I'm just returning from a well-earned, extra-long holiday weekend away from the computer, so I managed to miss Google's sneaky little update to their webmaster guidelines late last week. Thankfully, Search Rank's David Wallace was on the ball as usual and got a great post up noting the change. While the new guidelines did include mention of the nofollow tag if you went hunting for it, the new ones do a pretty good job of explaining exactly what Google expects from site owners who buy or sell links.

While Google has long stated site owners should not BUY text links, the new edits make it clear they also disapprove of selling text links.

Here are the new guidelines as laid out by Google.

Some SEOs and webmasters engage in the practice of buying and selling links that pass PageRank, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google's webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact a site's ranking in search results.

Not all paid links violate our guidelines. Buying and selling links is a normal part of the economy of the web when done for advertising purposes, and not for manipulation of search results. Links purchased for advertising should be designated as such. This can be done in several ways, such as:

* Adding a rel="nofollow" attribute to the tag

Google works hard to ensure that it fully discounts links intended to manipulate search engine results, such excessive link exchanges and purchased links that pass PageRank.

I'm pleased to see Google has finally taken the time to make their stance crystal clear on their web site. However, I continue to be frustrated at the idea that Google is now actively penalizing sites for NOT doing something. In the past, most of Google's penalties have been leveled at sites who were actively trying to game the engines by using things like hidden text or cloaking. With their new stance on paid links, many site owners who buy and sell advertising without giving a thought to the impact it could have on their search rankings are now at risk.

David notes that with Google's new stance, he's officially on the hunt for a new hat.

So for all of you white hat SEOs who buy and sell paid links with the goal of trying to improve a sites visibility in the organic search results, you are now officially a black hat! I'm included in that mix as I buy links for clients and sell them on sites we run as well (not this one).

I expect many other site owners will be joining him.

November 28, 2007

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.


Let's see. If someone wants to by a link with no backlink juice to it, who are they going to buy from - a web site with a few thousand visitors a month or Adwords, with millions of views each month?

Nuff said.

Site owners may be getting penalized on their sites, but it's the SEOs that are going to take all the heat when those that don't know any better get wind that what was done to their site, and was positive at one point, is now detrimental.

Think we could sue the big G for lost revenue?! :)

I'm with you, it is one thing to target those that are gaming the SE, but to penalize those participating in legitimate internet advertising because they may not know any better to add nofollow, seems evil to me. Very evil indeed...

This isn't really anything new. I reported the change to the guidelines back in June and, as far as I can see, they haven't changed them.

The biggest problem I have with this, and have always had, is that it will punish people for something they may absolutely nothing about.. There are thousands of people out there innocently selling links on their websites that have never, and will never, read the Google Commandments for being an ethical webmaster..

It won't happen here, but I suspect that we will see the first lawsuits coming from the EU over this and other issues..

Hi Jenn

The paid links warning has been in place since at least July but the wording was updated some time between July and October and Matt Cutts confirms this in comments.

Kalena and Mike,

You're right, sort of.

I also blogged about the changes back when they made their first update in June.

However, if you read the text closely, the June text focused on possible penalties to those who BOUGHT links.

Buying links in order to improve a site's ranking is in violation of Google's webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact a site's ranking in search results.

The new version adds the word selling to the mix, making it clear that Google will now be going after people on both ends of the transaction. The new text reads:

Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google's webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact a site's ranking in search results.

A subtle change, but also an important one because now, any site owner who sells advertising on their site without knowing about things like PageRank and text link manipulation is at risk of being penalized by Google.

In the past, Google was only going after those who were actively trying to game the rankings by bulking up on paid text links.

Fair one, Jennifer. I knew that they'd made mention of selling links in the original post back in June but I'd not noticed the sneaky inclusion at the top of the piece.

I consider myself suitably admonished...

I've always had a saying: "You can't be completely right if you're even a little bit wrong" (works great with kids :) ).

I think about this relative to Google's paid link position.

The problem, better stated by others is that they sell links (in the form of advertising). It's an obvious conflict of interest.

And their current position means they have to make judgment calls regarding what's advertising and what's editorial. With all the highly manipulated results in the index, what's to assure us their judgment will be better on paid links.

And what about deceptive AdWords (hmm, hmm)?

The position is tenuous at best and it's a good thing for Google we who talk about it are so small a minority.

Again - You can't be completely right if you're even a little bit wrong.

How does google make the difference between a natural link and a paid link ?

How can you control links coming in?
Competitors can now buy links to sites they wish to demote.
Irony at its best.

I think that although it seems harsh that Google has taken this stance, I think they are correct to do so. Its their search engine and we dont have to use it, plus they will do what is best for the greater good. Paid for links on a whole are damaging the Organic search results.

Google has always stated that it is in the business of providing good quality, relevant search results and that has never been different. If they feel that this change is being put in place to keep providing this then whats the big deal.

And for those of you complaining, Google has never charged for the service they provide, but always made it clear that their algo may change and that it may affect your ranking. A lot of you have been reaping the benefits of Googles sucess for years!

Also for those who put all of their business marketing chips into one supplier of traffic are making a simple mistake anyway! Google is not the only search engine, its not the only way to get traffic. Its simply for those who want to get free traffic without actually going out and investing in it! For example I ran a site a number of years ago, and was struggling to get any love from Google as the site was new. I invested a couple of grand in Mouse Matts with links on to put in student libraries and had hundreds of sales and signups that month.

Its time to simply adapt and ensure that all your marketing efforts arent put into Google. You should have various ways of traffic generation and a contingency for each one.

Lets look at a typical online advertiser who knows nothing of trading link, page rank, etc. Perhaps they know that "links are good" and nothing more. So now they have this directory up and have lots of advertisers that they link to. They have also asked their advertisers to link to them which "they know will help them rank well". But now, they hire a consultant who says "let's add the no-follow". So they will now benefit from inbound links, but their advertisers won't, and they won't be subject to a link penalty. Does this sound correct? (it's pretty close to a real world scenario that I am working with).

Paid links Paid Links...same old story. Google still doesn't like it everyone still does it. With this update people are going to "no follow" every link to avoid the risk of being seen as a link seller. HA!

As many people know, it's still okay to buy PageRank-passing links from Google-approved link selling sites like Yahoo! and ThomasNet. Google is not demanding that those link sellers disclose their paid links through use of "NOFOLLOW" or redirection.

Nor has Google resolved its ethical dilemma of NOT disclosing to its visitors that many pages are kept in the Supplemental Results Index, where they are not allowed to rank competitively on the basis of RELEVANCE with pages that are included in the Main Web Index (to which the only publicly stated criterion for inclusion is the accrual of PageRank).

Since Google has made it necessary for people to obtain PageRank in order to achieve basic search visibility -- and since they have distorted and diminished the quality of their search results by suppressing a large number of highly relevant documents from user search results -- it follows that Google should do the right thing and allow Supplemental Results pages to rank competitively.

At the very least they need to once again disclose that they do practice Web Apartheid by dividing the Web into elite Main Web Index pages (that have a more than reasonable chance to rank regardless of how relevant they are) and Supplemental Results Index (that are suppressed in search results even when they are more relevant than pages in the Main Web Index).

Google needs to stop dictating to other people how they are supposed to manage their Web sites and it needs to go back to being honest and ethical and FULLY DISCLOSE THAT THEY ARE SUPPRESSING RELEVANT INFORMATION.

I have been following the paid links debacle for a while and have a question about how this relates to directories.
The company I work for is interested in listing our website in various directories (hopefully to gain some more visibility in the search engines along with perhaps some direct traffic from the directories). We are considering paying to be listed in such directories as Best of the Web (http://botw.org) and Business.com.
Will paying to be listed in these directories no longer help with passing on link value? They still screen the website and only list you if you fit in the relevant sections. How does this work now?

Seo is a great example of the wasted time and money of our now Google-centric capitalistic experiment.

Hundreds of thousands of intelligent hard working men and women competing for Google's attention....and there will be 7-15 winners (how people search) and [100,000 minus 15 winners = 99,985 losers!]

That's not anywhere near a sane ratio of intent to pay-off!

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