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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

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

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
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,
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

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
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.

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