The Paid Links Economy from Philipp Lenssen at Google Blogoscoped is a nice, thoughtful follow-up to last week’s paid links debate that erupted after Google’s Matt Cutts featured a new way to report paid links. There’s plenty of the history of link buying and assorted comments, though Philipp’s article doesn’t really leave you with any strong conclusions on how things should go forward. That’s understandable. It’s a complicated issue.
I missed jumping into last week’s debate because I was traveling. Can’t say I missed that much. In general, I’m pretty tired of the entire "let’s police paid links" thing at this point. Google especially created the link economy, and that link genie is simply not going back into the bottle, no matter how much you try to stuff it in with nofollow might and warnings.
Tired? Yeah, tired. I mean it’s just become absurd at this point. But I’ll give it one more go, a stroll down memory lane in the wake of nofollow and the Paid Links War II (PLW I was fought in 2002-2003 against SearchKing).
First some perspective. Back when I ran Search Engine Watch, the site had a paid links program. I didn’t create it, nor did I control it. Every so often someone would poke at it publicly, either to try and embarrass Search Engine Watch and/or ask why Google wasn’t banning the site. My standard response is summarized well in this SEW Forums post from December 2004:
These are links Jupitermedia, which publishes this site, runs across all the sites it operates.
I’ve posted about this program before, but here’s some additional background:
1) It predates Google and the heavy use of link analysis by search engines. IE, it wasn’t designed as a way for people to build up links for search ranking purposes.
2) Jupiter tells me it is specifically not sold as a means of getting better rankings on Google.
I don’t handle the program — it’s an ad thing, and I deal with only editorial….
Personally, I’m not surprised if the sites in those boxes aren’t ranking well for those terms. It’s fairly easy for a search engine to see that the same link, with the same anchor text, may appear on hundreds of pages and decide to discount the weight of those links. Not ban! Not hurt! Just not give the links as much credit as if there were hundreds of links to a site with variety to anchor text and domain locations.
The predating part is important. This was an old, old program — one that was out there before Google had much popularity or even existed. Suddenly, Google decides paid links are bad. That technically moved us into evildoer status (FYI, the Sponsored Links we sell here at Search Engine Land are specifically designed NOT to pass along ranking credit, as this explains more).
In January 2005, I wrote about wanting something like nofollow not just because of comment spam issues but also as a way for me to yell to Google, "We give up — we aren’t trying to harm you." Sure, I could resent the fact I have to do this at all. But I like site owners to have options. How about an ignore tag?
I take my inspiration for an ignore tag primarily from Bruce Clay, who proposed a somewhat similar idea for <ad> tags to Google informally earlier last year. Bruce’s concern was that if he or others want to purchase links, they don’t want those links to harm them somehow in search engines.
Believe it or not, there are some people who buy links because of the traffic the links themselves may drive. Bruce’s thought was that if publishers such as Search Engine Watch’s own JupiterMedia could surround paid links they sell with an ad tag, then search engines could discount those links for ranking purposes.
Later that month, we actually got nofollow itself. It didn’t stop comment spam, but no one savvy would have expected it to. It was instead great PR for Google especially to get bloggers to stop blaming it for the explosion in comment spam, exactly as I thought would happen when I wished for an ignore tag:
At the very least, it might help get some bloggers off Google’s back who blame it for the problem.
Ironically, one PR problem got replaced with another. Google’s push for nofollow to be applied to paid links has caused more and more people outside the SEO community to resent the idea that Google should be telling them how they can or can’t link. That’s an important distinction when it comes to nofollow. The push for it to be used on paid links moved nofollow from something a webmaster could choose to use to something they might feel they HAD to use.
In other words, nofollow for blog comments was an OPTION Google and the other search engines gave you. Employ it, if you want, and we’ll ignore those links. And by doing so, you might reduce comment spam.
Nofollow for paid links is a THREAT. Use it, or pay the price!
What’s the price? Google is the main search engine that talks about this, with the key penalty being that a site might not be allowed to pass PageRank. Specifically, that means a site might find it can’t transmit any ranking link love to other sites. Fine, sell your paid links, Google says. If we detect it, we might prevent those links from getting any gain.
There’s an expansion and a refinement here, also. The expansion is potentially, a site could be banned from Google. I’ve rarely seen anyone talk about this happening, a site being thrown out because of paid links. As you’ll see, it would really screw Google up to do this, as well.
The refinement is that Google might specifically exclude paid links from passing along link love. It’s not that hard to identify where paid links appear on some major sites, then flag that segment of the page to be ignored or excluded when link rankings are calculated.
Indeed, let’s go back to Search Engine Watch. I’d often get told by some SEOs that SEW wasn’t passing along link credit to other sites, because Google must be blocking that due to paid links. If so, you wouldn’t know that from the Google Toolbar’s PageRank meter, which still showed the site as having a high score. In addition, I KNOW some links were indeed helping other sites, because I could see how they’d rise in the rankings if I covered them editorially. As best I can tell, Google was discounting only the paid links, not the editorial ones.
With this in mind, I find it amazing that anyone would buy paid links anywhere without huge testing. Just looking at the Google PageRank meter won’t tell you if the paid links have been blocked. In part, it’s genius of Google to keep people confused in this way. On the other hand, it’s stupid. It means Google knows that there are people buying links — plenty of them ignorant that this is even wrong — and wasting their money. Google’s actions are doing nothing to prevent the explosion of link selling because plenty of sites have no idea that their links have been shut off.
Consider the case of the Stanford Daily, student paper for of Google’s alma mater, Stanford University. It got dinged for selling links back in February 2005, then again in April 2005 and again in May 2005. Eventually, it dropped the links.
Today, they’re back. They’ve been back for some time, currently hawking "wedding favors" and "children’s charity" and other topics oh-so-targeted to the university crowd. They aren’t flagged nofollow.
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.
There is no end to publishers that continue to get dinged on paid links. In August 2005, O’Reilly gots in trouble over selling links. In December 2005, Yahoo’s Jeremy Zawodny got dinged. In July 2006, the W3C gets dinged for selling links on its supporters page. Those are now all flagged nofollow, so you’ve got to step up to be a member company if you want unfiltered link love. Earlier this month, Associated Content — backed in part by a Google exec — got dinged on sponsored links. Those are gone now, but given all the other publishers that get to sell them, why should they have to be removed? Why should any of these sites (that may have stumbled into link selling for rank purposes without fully realizing what was going on) be seen as having done wrong?
I understand the problem link selling poses for Google. Links were a second generational jump that got us past relying on first generation on-the-page text analysis. But the link economy isn’t going to be stopped, and it continues to also have gray areas. Discount links if you get them from doing a giveaway, for example? Or is that clever link baiting?
Google knows the future — the third generational shift to taking search and web history into account. Google Search History Expands, Becomes Web History from me today goes into depth about it. With this shift happening, I just feel more and more that the threats and self-policing that’s being pushed about selling links should go away. Google’s supposed to be smart. Let it figure out if a link deserves credit or not, regardless of whether it is being sold, bartered, traded or editorially earned.