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The 2007 Paid Links War, In Review
The paid links debate is back, this time about whether Google wants all links
in a paid post to have a nofollow attribute. Below, a look at the latest round,
plus a recap of this year’s "War On Paid Links" by Google and where the other
search engines stand on the subject.
The current round was sparked by an IZEA (previously Pay Per Post) post
inviting the major search engines to clarify their stances on links in paid
posts. Ted Murphy
that he talked to Matt Cutts at Pubcon, who told him that all links in a paid
post should have the nofollow attribute, not just links to the site that paid
for the review:
I explained to Matt that in SocialSpark all links required by an advertiser
would carry the no-follow tag. I thought this would be a great thing. Matt
commended the decision, but then added ALL links inside of any sponsored post
should carry the no-follow tag period, regardless of whether they are
required, not required or even link to the advertiser paying for the post.
That means if Nikon pays me to review a camera and I link off to a site about
photography that link needs to be no-follow, along with the link to the blog
of my buddy the photographer. His reasoning was that the sponsored post
wouldn’t exist without the sponsor paying for it, therefore all the content is
commercial and should be no-follow.
The ramifications of that statement and policy didn’t hit me until I was on
a jet back to Orlando. Is Google really saying that all content that is
commercially driven by a sponsor should carry no-follow tags?
That type of policy seemed a bit much to some people, such as Andy Beard, who
blogged a variety of examples of how this type of policy might be
There is absolutely no way I can comply with these current new demands, I
would have to stick nofollow on every link within some of my most popular and
highly rated content.
You’ll also find discussion of Andy’s post
here at Sphinn.
Matt Cutts then
responded, explaining that putting nofollow on all links in a paid post
would be safe but suggesting he was not saying it was required:
I think quoting me as saying "ALL links inside of any sponsored post should
carry the no-follow tag period, regardless of whether they are required, not
required or even link to the advertiser paying for the post" is different than
our conversation. I believe that I said that adding nofollow to all links in
paid posts would certainly be safe. Then I asked if you were going to require
nofollow on required links, why not put them on all links in paid posts? I
think you replied that your business model didn’t support that, but I may be
Ted then did a fresh post, accusing Google of having a double-standard over
paid links, since TechCrunch — which had been previously held up as an
example by IZEA of not having sponsored links without the nofollow attribute —
was not ever apparently penalized. TechCrunch got fresh attention since it
recently just added nofollow (see posts on this from
Michael Gray, and discussion at
Now, almost a month later TC decides to add a no-follow to their most
recent thank our sponsors post and you commend them in your comment. You were
clearly aware of the situation. You said it was a violation. Why didn’t TC
suffer the same punishment as the smaller bloggers that were hit with a PR0?
Why is there a double standard? What about the previous thank our sponsors
posts that still don’t have no-follow?
It is this double standard that makes it very difficult for us to enforce
policies on linking. Competing businesses are not held to the same standard.
The debate is just the latest in a long line of disagreements over how search
engines treat paid links. A
quick search of Matt Cutts’s blog shows that he’s been talking about it a
lot, and for a long time.
Notably, Matt was talking about the issue
back in 2005,
January 2006, said he thought the topic was pretty "picked over". But in
April 2007, Matt blogged about how to
links, which Danny felt — in his
Search Engine Land: Time
For Google To Give Up The Fight Against Paid Links? post — kicked off
Google’s second "war on paid links," with the first having been over the
If it was a second war, things continued along. Google launched a
paid links reporting form within Google’s Webmaster Tools in June. At SES
San Jose, Matt participated in the "Are Paid Links Evil" session, where Michael
Gray proclaimed that "Google is not the government." For more, see:
Cutts’s comments and slides from SES
Gray’s slides from SES
SEOmoz: The Paid Links Debate Rages On
- Search Engine
Roundtable: Are Paid Links Evil?
During the fall, some sites saw their Google Toolbar PageRank drop. First
sites that were believed to be selling links saw a
kicking off a huge
debate across various search blogs.
Soon after, sites
that had a substantial number of links from link-selling sites saw drops. Even
though those links weren’t paid, the many link-selling sites either had less
PageRank flowing from them or lost their ability to pass PageRank altogether,
which created a ripple PageRank reduction effect, which Matt and I discussed in
this WebProNews video.
formally added a warning against link selling to its online help files in
late November, and then in early December the Official Google Webmaster Central
blog featured a
comprehensive post on Google’s stance on the subject.
With Google’s stance on buying and selling links pretty clear now, how about
the other major search engines? According to Google, they’re in agreement. On
the Google Webmaster Central blog,
Q: Is this a Google-only issue?
A: No. All the major search engines have opposed buying and selling links
that affect search engines. For the Forbes article,
Google Purges The Payola,
Andy Greenberg asked other search engines about their policies, and the
results were unanimous. From the story:
Search engines hate this kind of paid-for popularity. Google’s Webmaster
guidelines ban buying links just to pump search rankings. Other search engines
including Ask, MSN, and Yahoo!, which mimic Google’s link-based search
rankings, also discourage buying and selling links.
Search Engine Land wanted to hear from the other search engines first hand,
however. Immediately after that blog post, Barry Schwartz asked them all for an
official stance on these three questions:
- What is your policy on buying paid links for ranking purposes. If you buy,
what might you do?
- What is your policy on selling paid links for ranking purposes. If you
sell, what might happen to you?
- And if you sell paid links, do you recommend using nofollow or routing
To date, Microsoft and Yahoo have failed to respond despite follow-up
requests. (Updated January 9: Microsoft has responded. See below.)
Trading links is a common practice on the Internet. Our primary focus is to
distinguish high quality links from low quality ones regardless of whether
they are paid or organic. We are not interested in penalizing sites that buy
or sell links as long as the links are relevant and useful for searchers. And,
we believe the ExpertRank algorithm is optimized to help identify quality
links from those that would not contribute to the end-user experience.
While Google says you shouldn’t buy or sell links unless you use some
type of link credit blocking mechanism like nofollow, Ask doesn’t care.
While we still await a direct response from Microsoft, We have received an official response from Microsoft, and there are other
comments out there saying they don’t like paid links, though requirements for
blocking these with nofollow are not mandated in those:
Whether it is pay-per-post, paid links, or product placement in movies, if
you’re not telling your audience you’re mixing in a dash of paid content into
their organic soup, I think that it is eventually going to back fire.
Live Search’s Eytan Seidman
The reality is that most paid links are a.) obviously not objective and b.)
very often irrelevant. If you are asking about those then the answer is
absolutely there is a risk. We will not tolerate bogus links that add little
value to the user experience and are effectively trying to game the system.
Ramez Naan of Microsoft’s Live Search has responded to our query with the following:
We think of links as a signal to ranking in as much as they reflect actual value to an end user. A link that is white text on white is obviously not valuable to the user, and if we detect such techniques we may disregard the link and may penalize the page it’s on. Paid links are a gray area. Are they of value to the end user? Sometimes they are. Often they’re less valuable and less relevant than the organic links on a page. We reserve the right to treat them that way.
It’s important for webmasters to keep in mind that search algorithms are constantly evolving. Given that, you should think more about the principles behind our ranking choices than the specific implementations we may have today. The core principle is: reward content and links that are valuable to the user. If you violate this principle, it may work out for you in the short term, but as algorithms get smarter it will work less and less, and may even backfire.
A second principle is: manipulating our algorithms in ways that does not add value to the end user is bad. If we detect such manipulation, we may disregard it, and may even penalize you. And again, our techniques for detecting manipulation improve every day.
As for Yahoo, it
came out in support of nofollow when originally introduced, although the
post specifically talked about comment spam, not paid links.
We’ll try again to get answers from the others (as of January 9th, only Yahoo! hasn’t replied) on our three questions. This
being New Year’s Eve, we don’t expect they’ll come today, but hopefully they will in the
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.