Which Is More Evil – Google Or Paid Links?

On Sunday Danny Sullivan posted to say that Google might indeed penalize sites selling links by drops in ranking and or PageRank. Danny’s post set off another round in the paid links debate with SEOs and bloggers weighing in on all sides of the issue. Instead of overwhelming you more than usual in tomorrow’s This Week In SEO post I decided to break out some of the links I’ve collected the last few days and present them here.

Much about Google’s stance on paid links has been clouded in FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). We don’t really know how Google will treat links they determine are purchased or how they’ll treat sites buying and selling links. The general thought (or perhaps hope) has been that Google would simply discount the specific links from passing PageRank. There’s been talk Google would prevent all links on a site found to be selling links from passing PR and there has been a lot of fear that Google may penalize sites selling links more harshly by affecting how well the site’s pages rank.

Danny’s post seems to confirm these last two with examples of The Stanford Daily site and the site of graphic designer David Airey. These two cases along with a few others that have been talked about the last few months might indicate that Google is taking things to a new level in fighting link buying.

Loren Baker disagreed with Danny’s conclusions.

Personally, I find the Stanford Daily as being a horrible example of a site loosing Google PageRank and credibility just because of link selling. The reason the Stanford Daily lost its PageRank and was penalized is because of obviously irresponsible and irrelevant link selling. Not link selling alone.

Adam also took issue with Danny, mostly over the choice of the word ‘Official’ in Danny’s post as though everything he was saying had been confirmed by Google. Danny does mention pinging Google and getting confirmation, but as Adam rightly points out that doesn’t make it so.

Both Aaron Wall and Michael Gray have been critical of Google’s reaction to the whole issue. Aaron advises

If you are a webmaster assume that Google is lying to you and ignore them.

I agree to a lesser extent. I’m not sure you need to assume Google is lying, but it’s a good idea not to rely solely on Google for your traffic. Google is showing that it will take all that traffic away if they decide they don’t like something you are doing on your site.

Michael compares Google to the RIA and sees Google as desperately trying to hold onto their growing monopoly of online advertising. I do think much of Google’s moves are designed to spread fear since it’s impossible for them to discover every case of link buying. Since some paid links will go undetected Google is trying to scare site owners away from the practice.

A big part of the debate is Google’s recommendation to use the rel=”nofollow” attribute on all links for which you receive money. Earlier in the week Matt Cutts started a thread on the Webmaster Central Google Group on the appropriate uses for nofollow, though oddly absent was any mention of paid links. Loren again followed up making mention of what Matt had previously stated on his own blog.

If you sell links, you should mark them with the nofollow tag. Not doing so can affect your reputation in Google.

My favorite posts from the week all come from Jennifer Layock’s series. Jennifer’s first post looks at the history of nofollow from it’s beginnings as a way to combat blog comment spam to it’s evolution as a way to protect yourself from Google penalties. Part 2 discusses whether or not Google’s policies will be enforced across the board or if some sites will be immune from penalty. She also talks about why the warnings from Google that all of this was coming are not a defense for what they are doing now. Part 3 explores the options Google has and why she thinks they’re choosing the wrong one. Part 4 is coming, though not available as I’m writing. I’ll add it once it becomes available.

If you read any of the posts I’ve linked to here please read these. Jennifer has done an excellent job of covering the issues and I’d say my own views align closely with Jennifer’s views.

Many will tell you that regardless of what Google wants, says, or does, link selling and buying will continue, though it will be driven further underground. I completely agree. Google will never be able to determine if some links are bought and sold. If you and I were to speak on the phone and you agreed to pay me something to add a link to your content how would Google distinguish that link from any other. Sites link to each other all the time and in many cases it’s impossible to determine if money exchanged hands for the links. As part of this round of paid links talks we’re getting more on how to profit selling links and how to stay under the radar if you are.

Barry Schwartz collected some links from earlier in this week and posted a roundup. Some I’ve already linked to above, but most will be new. If you still want more open your favorite rss reader and visit any seo blog you subscribe to. Chances are there’s at least one post on the subject from the last few days.

What Do I think About Paid Links?

I have to admit it’s easy to get lost somewhat in this debate. If you ask me I’ll tell you what Google is doing is absolutely wrong, but I wonder if they have the right to be wrong in the way they are. I’ve always maintained that Google is a business and they have every right to do what they want with their business. Google doesn’t owe you or me or anyone else a certain rank in their results. We have no right to expect traffic from Google.

Still I think Google is wrong. I’ll hold to things I’ve said in the past about paid links

And add that Google is showing an uncharming arrogance through all of this not befitting a company that claims to do no evil. They’re overreacting to a problem and are going to hurt many honest businesses in the process. It’s true they don’t owe you ranking, but we all know how important the traffic Google sends can be. While I maintain Google has a right to do what it pleases with it’s business I also maintain that they should never penalize a site for something it shouldn’t reasonably be expected to know.

The average mom and pop site has no idea what a nofollow attribute is. The average mom and pop probably has no idea there’s even an issue with buying and selling a link. And in all honesty there’s no reason why they should. If someone approaches mom and pop to pay for a link in their sidebar or footer mom and pop might very well see it as a nice way to help with the costs of the site. Why would they think there’s anything wrong in accepting the deal and why should they know Google could come down on them for not adding a nofollow?

Google may have the right to do what they want, but should they punish honest people for their own mess. Let’s face it Google won’t penalize big name sites if they choose to sell links. Google needs those big name sites in their index. But Google will punish you and me and mom and pop for doing the same thing they’ll let large corporations get away with.

Google should not punish people for making reasonable decisions and it’s beginning to look like that’s where they’re heading if they aren’t already there. The obvious solution would be to discount any link Google discovers has been bought and sold. Give it no weight whatsoever in the algorithm as is their right. Google could even go so far as to discount links it only suspects of having been bought and none of us would be any the wiser.

Google is also being very hypocritical given they sell more links than anyone through AdWords. Of course one way to hold onto your marketshare is to scare everyone else out of the market. You can’t profit from a link on your site unless that link happens to come from AdSense and Google gets its cut.

Google is taking things to the extreme with it’s FUD campaign. It’s an indication they really can’t detect link buying all that well and instead of trying to figure out how they’re going to scare you away from using them instead. Google wants you to clean up the mess they created for themselves by making you worry about what will happen if you don’t.

I wish Google would realize that despite their efforts link buying will continue. Paid links will become harder to detect and they won’t go away. What might go away are some honest businesses that get caught up in Google’s fight and never understand what happened. Google could easily put much of this debate to rest by openly stating what they plan to do when they discover a site selling links. They prefer the uncertainty since the uncertainty will scare many away from the practice.

Like it or not this issue isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

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  1. I don’t think Google is at all like the RIAA. They aren’t suing anybody, or trying to take away anything they haven’t been providing for free. I don’t see this as anti-competitive in the least; they have no objection to nofollow or js links. I understand your point about some people won’t know to use the rel attribute, but I don’t think mom and pop know selling links is available at all…?

    “Google is showing that it will take all that traffic away if they decide they don’t like something you are doing on your site.” That may or may not be true in this case, but I don’t think this is going to ever happen to anyone I ‘know’ online. Google has a genuine interest in protecting the quality of their search. This sounds like a pretty extreme of the malware label they use.

  2. The comparison to the RIAA may be a bit of a stretch in some ways, but I see Michael’s point. Both are fighting to hold onto something they are losing control over and using scare tactics to do it.

    Mom and Pop do sell advertising. Everyone sells advertising and Google taught us all how. Now they’re telling us you can only advertise the way we say you can advertise, which isn’t right. The thing is I think it is beginning to happen where Google is removing people from from search results.

    John Chow can no longer be found if you search for his name where he used to rank well for quite a few things. It appears he was penalized for selling links. Now Google does have the right to do anything they want, but they claim to want to provide the most relevant results. johnchow.com is certainly one of the most relevant results for John Chow.

    What bothers me most is Google doesn’t have to go to the extent they’re going. Just don’t count those links. I really don’t think most people would have a problem with that. But Google is taking the approach of basically telling people how they can run their business. They’re making people think twice about making money from advertising.

    Their approach also requires all of us to take a specific action (adding nofollow) which seems innocent enough except Google shouldn’t really be requiring an action to avoid a penalty. Most people will never know they need to do that something.

    From what I’m reading this is starting to get past a text link. It seems like it might be crossing over into banner ads since those do link back to the site.

    Why don’t you think Google will ban a site for something they don’t agree with? Google does have an interest in maintaining the perception of quality in their results. It’s why the New York Times or the Wikipedia or Forbes magazine won’t get banned, but to the average person your site and mine wouldn’t be missed so Google can safely remove us while still maintaining that perception of quality.

  3. A few contentions though:

    “it will be driven further underground”

    This is how paid links should be bought anyway, under the covers, not through some text link broker (e.g. tnx’s 10,000 crappy TBPR 0 links for $10 bucks deals). Lazy SEOs may be frustrated by that because the process becomes less automated and harder to scale. And sellers may not like it because brokers like TLA give mom & pop link sellers increased visibility to link buyers. I’ve sold a few links through TLA but I have yet to receive any buy offers via email.

    SEO needs to be done with stealth. And those who are more experienced with under the radar link buying will have an edge over newbie SEOs who depend on no-effort-involved mass-link-buy opportunities with short lifespan.

    “And add that Google is showing an uncharming arrogance”

    I think its arrogant for webmasters to try to tell someone else how they *should* run their website. Google has never done that though apparently SEOs will spend weeks on end telling Google how Google should be run. Hypocrisy at its best.

    It is not wrong or right to sell/buy links. It is an effective tool with a level of risk – not like any other type of investment, be it stocks or real estate. And it is neither right or wrong to run a website one way or another. While SEO’s get agitated over Google making business decisions, SEOs seems to have no problems passing ethical judgements against Google. Sometimes I think white hat SEOs are the Christian rights of online marketing. Google is moving forward, acting on profit margins and market share, while SEOs are sitting still, paralyzed by questions of ethics.

    “Google is also being very hypocritical given they sell more links than anyone through AdWords.”

    Whoever argues this line will lose credibility over time. First, Google has no policy against selling links or paid links. Let’s get that down. Google is not against paid links. Google will not penalize you for paid links.

    What Google has a problem with are paid links that effect search results. Adwords links do not pass PageRank.

    “Google is taking things to the extreme”

    This is just the tip of the iceberg. We haven’t hit “extreme” until all link buyers get perma banned from search results.

    No question, Google is making some bad judgement calls. Expecting all link sellers to use nofollow is just plain unrealistic; its never going to happen. I will never put nofollow on links I sell. That’s just bad business, considering the fact that only a fraction of my traffic to my blog comes from Google. If Google banned my site I won’t even bat an eyelid.

    But they are entiled to their mistakes, as I am entitled to make mine. And as long as Google’s end users continue to prefer Google over Yahoo/Live and as long as you and me keep supplying Google with content to index, and as long as Google’s stock prices hold up (what is it now, $625?), Google has little reason to rethink its business decisions.

    Sure, we are free to criticize Google for its mistakes, but questioning the ethics of a company is a waste of time. If lack of ethics was a crime, we’d all hang side by side.

  4. Aurelius I agree there’s a lot of speculation going on and not a lot of facts. One thing that could clear a lot of things up would be if Google came out and said something specific on how they will treat sites that sell links.

    Halfdeck you make a lot of really good points and I appreciate you taking the time to share them here. For me there’s a lot more questions in this whole debate than there are answers, which is why in part I think it’s easy to get lost in the debate.

    I agree that link buying should be done underground anyway and the better SEOs are and will be buying and selling that way. But aren’t those really the links Google is after more than any other? They seem to be fighting against all others except for who they’re really after.

    I hope I don’t come across as trying to tell Google what they should do with their business. Maybe I am, but it’s not my intention. I think Google has every right to do what they want with their business, the same way you and I can do what we want with ours. But I think Google is being arrogant here. They are bullying people and they have attempted to get us to turn each other in. Google could have discounted paid links or penalized sites or whatever without some of the fear tactics or having us report each other.

    I understand that Google takes issue with paid links that affect search ranking and not paid links in general. The problem is the two often overlap. I have nothing against Google not wanting to be manipulated. But I think they are beginning to take things to the point where honest people who are not at all trying to manipulate them are going to get punished.

    I admit some of this is conjecture on my part.

    Let’s say you and I agree to exchange money for links and the only reason for the exchange is to manipulate Google. In that case then I agree Google has the right to do what they want to protect against that manipulation.

    But take the case of average mom and pop webmaster. You or I approaches mom because we want to advertise on her site. We send her a banner and ask her to display it on her site with a link. Mom agrees. She’s made no attempt whatsoever to manipulate anything. She’s simply selling advertising on her site. Mom has never heard of a nofollow and there’s no reason should have. But mom could now find her site penalized in some way for doing absolutely nothing wrong.

    Again I agree there’s some speculation on my part since there’s no real proof Mom would be penalized, but it’s beginning to seem like she might be.

    It’s unrealistic of Google to think that every link seller is going to use nofollow just like you say, but I think Google is going to pass judgment on sites based on nofollow anyway. So they may be punishing people over something unrealistic.

    I understand Google is entitled to their mistakes. I think we all have the right to be wrong. I think when SEOs are critical of Google in many cases it’s people trying to let Google know why something they’re doing is wrong. And yes in many cases it’s just people whining that they can’t get away with something the used to. But there are plenty of SEOs who would honestly like to see a better Google. When Google ignores those people and refuses to look inward at the possibility it made a mistake that is arrogance.

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