An Update On Paid Links

Over the weekend Matt Cutts updated his now infamous post on reporting paid links with a Q&A session. The update was designed to shed more light on what links to report as well as alleviate some of the concerns webmasters might have. While most of Matt’s answers do shed some light and alleviate fears I think the answer to the most important question was missing.

I blogged about the issue when the original post was published and you can see my thoughts as well as links to many others talking it.

The first thing to know with the update is that by paid links Matt means paid links that pass PageRank

So when I say “paid links” it’s pretty safe to add in your head “paid links that flow PageRank and attempt to game Google’s rankings.

You can prevent the flow of PageRank by adding a nofollow to the link or using an internal redirect or any other method that prevents Google from being able to follow the link. Matt goes on to give a few obvious examples of sites selling links to gambling and pharma sites while masking the ‘sponsored links’ text in an image.

When the post first came out I assumed the whole thing was about collecting examples that could be used to test future algorithm tweaks and the update mentions that

the reports are to help build datasets for future algorithms

One question and answer I find both reassuring and a cause for concern.

Q: I’m worried that someone will buy links to my site and then report that.
A: We’ve always tried very hard to prevent site A from hurting site B. That’s why these reports aren’t being fed directly into algorithms, and are being used as the starting point rather than being used directly. You might also want to review the policy mentioned in my 2005 post (individual links can be discounted and sellers can lose their ability to pass on PageRank/anchortext/etc., which doesn’t allow site A to hurt site B).

It’s reassuring that Google tries to prevent site A from hurting site B. It can still happen, but it’s good to know that Google does what they can to prevent it. But it’s the idea of sellers losing the ability to pass PR and anchor text that causes concern. And this concern is due to the missing answer I mentioned at the start.

What exactly is Google going to do when it discovers a site is buying or selling links? If they simply discount those links then fine. You have a right to both buy and sell links. You have a right to do anything you want with your site. Matt himself concedes this point. Google has that same right and if they think paid links somehow make search results less relevant they can deny those links the ability to affect search results. But to do the same to the other links on the site isn’t right.

That question of what happens to the other links on a site where some of the links are paid remains unanswered, but that question is really at the crux of this whole debate. I can understand the dilemma from Google’s side. Identifying links as having been bought and sold is not an easy task and in some cases impossible. Just because Google can identify one link on a site as a paid link it may still not be able to identify any of the others.

Google could conceivable decide that if one link on a site has been bought then all links on that site will be treated as though they too have been bought. This would have a likely effect of many webmasters wanting to be clear in adding a nofollow so that their other links can still pass value. Of course any site that does want to sell links could simply nofollow a few and perhaps rise above suspicion.

Carsten Cumbrowski has an interesting look at the update over at Search Engine Journal. One of the questions I hadn’t really considered was how this affects affiliate links. Carsten did consider the issue and shares his thoughts in a comment he made on Matt’s post. Its worth a read.

I appreciate the update from Matt. He does answer many of the questions that have been going around, but I still think the answer to the essential question missing. Just tell webmasters only the paid links themselves will be affected and much of the discussion goes away.

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  1. It sounds like they’ve decided a site that sells links is a bad neighborhood. I think stopping any outflow of PR from that site is to hurt it (by making its links less desirable, worth no money) and not the sites it links to.

    Also, I wonder how many people who sell links also give them away for free?

  2. The problem from Google’s point of view is that paid links aren’t really a ‘vote’ for another site and that voting system is still at the heart of their algorithm. If they want to discount links they discover as paid that’s within their right. It’s their search engine after all.

    What I find wrong is if the other links on a page become guilty by association. There are valid reasons to sell links. It’s called advertising and Google should understand that given their business model is based nearly 100% on advertising.

    They shouldn’t assume that one or a handful of paid links means all links are paid and they shouldn’t punish every link on a site because of a few that are paid. At first I though they would only stop the paid links from flowing PR, but I’m beginning to think they may prevent an entire site from passing PR.

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