(While there's no shortage of coverage on this issue, many small business owners are finding themselves a bit bewildered by the whole paid links debate. This series is designed to help them understand the issues at play so they can make their own decisions about how to move forward in regards to buying, selling and nofollowing links.)
In the first article in this series I outlined the history of the nofollow tag and it's progression from spam fighting tactic to the new "necessity" if you'd like to stay in Google's good graces. In this article, I'll take a look at whether or not Google's new policies will be enforced across the board or why the fact that they "warned us" doesn't matter in the slightest.
But Yahoo Reviews the Sites! You Do To? Oh, Umm...Yeah, That's Different Though!
One of the points being made by those who are upset with Google is the hypocrisy involved with going after the little guys. Major media outlets and web sites have appeared to be immune from Google's wrath while smaller sites are taking some pretty hard hits. After all, it's not in Google's best interest to penalize or demote well respected sites.
Can you imagine the hit Google would take with searchers if they couldn't find Wikipedia? Yahoo? The New York Times? Just as many webmasters can't afford to run their business without Google, Google can't afford to run their business without having certain sites in the index. Unfortunately, that means Google has to make an example of smaller sites and get the point across without harming their own business.
Here's the interesting thing though...Google will claim that Yahoo! gets a "free pass" because they're a quality site that only charges money for the time spent reviewing directory submissions.
Now stop me if I'm wrong, but isn't Google's entire claim to fame the fact that they've perfected the art of judging the quality of a web site with their algorithm? Wouldn't that mean Google could also examine any other web site for signs of quality and base their judgement on them thusly?
I mean a directory that charges $50 per submission, lists crappy web sites and has no incoming links would be pretty easy for Google to peg as being fairly useless. The same holds true for a blog full of nothing but paid advertorials. On the other hand a popular blog that's highly linked, has tons of comments and a clearly engaged audience should be a sign the site has high quality content. No blog or web site will stay popular if their paid reviews aren't up to par with the rest of their content. If allowing Yahoo! a pass is about recognizing Yahoo!'s quality...then shouldn't Google be examining quality of other sites before they decide to bring the smack down?
Besides, does anyone honestly believe web site owners pay for a Yahoo! Directory review for the traffic it will send? Heck no. Anyone that knows even a spec about search marketing knows site owners pay for that Yahoo! listing to get their site in front of search engines and to speed up the indexing process. I wonder, how many site owners would still be paying Yahoo's listing fee if all of those directory listings were suddenly nofollowed?
All that said, the issue goes even deeper than the hypocrisy of being ok with one site "selling" links but not another.
Sometimes a Link is Just an Ad
At the center of the controversy over paid links is the idea that ALL links are created with the intent of passing Page Rank. While there are obviously plenty of SEOs and site owners who ARE buying and selling links for the sole purpose of impacting search results, it's ludicrous to think that's the only (or even primary) reason anyone does it.
A great deal of those speaking out against Google's paid link crusade have pointed out that ads are sometimes just that...ads. This especially holds true when we're talking about graphic ads, site sponsorships and some directory listings. When it comes to Google supporters, I've heard several of them mention that Google isn't going after ad sellers, they're going after PageRank sellers.
For instance, Ian weighs in on the Sphinn thread for my first article with the following comment:
Google doesn't give a stuff about paid links per se. They are going after those paid links that artificially manipulate the PageRank of the pages that they link to.
The problem with Ian's post is that Google doesn't seem to be making any effort to distinguish between links sold to manipulate Page Rank and links sold as part of ad packages.
Now, there's no denying that a bazillion site owners are out there trying to monetize their blogs and web sites by selling links in an attempt to manipulate PageRank. Brokerage houses often sell text links based on the PageRank of the site and webmasters sign up for those programs in droves.
However, to think that every link is purchased with the intent of increasing PageRank is ludicrous.
In my response to Ian, I wrote:
I don't sell PageRank on any of my sites. I've always thought buying and selling links on the basis of PageRank was short sighted, mostly because it's so easy for Google to come in and shut down a site's ability to pass that juice.
The sites I sell links or ads on are about selling the branding and the traffic. I know, I know...some people don't think a text link can drive enough traffic to be worth the cost. (They'd be wrong in many cases.)
Search Engine Guide buys ads on quite a few online marketing and small business blogs and web sites. Those ads link to our site. Sometimes the folks we buy ads from run them through an ad server that keeps them from passing Page Rank. Sometimes the folks we buy ads from are small enough that they manually ad the image code to their site and leave the tracking up to us. Either way is fine with us because we buy those ads for the branding they provide to our target audience and in the hopes that readers might click on them and come visit us.
Quite frankly, we could give a rip about any PageRank they might pass.
I have a feeling we're not the only ones. As amazing as it might sound, there are oodles of webmasters out there buying ads (graphic and text based) on web sites in the hopes they might result in some targeted traffic.
Despite all that, quite a few webmasters are gleefully running around waving their "I told you so" flags.
The "We Told You So" Crowd is Missing the Point
I've heard numerous folks weigh in on the debate with a "we told you this was coming" attitude. Most of these folks are claiming that all the current fuss is silly and without merit because Google has been warning webmasters who are buying and selling links for years. While I suspect these folks have been drinking a little too much Gool-aid, I'm astonished that they think advanced notice suddenly makes something ok.
For instance...if I tell you today (and every day for the next week) that I'll be punching you in the face next Wednesday, does that make it ok? (Please tell me if it does because I've run into my share of folks I'd like to kick in the shins, but common courtesy has caused me to hold back.)
Giving advanced notice of an action doesn't suddenly make it the right thing to do. It doesn't even make it an "ok" thing to do. It simply means you gave advanced notice...nothing more, nothing less.
I honestly don't think anyone is "surprised" that Google is finally cracking down on link buyers and sellers. It's more that they didn't see the point of pitching a fit about something that might be happening in the future. Sure, Google said they'd be working on ways to deal with link buyers and sellers, but I think the majority of web site owners felt they'd simply work on adjusting their algorithm to detect and discount these links. I think few site owners honestly believed Google would feel they had the right to demand code changes so their engineers could spend more time playing volleyball and less time working on the algorithm.
Wrapping it Up
In the next article in this series I'll take a look at the issues that really have webmasters up in arms. I'll talk about the issue of penalizing sites rather than discounting links, explore whose responsibility it is to fix Google's mess and will point out the simple solution to this whole problem.
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.
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