It’s often said that paid links have created a false economy. As someone who has admittedly purchased links and contributed to that, I would definitely have to agree. I’ve caught loads of heck for buying links and there have been recent high-profile slaps for sites caught buying links, but what isn’t often discussed is the role of the greedy webmaster in all of this.
If webmasters didn’t ask for money, we wouldn’t buy links. If no one offered money though, webmasters wouldn’t ask for it. It’s the chicken or the egg, all over again.
The recent Harvard porn links outing is just one of many high-profile outing stories but it’s one that really hits home because hey, it’s Harvard!
It’s Harvard hosting links to pornographic sites on what is supposed to be a pristine .edu domain, the gold standard of great links. It’s Harvard having redirects that take you to a porn site when you click on a seemingly harmless URL in their search results.
I know how this happens because, like you, I suspect that someone is using less-than-stellar link building practices. Also, I’ve seen tons of examples that show how amazingly simple it is to place links on .edu sites, whether through buying them or taking advantage of open-source platforms like Joomla and WordPress in order to inject spammy links.
Just for fun, I looked at a few other .edu sites, and on every one, I found what I’d consider to be paid or spammy links. Now, many people would argue that any paid link is spammy, but I don’t always agree with that. Some paid links are nicely done and relevant, but a spammy link is one that obviously is completely irrelevant to the page and only there in order to make you click and go to the desired target.
Students are oftentimes desperate for money, and they’re enjoying the first taste of freedom by raging against the machine. Selling space on a student page at their university seems like a fairly harmless way to stick it to the man and get more money for beer or textbooks or rent.
Then again you have the injected spammy links, which are most likely just the results of link spammers who simply know how to do it. They do this on all types of sites, not just .edu domains, but I do have to think that most people doing any sort of link building know just how good the .edu link juice tastes.
It’s also a common practice to build links by offering “sponsorships” for university clubs, especially the really boring ones that have 3 members. The reality is, it’s frighteningly easy to buy links from students who have access to space on a .edu. What’s shocking to me is that this is only coming to the general public’s attention now, after years of abuse.
Here are just three of the types of paid/spammy links that I found:
1. The “Research Page” link. This link is on an Ivy League school’s domain, courtesy of a money-hungry student who wanted some help funding one of his research projects. The only clever part of his paragraph of links is that the 4 sites he links to have 4 unique ip addresses.
2. The “obviously a presell page” link. Also on the domain of an even more prestigious Ivy League school, this page only exists in order to link to a gambling site.
3. The “this is just the kind of thing I like linking to!” link. Ah, the student homepage…full of links, all apparently just things the student webmasters enjoys! He enjoys everything from designer paper supplies to organic dog treats.
Yes, this is what the link economy has given us. Anything can be gamed in some way. It’s not just the industries which have the potential to offend that are doing it, either. It’s anyone who realizes that students will sell link space.
Who Is To Blame For The Link Economy?
Some say that Google has created this nightmare themselves. Some blame agencies and link builders who are willing to buy links. Some blame clients who want to take what they consider to be the easy way out, unfairly competing with others who play by the rules. I think it’s all of those.
Google’s attempts to curb the practice of buying links aren’t working, which is why we’re seeing so many high-profile outings. People are disgusted with Google not taking care of the unfair advantage a site owner with loads of cash has over his competitors.
Plus, and this is always important, people like to think they’ve found something that hasn’t yet been found. It wasn’t news to any link builder that I know that JCPenney was buying links. Harvard’s website hosting these questionable links is no different. It’s the general public who is shocked by something that we consider to be just the way it is.
Now since Harvard has been publicly outed and discussed, I decided that it wouldn’t violate my principles to dig into their outgoing links even further in order to check on another industry frequently accused of pushing spam…yes, pharmacy. (Thanks to Michelle Robbins for the idea, by the way.)
Since Stephen Chapman, the SEO Whistleblower at ZDNet, has already opened up this can of worms and showed you exactly how he found this stuff, I have no problems just furthering it. I’m just applying his same search methods to show you that this problem is not strictly related to porn, so you can go do your own research and type in viagra, cialis, cash advance, payday loans, etc.
You’ll find results, unless they fix all of this before you have the chance. Just in case, check out this nice Viagra page on the Harvard domain…
Here’s the really spammy bit of this though. If you click on the result you go to the target page (for a second or two) then get redirected to a site selling, yes, Viagra. Yikes. I mean yes, it’s obvious that if you click on that result, you’re going to a Viagra-related bit of content, but you do expect to stay on the Harvard site, do you not?
And horribly enough, this Viagra link was (and I say was because after I screenshotted it and went back to it, it had been removed) listed in the right nav with other links for this doctor such as Curriculum Vitae. Quality stuff.
However, when I discussed this example with Debra Mastaler she pointed out that the person whose page these links are on may not control the page and may have no clue. That honestly would not surprise me. However, it did look like this:
As you can see, this has serious potential for messing with someone’s credibility. Is this really how we want to build links, even in ultra-competitive industries?
What about payday loans? Yep, they’re there too.
The bottom line here is that it’s incredibly easy to obtain links from the more noble sites. So far, we’ve also seen a giant retailer outed and seen the same thing happen to a florist. This stuff is everywhere — so what do you do? Report it to the webmaster, especially if you think it’s an injected link? Report it to Google? Contact the media? Out them on your website? Grin and bear it?
As Adam Audette pointed out, tattling seems to be the new way to compete. As you know, once a high-profile outing occurs, it makes Google look like their algorithm isn’t working properly in order to weed out the crap, so they are forced to do something about it. A manual review/slap seems to be what it takes to clean up the results.
What Is The Solution To This Problem?
People won’t stop offering money for links any more than webmasters will stop taking payments. People won’t stop injecting links when these free blogging platforms are hackable, either.
If you’ve ever done anything less than white hat, you’ll know that there’s a way to game just about anything. Should SEOs stop approaching .edu sites with cash offers for links? What about the non-paid links that appear? What if a student does truly like a certain brand and links to it? That’s completely feasible, but the witchhunt isn’t yet interested in those kinds of links, as they are not juicy enough to write about.
Maybe certain industries aren’t yet buying or injecting links on student pages, of course. Maybe big brands are doing it but have the wherewithal to make those links look perfectly natural. I also know for a fact that you can indeed hide the fact that a link has been bought, so I imagine that it’s easy to do some much better link injections than the ones that I’ve seen thus far. Porn, pharmacy, and payday loans catch our eye immediately though.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.