Time For Google To Give Up The Fight Against Paid Links?

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.

How about the Washington Post (proud Google partner). It still has non-nofollow, non-JavaScript generated "Featured Advertisers Links" on its home page. This is despite me using it as an example in the entire link selling debate in the past. Are those links discounted? Who knows? All we know is publicly, Google still lists the site and reports a high PR9 score. Why would you think there’s anything wrong with buying and selling links if you saw this? As best you can tell, Google seems fine with it.

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.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: SEO | Link Building: Paid Links | SEO: Spamming

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://www.feedthebot.com feedthebot

    Matt only said basically this -

    Hey? do you wanna report paid links? Here is how.

    I do not think Matt has said anything new here and most of the fervor surrounding his latest post do not seem to recognize this. He said nothing new about paid links whatsoever, he simply provided a way to report them, he also said that it would help Google test some things.

    I bet everyone complaining about this are rapidly reporting their competitors as we speak.

    I love it, makes me giggle.

  • http://www.rentvine.com/blog/ Dave Dugdale

    I am the small guy in my industry surrounded by giants that can afford to pay $10k a month or much more on paid links.

    So when I hear Matt Cutts talk on this issue, I can’t help myself by using this issue to help level the playing field.

    I wrote about this issue on my blog and I am having a dog fight within the comments with a top competitor:
    http://www.rentvine.com/blog/index.php/how-narpm-can-comply-with-googles-guidelines/

  • http://www.linux-girl.com Asia

    “Matt only said basically this -
    Hey? do you wanna report paid links? Here is how.”

    Matt also went into the FTC’s ruling on Paid Links, which might have been his next or preceding post to the paid links article.

    This whole debate on paid links, should not be a battle between Google and the SEO/SEM community. It is the FTC who decides the rules, and it is Google’s responsibility to follow those rules in this case, Google is also protecting you, the blogger. Payola a ruling by the FCC, and from what I’m gathering, the FTC’s ruling may have a similar affect on websites and bloggers.

    The best form of internet advertising, at least the form of advertising that has received my attention, is “paid to blog”, Danny has mentioned text link ads several times above, but it doesn’t entice me to use them. However, if Danny posted that he was asked to blog about this service and he puts his seal of approval on it, I would be on it like yesterday. Graywolf is the reason I use crazy egg, his blog was honest, “I was paid to review this product and I am happy with it…” whenever someone asks me why I use it, I say Graywolf said it was awesome and he was right. He didn’t mislead me, nor did he attempt to hide the fact that it was a paid review. The honesty was there and so I pay the money to utilize it, he was right and has earned my trust – although I no longer read him, cause his spam rules suck on comments.

    This form of blog advertorial will attract users, if the source is credible, and the source is honest about their experience. That is what Google is aiming for, a decision I will not battle. Because in my experience it works best this way, because there is accountability and credibility. I drink coke over pepsi, because my family earns money when I drink coke. No better advertising than credibility and trust.

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    Danny, you should well recall that it wasn’t Google that introduced the link economy to the Web, but rather Inktomi. When we discovered that getting more links from sites in Inktomi’s main index helped new sites survive the monthly purge, links took on a whole new value.

    Where Google altered the scheme — and the primary reason for why they are struggling to catch up to the spammers — is that Google allows links to pass anchor text. It is the anchor text, NOT the PageRank, that is drastically improving people’s search results.

    Google may very well filter out most of the remaining paid links this year that haven’t yet been caught by their filters. But the incentive to monetize anchor text will remain just as strong and innovation will drive people toward newer, more efficient models.

    With each sweeping change, Google makes the situation even more difficult for itself.

  • http://searchengineland.com Danny Sullivan

    Inktomi did not introduce the link economy, sorry. I mean, if you want to argue that, then we’d better go back to Infoseek which made use of link analysis more — and before — Inktomi. And yeah, they used it to pass anchor text. That’s why Disney used to show up at Infoseek for porn terms (porn sites saying to visit Disney if you were underage).

    Google created it because Google came out, grabbed links, put them out front and center as core to its ranking strategy. Then it rolled out a toolbar that gave each page a PageRank score visible to the world. Sadly, people fixated on the PageRank scores rather than understanding the context — the anchor text — was much more important. But that PageRank meter especially fueled the buying and selling of links.

  • http://www.luckylester.com Lucky Lester

    Perhaps it is time to quit relying upon link popularity for rankings altogether as it is too easily manipulated regardless of whether the links are paid for or not.

    With that said, I should think that if someone was willing to spend large amounts of money buying text links for certain words, they had best be offering something related to those words if they hoped to convert those searches into sales.

    If a porn site bought links for the words “Hasbro Barbie”, they would receive a lot of traffic from people looking for children’s toys and not adult related content, a total waste of money in terms of signing people up for their wares. Further, it would be extremely easy for a search engine to investigate that site and quickly remove it from the index for a host of better reasons other than purchasing links.

    The bottom line here folks is this… this is a problem that Google created for themselves and has no easy way to remedy other than to foist it upon us and label it as our responsibility. The truth be told here is this – as long as we collectively keep Google on the marketing pedestal we all put it on, their problem will continue to be our responsibility.

  • http://www.seo4fun.com/blog/ Halfdeck

    “I’m pretty tired of the entire “let’s police paid links” thing”

    On the one hand, people complain about spam in search results, while on the other hand, spammers complain when Google tries to combat spam.

    You can’t have it both ways.

  • http://www.feedthebot.com feedthebot

    giggle

  • http://andybeard.eu/2007/04/google-paidlinks.html AndyBeard

    I submitted my own paid reviews as webspam using Matts form, asking for specific reasons why those links should be labelled as nofollow.

    The biggest problems for me, and which I discussed?

    1. It is not a level playing field – Amazon can pay millions for IMDB, and have live links to products. That is a hell of a lot of cheap link equity, relatively speaking.

    2. All communication on this issue comes from Matt’s blog, or at conferences. Even at conferences Google tends to dance around the issues.
    On Matts blog he is hiding behind a disclaimer

    Matt shouldn’t even touch on the FTC issue regarding this. Most of the companies dealing with paid linking have much clearer disclosure than Google allow for their referral units, and better disclosure than 99% of bloggers practice themselves, including Matt.

    p.s. you are missing out on some great blogsearch ranking analysis

  • http://hauntingthunder.wordpress.com/ Neuro

    “FTC who decides the rules” in america that is :-) quite how it would play in the uk is interesting.

    maybe danny should ask the ASA for a comment

  • http://www.weboptimist.com WebOptimist

    I’m for Google ditching the little green Page Rank bar in their toolbar. Google gave it to us and, as is always the case when people are involved, it’s being used for reasons they don’t like – selling ads they’d rather see running in AdSense.

    ;-)

    Clients tend to be too fixated on the stupid thing anyway.

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