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 blogged 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 interpreted, concluding:

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 misremembering.

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 Andy Beard, Michael Gray, and discussion at Sphinn). Wrote Ted:

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, and in January 2006, said he thought the topic was pretty "picked over". But in April 2007, Matt blogged about how to report paid 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 SearchKing case.

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:

During the fall, some sites saw their Google Toolbar PageRank drop. First sites that were believed to be selling links saw a PageRank reduction, 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.

Finally, Google 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, Matt posted:

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:

  1. What is your policy on buying paid links for ranking purposes. If you buy, what might you do?  
  2. What is your policy on selling paid links for ranking purposes. If you sell, what might happen to you? 
  3. And if you sell paid links, do you recommend using nofollow or routing through robots.txt?

To date, Microsoft and Yahoo have failed to respond despite follow-up requests. (Updated January 9: Microsoft has responded. See below.)

Ask.com said:

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:

Earlier this month, Nathan Buggia of Microsoft’s Live Search Webmaster Center talked about paid links in a SEOmoz WhiteBoard Friday video and later commented in print:

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 recently said:

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 near future.

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

Related Topics: Ask: SEO | Channel: SEO | Google: SEO | Link Building: Paid Links | Microsoft: Bing SEO | Yahoo: SEO

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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.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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