Google vs. Paid Links

Over the weekend Matt Cutts published three posts that had sent the seo community into a frenzy by Monday morning. The main theme of the posts causing all the chaos was paid links. The first post Hidden links, mentions paid links almost in passing, but seems to tie them into the manipulative practice of hiding links. The second post simply agrees with and points to one by Matt Mullenweg On Sponsored Themes discussing the practice of paying to have your link included in a free blog theme. Both of these posts might have passed without much fanfare had it not been for the third post, How to report paid links.

We’ve known for awhile that Google doesn’t care for paid links. The main idea behind PageRank and all the algorithm updates since depends on seeing a link as a vote or recommendation for another page or site. A paid link would seem to manipulate that view. I say ‘seem’, because buying links isn’t necessarily about manipulation even though in some cases it can be.

It felt like every blog I read on Monday and a few today were all condemning the idea of Google coming down on paid links, especially the idea of having us police the web by reporting paid links. I’m not someone who’s been an active link buyer to date. Keep that in mind while you read and perhaps take some of what I say with a grain of salt.

The Issue With Paid Links

There’s nothing inherently wrong with paying for a link. It’s a form of advertising. It’s really no different than paying for a banner ad or a radio spot or a commercial on TV. Paid links are simply a different form of advertising. In fact Google sells a lot of paid links in the form of AdWords and has gotten half the web to add them to their sites in the form of AdSense. Google is the biggest buyer and seller of links online.

You might pay to have your link included on a site because that site is visited by people in your target market. Do you sell picture frames? If you do then it makes sense to pay for a link on a site selling art prints. People buying prints will want to frame those prints and there’s a good chance they’ll click on the link to your site. It’s worth paying to have that kind of traffic.

The issue though, as far as Google is concerned, is that some sites buy links not for the traffic, but to manipulate organic search results. It doesn’t really make sense for your picture framing site to buy links on a site selling plasma TVs. However, if you thought that link could give you a boost in search results that purchase falls into more of a gray area and you may decide the link is worth buying even if it results in little or no direct traffic.

At the base of Google’s algorithm is the idea that a link is a vote or recommendation for another web page or site. But when you sell a link is that really a recommendation or a desire to make some money? And if it’s not a recommendation then how much should it be weighted in determining organic results.

The Problem Detecting Paid Links

Some links are easy for a human being to determine as paid links. If you see a group of links near the words ‘sponsored links’ it’s obvious someone paid to have those links there. Would it be obvious to an algorithm? What if the ‘sponsored links’ text were an an image?

What about this link? It’s just a link to the home page of this site, but imagine it was a link to the home page on another site. Is there anyway you could know if someone paid for that link? Is there anyway you could know that someone I met yesterday gave me $20 in cash to place that link there? No you couldn’t. Not unless either of us told you.

In theory search engines should be able to make reasonable guesses about some links. Their location on the page might be an indicator, the company they keep might be another. There are quite a few sites brokering the sale of links. Given some seed sites and enough data a search engine might be able to increase the reasonableness of those guess. It’s certainly not easy though.

Google has been recommending for some time that webmasters add a nofollow to any links they are selling. They’ve told us this is for our protection since if we sell links that point to ‘bad neighborhoods’ it could hurt the ranking of our pages. If you read the two Matt Cutts and one Matt Mullenweg posts you should take from them that Google would like you to make it clear to your visitors which links are paid and also make it clear to search engines which links are paid.

And now Matt Cutts is asking us to report links on sites we think are paying to be there.

The Reaction To The Paid Links Posts

There’s been a lot of reaction to Matt’s posts, most coming down on Google. There are thoughts that this has less to do with organic results and more to do with Google wanting to control all advertising on the web. There are thoughts this is an admission by Google that they can’t detect paid links and thoughts that a new seo tactic will be to report all the links of your competition as spam. There are even thoughts on solutions to the problem.

There has been speculation, fear, and anger over what Google might do when they discover a link has been bought. Will they penalize the site buying the link? Selling the link? Will they simply discount the link?

None of the above is really known. It’s speculation at this point. What we know is that Google doesn’t like paid links. We also have a fairly good sense that Google is going to be stepping up their efforts to detect paid links. We don’t know what they will do when they find them. We don’t really know what their reasons are for disliking paid links as much as they do.

While I think most of the response to Matt’s three posts make some very valid points I think there’s quite a bit of over reaction as well. There seems to be a certain amount of jumping to conclusions about the motivation for the paid link reporting request. I’m sure some of the the reaction is exactly right, but at the moment we don’t know for certain.

My Thoughts

As I mentioned above I see absolutely nothing wrong with buying a link. It’s a form of advertising and marketing and as such Google has no right whatsoever to tell us that we can or can’t buy links. They do have the right to treat those links however they see fit, but they have no right to tell us we can’t pay for links.

Google should not penalize sites engaging in link buying and selling. There will always be plenty of sites buying or selling links without any thought to search engines. Google’s own webmaster guidelines tells us:

A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”

Sites would most definitely be buying and selling links if search engines didn’t exist. At most Google should discount a paid link in having an effect on organic ranking. Anything more would be 100% wrong on the part of Google.

I also think that the responsibility in determining whether links are paid falls on Google’s shoulders. Not mine, not yours, not anyone’s. Asking us to report paid links only opens a can of worms to allow more deception. If Google uses paid link reports as anything other than a possible list of seed sites for human review to test their algorithms they are making a huge mistake. My guess though is that’s all these reports are going to be. I can’t see Google actually banning sites because someone reports them buying or selling links. It’s too easy to see how quickly untenable that system would be. I take Matt at his word when he said he just wants to test some algorithms.

I don’t particularly care why Google doesn’t like paid links. You can take them at their word that it’s all about the manipulation of organic results or you can believe this is about them wanting to control web advertising. If you spend a little time thinking about it I’m sure you can come up with dozens of conspiracy theories. But I don’t really care why. It’s their business and Google has the right to run it as they see fit. They don’t owe anyone ranking. Believe it or not you can still run a successful website without ever getting a single visitor from Google or any other search engine.

However I do think Google is placing a little too much emphasis on paid links. What they should be concerned with is relevancy. What they should be concerned with is presenting the best results they can to a search query. If a site selling art prints links to a site selling picture frames that link is highly relevant regardless of how that link came to become.

Good search marketers will buy relevant links and bad search marketers will buy irrelevant links. The good search marketers will buy those links for the direct traffic they can bring even if they carry no weight in organic listings. Google if you’re listening what you should be concerned with is how relevant the link is and stop worrying if money was exchanged in the process. The good news is you can probably determine relevancy much easier than whether or not payment was made.

As I said towards the start I’m not an active link buyer, but I’ve always through the advice of Eric Ward when it comes to buying links to be good and sound advice. When you’re evaluating whether or not to purchase a link do so based on the direct traffic and/or branding of the link. Assume the seo benefit of the link is nothing. If you’re rankings improve great, but don’t count on that when making the purchase.

I think the advice was good prior to this past weekend and I still think it’s good today.

Other Thoughts On Paid Links

Like I said a lot of people are openly sharing their opinions on the paid link discussion. Here are some of the articles I’ve come across. There are more out there if you want to find them and there will likely be more in the days ahead. Reading through even a few should give you a good idea of the reaction in the seo community.

I’ve only included links that offer a direct reply to Matt Cutts posts. There have been several on link buying in general that I’ll save for Friday’s This Week In SEO post.

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