designated as such. This can be done in several ways, such as:
- Adding a rel=”nofollow” attribute to the <a> tag
- ****Redirecting the links to an intermediate page that is blocked from search engines with a robots.txt file****
The last paragraph is exactly what we are asking you to do, which is within Google’s guidelines. There is no such thing as SEO qualified, but we are qualified and regulated by Google for our ad words and services.
We just want a link text that reads ‘Search Engine Optimisation’ and once clicked, goes to [REMOVED]
I don’t want you feeling uncomfortable, but this is a completely normal practice for a credible company with a quality page rank and quality relevance.
Have a think and let me know if you wish to proceed.
Are you kidding me? How do I hate this response? Let me bulletpoint the ways:
- They continue to simultaneously lie to me and tell me they are a credible company.
- Suddenly, they say I should block the flow of PageRank from this link to their site, which was NOT mentioned before and which I’m sure they’re only saying because they think they can trick me another way out of doing this.
- After telling me they were SEO qualified by Google, now they admit “there’s no such thing” but still try to make it seem like they have some type of Google approval for their actions.
- And they close again by lying to me about how “normal” this is for a “credible” company
Again, I respond:
Sorry to go on about this, but it’s easy to get nervous with all the information and misinformation out there.
So you want me to put up a link that goes to [REMOVED], but you want me to set up some type of redirect in between that’s blocked, right? So like maybe…
Turns out, I was right about them not really wanting me to do redirection. They responded:
Hello, all I want is a link that says the phrase ‘Search Engine Optimisation’ and once that word is clicked on, it takes users to [REMOVED]
If you look on the website [NEW WEBSITE REMOVED] and go to the bottom of the page, you will see the link that says search engine optimisation and it appears on every page of that website and it takes people to our website.
This is what I am asking for, is this possible?
As you can see, no redirection is involved. I think they assumed I was ignorant enough to believe that clicking on a link and getting to a new site was the same thing as “redirecting the links to an intermediate page that is blocked from search engines with a robots.txt file.” You also have to appreciate how they tell a complete stranger about a site that’s apparently linking to them through a paid deal.
I went back yet again, to the point and making it clear that I understood what was going on:
I don’t see how I could do this. That’s a direct link to your web site. No redirection, no blocking through nofollow. It’s exactly the opposite of what that Google page said is allowable. If you can explain to me how it does fit in the Google guidelines, then I’ll consider it. Are you sure doing that would be all ethical and OK according to Google?
And they came back with:
To be honest Danny, I’d rather not bother as it seems you haven’t even checked the website I showed you as an example. If you read the Google guidelines again, it says PAID ADVERTISING IS NOT ALWAYS ILLEGAL IF DONE PROPERLY.
I don’t know what to suggest, it’s an outbound link that will benefit you in turn as we are a page rank 6 on Google.
Hey, I’m a PageRank 6 as well. I mean I used to be PR7 before this week’s update, so I’m glad to learn all the hard work here at Search Engine Land means we’re reported with a visible rating from Google’s Toolbar to be equivalent in quality to this crappy SEO firm. OK, when I looked, turns out they are PR5. So I guess I can feel slightly better.
Anyway, I digress from the main point. Is this person continuing to lie to me or just grossly ignorant of the technical issues involved? It doesn’t matter — no one should be dealing with them, much less the company that employs them. To help in their education, I wrote back:
I did check the example. There’s no nofollow; there’s no robots.txt blocking. It does not meet the Google guidelines for what’s acceptable as a paid link, as far as I can tell.
I’m fairly familiar with the Google guidelines having written about Google and SEO for the past 13 years now. But I’ll check with someone over there within their search quality team and see if the example you’ve sent me is indeed acceptable.
I’d love to think there was an “oh shit” moment when this arrived in their email box, that maybe they finally comprehended that I wasn’t some ignorant web site owner who could be coaxed into doing something that might harm my site but instead someone with a pretty good line of communication directly into the heart of Google’s spam team. But I kind of doubt it. They seem pretty stupid.
By the way, Google did tell me the link wasn’t acceptable. Plus, they were already well aware of this particular company, having received reports from others including SEOs who seemed as disgusted with them as I am.
As I started out with, there are plenty of people who disagree over the paid link issue, plus whether Google actually penalizes sites that hard for it. That disagreement is no excuse for unethical behavior. And there is unethical behavior in search marketing, and this is a perfect example of it. No risk was disclosed. When asked repeatedly about risk issues, they were denied.
Companies that do this sort of thing should be ashamed. If they or individuals want to do what Jeremy Schoemaker is writing about today in The Screw Google Mentality, where they do what they want and don’t worry about what Google cares, that’s fine. It’s not a new concept, and there have been plenty of people over the years who have understood that they don’t have to follow Google’s rules as long as they don’t want Google’s traffic (sadly, far more people rather break the rules knowingly and then whine when they’ve been hurt).
If you make the decision for yourself, are prepared to accept the consequences, then do as you please. But no one should be dragging others into a potential mess without making them aware of the risks. You want to buy links or be a link broker? Then be upfront that this is an activity that Google does not like and that the faint hearted shouldn’t apply. Only after you’ve scared the heck out of them should you start talking about the ways that you’ll try to reduce the risk, if they choose to carry on.