(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.

October 9, 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.


Do I *really* have to wait until tomorrow for part 3? ;)

The comparison to Yahoo is the perfect case in point. I would go on and on, but I sent you a 3 page rant last night via email, I believe, and I think you're probably sick of hearing about it from me. :D

"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?"

Sure. If I know in advance, I can avoid it - unless you have me chained up so I can't move till Wednesday rolls around.

If someone shoots his nose off playing russian roulette for $50,000 and then gets all whiney about how the gun isn't supposed to go off while its his turn...well I'd tell him you decided to play the game... take it like a man.

"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?"

Sure. If I know in advance, I can avoid it

Why is that the people on Google's side of this can't seem to actually structure a logical argument? Your being able to avoid something you shouldn't have to makes it ok?

If I tell you in advance I will be beating you over the head with a baseball bat if you ever step outside again, that's ok... because now you know to just stay inside forever?

Google should crack the whip on everyone if their argument is true otherwise this crackdown is sending out wrong signals.

This is my second year of blogging. I learnt about PageRank only this year.It is sad to learn that the evaluation of PR relies on back links. My impression all along has been that the sole aim in buying page links is basically to improve the exposure of the buyers web site.Can't Google come up with a way of distinguishing this type of paid links from the ones that are aimed at gaming the PR system? Or else they should come up with a better (non link based)way of determining PR.

While we hear a lot about Google's PageRank, I am interested in learning the page ranking procedures of other search engines i.e. Yahoo, Ask,Live Search, Baidu etc.Do they have any?If they do, why is it that all the news these days is about Google's PR?

"If I tell you in advance I will be beating you over the head with a baseball bat if you ever step outside again, that's ok... because now you know to just stay inside forever?"

That's ok because then I call call a few of my friends, have them hit you over the face with a beer bottle and throw you over the bridge.

You can play "the victim" all you want or moralize till your eyes turn red; its just not my style. I rather spend my time exploiting Google than whining about being exploited.

I still can't believe all the hype over Page Rank. After all it does little for search engine ranking. So many times I've seen a PR0 site come up at number 1.

Buying links... or simply sharing them because you can should be done to generate more traffic. Obviously the more popular the site the more valuable the link from that site. But at the end of the day qualified traffic is qualified traffic. So a PR0 site might be a better prospect still than a PR8 site - depends on what they do/offer/sell.

It looks like the little green bar in the Google toolbar and the likelihood of a page ranking well in SERPS is still being confused.
The PR in the Google may be more related to the “quality” of the pages content determined by Google assigned attributes.

I suspect that Google is not concerned with topics that are non-competitive, and focus on topics that are competitive for add dollars.
If there are links paid, or not, from topic related site why would Google care, as long as their SERP serves relevant pages. In the case where a bowling alley site has a page on how to avoid injuries while bowling with a link to a chiropractor, fine. Links from directories like the Thomas register with little or no content are also fine, because the TR has credibility in industry.

If I were Google I would only be concerned with the SERP and the relevance and quality of those results. They are capable of determining how relevant pages are that link to each other, and if they are credible directories. The quality of the SERP is all that counts for their business model, and how well it sells adverts.

I like to view Search Engines behavior from the prospective of what best supports their business model, and not as public utilities.

Pank rank is one of those things that I only seem to hear about. I know it's important and I am trying to get mine up there. But it takes hard work.

Google should be trying harder to get people wanting to work with them!

Excellent point about the hypocrisy

I wonder, how many site owners would still be paying Yahoo's listing fee if all of those directory listings were suddenly nofollowed?
Didn't business.com try that?

Whatever Google does will determine their SERPs relevancy - if they go bad their search numbers will decrease to yahoo. Maybe not a bad thing as they are just too big right now.

Some SEOs have always stayed away from link trades, not buying links unless it was from a media publication and usually you got an ad (link) as a bonus with your print media buy... or buying yahoo! categories, etc...

so we sit back and watch the destruction of SEO strategies based on linking..

ahhh.... sometimes "it seemed like a good idea at the time" doesn't always work, then again there was a company that sold keywords in the browser bar a while back, and that seemed like a good idea at the time.. then after u spent $10k for your client, a year later.. poof they were gone..

luckily, the first burn did it's job..

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.

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Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > NoFollow is for Blog Spam...no Paid Text Links, wait...Paid Ads...Aww Heck, Just Stop Linking and Let Calacanis Decide the Rankings - Part Two