Google’s Action Against Paid Links Continues: Overstock & Forbes Latest Casualties; Conductor Exits Brokering Business

Last week, J.C. Penney made the news for plummeting  in Google rankings for everything from “area rugs” to “grommet top curtains”. Turns out the retail site had a number of suspicious links pointing at it that could be traced back to a link network intended to manipulate Google’s ranking algorithms.

Google, in order to protect their core unpaid search goal of providing the most relevant and useful results to searchers, seeks out these types of manipulations and knocks down the rankings of sites involved with them.

Several days later came news that ran afoul of the Google guidelines from the other side: selling links on their site intended to manipulate PageRank.

Now, has lost rankings for another type of link that Google finds to be manipulation of their algorithms. And in the midst of all of this, a company with substantial publicity lately for running a paid link network announces they are getting out of the link business entirely.’s Program To Exchange Discounts For .EDU Links suffered a similar fate as The Wall Street Journal reports that they’ve disappeared for all kinds of searches they used to rank highly for, such as [vacuum cleaners] and [laptop computers].

What happened? Overstock didn’t use a link network to buy links. Instead, they created a program in which they provided discounts to products in exchange for links (with specific anchor text to specific URLs) from .edu sites. Search News Central linked to a document that outlines the details of the program: is offering ABAC students and faculty 10% off of selected products using the coupon code: 121728… Link Details; please use the following hyperlinks for each keyword:
“vacuum cleaners” should by the hyperlink to:
“gift baskets” should be the hyperlink to:…

The document includes the text to place on the discount page provides specific instructions anchor text and links to 14 pages. You can see the discount text on college sites all over the web.

Overstock Links

As the Wall Street Journal reports, Overstock has now realized this program is seen by Google as an attempt to manipulate their algorithms and has ended the program:

“Google has made clear they believe these links should not factor into their search algorithm,” said Patrick Byrne, Overstock’s chief executive, in a statement. “We understand Google’s position and have made the appropriate changes to remain within Google’s guidelines.” Sells Links For PageRank

Several years ago, was outed for selling links intended to manipulate Google’s PageRank algorithms. Apparently they did this through a link network (more on that below) and thought they had cleaned things up long ago.

But last week, they posted in the Google Webmaster discussion forum that they received a notice from Google about ”possibly artificial or unnatural links…pointing to other sites.”. But where were these links? They weren’t sure. Techcrunch found them in short order and Forbes posted on their own site:

“There was a period of time in the past when Forbes did sell links through a partner. This is no longer the case, and we began removing those links late last year.”

Just who was this link partner? Possibly a company called Conductor. Matt Cutts, head of webspam at Google, posted in the Google Webmaster thread that:

“People on this thread have already mentioned Conductor, and I’ve confirmed multiple times that paid links that pass PageRank via Conductor violate our guidelines. I’ve commented on an article about Conductor as long ago as 2008 at!/mattcutts/status/22019997220 when I said “Because someone asked me about it: Conductor paid link network does violate Google’s quality guidelines, and we do take action in response.”

Conductor Exits The Paid Link Network Business

Matt Cutts’ comments seem pretty clear. Using Conductor’s paid link network is seen by Google as a manipulation of their ranking algorithms and is against their guidelines. Conductor appears to have seen the writing on the wall because just days before this discussion, Conductor posted to their blog that “we will no longer be offering any link-building services.”  They have sold the assets to another company (whose services will presumably also be in violation of Google’s guidelines).

What Types Of Links Don’t Violate Google’s Guidelines?

If a link is paid for in any way, it’s advertising, and shouldn’t be used to try to improve PageRank. Links that are great for PageRank are those that are editorially given.

Create valuable content, raise awareness of that content so people know it exists, and let them link to it because they want to. For more details and tips, see Search Engine Land’s weekly link building column and tips from Google themselves.

Additional discussion on Techmeme.

Related Articles:

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: Analysis | Google: SEO | SEO: Spamming | Top News


About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. She built Google Webmaster Central and went on to found software and consulting company Nine By Blue and create Blueprint Search Analytics< which she later sold. Her book, Marketing in the Age of Google, (updated edition, May 2012) provides a foundation for incorporating search strategy into organizations of all levels. Follow her on Twitter at @vanessafox.

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  • Jim Rudnick

    Um…great piece, here Vanessa….didn’t know about Conductor, eh…but a good think I think. Alan over at has an allied piece on just this issue too… thanks to you both for this!



  • Michael Martinez

    Of course, Google could end all this nastiness by simply removing links from its algorithm. They were never a good quality signal to begin with and supposedly (according to Segery) they now account for only 1% or less of the algorithm anyway.

  • Michael Martinez

    Segery = Sergey. Sorry about that, Chief.

    And before someone crops up and says, [WHINEY VOICE] “But links WERE a great quality indicator until Google monetized them!”[/WHINEY VOICE} — no, links were corrupted long before Google got into the game.

    The original concept of PageRank was always a stupid idea.

  • Joshua Butler

    Vanessa, thank you for the update. It seems Google is interested in keeping all online advertising revenue to itself (I’m sure the investors approve).

    Although quality content is what should be ranking, companies will continue to look for ‘shortcuts’. Well, here is what we get with shortcuts; sudden drops in website visibility through search.

    What do you think the next shortcut is to be identified as spam?

  • Ben Cook

    I’m sorry, but it’s disgusting to me that Conductor thinks it can bow out of the paid links arena and keep their reputation intact.

    The latest comments by Matt Cutts calling them out were NOT the first. They’d been called out multiple times, they KNEW their network was on Google’s radar, and yet the continued to sell links to their clients that they should have known were at best worthless, at worst, harmful to their clients rankings.

    Maybe it’s me but I wouldn’t want to do business with a company that engaged in that kind of activity in the past, no matter how far they try to distance themselves from it.

  • Nick Stamoulis

    All I can say is its about time!

    It is good that larger companies are getting nailed for practicing black hat SEO link building techniques. I think we are all seeing the SEO industry growing right before our eyes. As a white hat SEO practitioner I have been against paid linking strategies for some time, it is nice to see validity (finally) in the mass news media to prove why staying white hat is THE best long term strategy…regardless of how large your organization is.

  • luxurydealer

    What about paying for links on Yahoo Directory and How is this different? No one believes when they spend money here that this is advertising in a directory…or if it is disguised as such it’s ok? Where is the line?


  • David Hoegerman

    Whats interesting is that while Google has manually penalized Overstock, they have done nothing about all the other sites participating in this link scheme. If you look at those discount .edu links, you’ll see a site right there on the same page as the links to Overstock. Even though this has been reported to google, a search for Allergy Masks still show them in the top 3 positions!

    Agree totally with luxurydealer.

  • markmurphy11

    My company seems to have been massively penalised and I don’t know why. We have never used any link farms and have lots of legitimate links from other related companies around the world. If anyone could let me know why it would be truly appreciated!

  • Monica Wright

    Hi there,
    Without getting too involved here about what is going on with your site, I suggest posting your inquiry to our Linked In group – we have a very active membership that offers help quite a bit.

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