More and more, I’ve been seeing people wondering if they’ve lost traffic on Google because they were detected to be selling paid links. However, Google’s generally never penalized sites for link selling. If spotted, in most cases all Google would do is prevent links from a site or pages in a site from passing PageRank. Now that’s changing. If you sell links, Google might indeed penalize your site plus drop the PageRank score that shows for it.
The Stanford Daily is a good example of this. In my Time For Google To Give Up The Fight Against Paid Links? post from earlier this year, I looked at how the student newspaper of Stanford University was continuing to sell links despite widespread attention to its actions and without any penalty being imposed by Google:
The Stanford Daily is NOT banned from Google. The site’s homepage still has a PR9 score. Nothing indicates that the Stanford Daily’s links aren’t passing ranking juice, not in the ways that Google could control, if it wanted. Maybe they aren’t, but how would most people know? How would other publishers thinking of doing the same know? Certainly not from reading the paper’s rate card (PDF), where there’s nothing said about text links relating to search engines. The only thing said is the price: $350 per month.
Last week, I noticed the Stanford Daily had dropped from when I wrote the above in April to PR7 today. That’s a huge drop that has no apparent reason to happen. Some others were also reporting PageRank drops. So I pinged Google, and they confirmed that PageRank scores are being lowered for some sites that sell links.
In addition, Google said that some sites that are selling links may indeed end up being dropped from its search engine or have penalties attached to prevent them from ranking well.
The debate over paid links has continued since Paid Links War II was kicked off in April (that Time For Google To Give Up The Fight Against Paid Links? explains how it got started the previous war). Most of the arguments I’ve seen continue to feel like they’ve been made and made again. I remain of these views:
- It’s Google’s search engine. They have every right to say that if you sell
links, they might penalize you.
- Google is not telling people what to do with their sites, which is a
popular argument point. Google is telling people what to do if they are
concerned about doing better in Google. Don’t want to be harmed in Google?
Don’t sell links.
- Don’t care about Google? Sell links all you want.
- Despite Google’s policy and even this latest action, they’ll never catch
all the paid links. It’s part of the reason I’d like to see them back off the
paid links war and instead work out other ways to determine if a link deserves
credit, paid or not.
- I don’t want people who innocently sell links to be harmed.
The latter point came up recently when David Airey worried that paid links had caused him to drop in rankings and that he didn’t realize they were a problem. I commented that it was hard to believe he didn’t realize this given all the SEO knowledge he demonstrated. But the concern is well taken. What if someone sells links and gets their PageRank dropped or traffic reduced under this new policy by Google?
Google says that most people hit with a PageRank decrease will likely notice this, and then they can request a review. Eventually, it may be something flagged within the Google Webmaster Central system.
Why not just change the PageRank meter to something like a red bar, to warn those potentially buying links from getting them from a nabbed site. That would be helpful from a consumer point of view, preventing people from wasting their money.
Google says that by doing this, it would be easy for anyone to detect which sites have not had their paid links discounted — and since they don’t want people to buy links, that would work against their efforts. For the same reason, Google is only decreasing the PageRank for a subset of the sites they actually know about.
I can understand that — plus, while I suppose an innocent person might buy links for direct traffic, it is again hard to think they’d buy links for search ranking purposes without understanding that Google might discount these and so they might be wasting their money.
As for the sites themselves, I still feel like if there’s going to be a penalty, tell the site that.
Google stressed, by the way, that the current set of PageRank decreases is not assigned completely automatically; the majority of these decreases happened after a human review. That should help prevent false matches from happening so easily.
Back to David Airey, Matt Cutts commented about paid links as an issue with his drop in rankings, when asking if they were gone and not coming back. David put in a reinclusion request and today notes his rankings are returning.
Overall, the move takes Google into a new era of attacking paid links, allowing it more precise weapons than it has had in the past. For example, both the Stanford Daily and New Scientist are among several prominent sites that sell links. Google has not really been able to penalize such sites as that would hurt core relevancy. People expect them to show up.
By using PageRank decreases (something Google first experimented with in the SearchKing case in 2002), Google can hurt the perceived value of buying links from a particular site without harming core relevancy.
In contrast, if you’re a smaller site not deemed as important to relevancy, a harsher punishment of a ranking penalty may be dealt out (the Text Link Ads site is an example of this).
Ironically, despite the move, Google itself will still allow paid links to be promoted in another way — through its own ads. For example, here’s an AdSense unit I just saw recently on our own site:
See the "Get A PR6 .Edu backlink!" ad? Expect those firing back at Google over the selling links issue to poke at the hypocrisy here. Of course, the search quality team and the ad sales sides are completely different parts of the Google house. And more important to the site owner, you can argue the points all you want, but they won’t help reverse a Google ban. If Google traffic is important to you, don’t sell links.