(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.)
My daughter has a shirt that read "it seemed like a good idea at the time." I sort of wish they made it in larger sizes. I can't help but think it'd be a nice Christmas gift for the team at Google. After all, I'm hard pressed to believe that phrase hasn't popped into the conversation at least once or twice in the last year as their engineers sit around debating their algorithm and the impact of paid links.
As I sit and watch the heated debate over Google's crusade against paid links, I can't help but shake my head in wonderment. I'd like to look at a wide variety of the issues involved in this debate but considering that a great deal of Search Engine Guide readers fall outside the search industry, I thought it best to begin with a bit of a primer about what the nofollow tag is and how it came into existence.
The Evolution of NoFollow
At the very heart of the current debate over paid links is a little tag known as "no follow." Created by Google back in early 2005, no follow was originally designed with the intention of helping cut down comment spam on blogs. At the time, Google explained the motives for the creation of no follow on their blog. After a brief explanation of what comment spam was, they wrote:
...we don't like it either, and we've been testing a new tag that blocks it. From now on, when Google sees the attribute (rel="nofollow") on hyperlinks, those links won't get any credit when we rank websites in our search results. This isn't a negative vote for the site where the comment was posted; it's just a way to make sure that spammers get no benefit from abusing public areas like blog comments, trackbacks, and referrer lists.
The post goes on to explain that most of the major blog platforms (LiveJournal, Six Apart, Blogger, WordPress, Flickr and others) had agreed to join force with Google, Yahoo! and MSN to support the new tag.
The change was a simple one. Blog platforms would be setup to add a simple tag (rel="nofollow") to any outgoing link that appeared in the comments of a post. The idea was to provide a deterrent to spammers who were using automated programs to leave comments (and links) in an attempt to up their back link count and increase their search rankings. (If you weren't around the industry then, you can read Search Engine Watch's original coverage.)
When they wrote the post, Google offered up a brief Q&A that included the following:
Q: What types of links should get this attribute?
A: We encourage you to use the rel="nofollow" attribute anywhere that users can add links by themselves, including within comments, trackbacks, and referrer lists. Comment areas receive the most attention, but securing every location where someone can add a link is the way to keep spammers at bay.
The Internet Reacts With Cautious Acceptance
The response to nofollow was mixed at the time it was introduced. While many (especially those heading up blogging solutions) welcomed the idea, others pointed out that nofollow was unlikely to have ANY impact at all on the blog comment spam problem.
At the time, Christopher Baus wrote:
Google won because they were able to harvest the rich data available in the link networks. Link data is Google's number one asset. Today they just admitted that asset isn't as valuable as it used to be. I hope all you Forrester researchers heard that. Plus the value in links isn't just in the page rank. Its in the clicking. Don't want people to visit a site, don't link it. Simple. If Scoble links something it is my experience that it WILL generate traffic regardless of the page rank. This is just admitting that the spammers are winning.
Still others worried about the impact it would have on the way people linked to each other. In fact, it was only a matter of days before SEO's started pointing out the potential of using the nofollow tag to cheat reciprocal link partners out of PageRank or to hoard PageRank for their own sites.
Then again, some folks were pretty happy about the new ability to link without passing Google juice on to other sites and the chance to have more control over how their links were interpreted.
Of course despite all the chatter about the pros and cons of the new tag, the fact remained that spammers aren't exactly known for being deterred by automated solutions. Why? Because those spam submissions usually came from a software program that really couldn't have cared less if the link was going to count for anything. They got the link in front of eyeballs. That made it worth something.
I mean really, ask yourself if spam filters on your email have kept you from getting 75 viagara emails a day. Yeah, I didn't think so.
The truth is, blog plug-ins like Akismet are a million times more effective at curbing comment spam than nofollow ever was. In fact, looking back, even WordPress founder Matt Mullenwag feels that the nofollow solution was a failure.
In theory this should work perfectly, but in practice although all major blogging tools did this two years ago and comment and trackback spam is still 100 times worse now. In hindsight, I don't think nofollow had much of an effect, though I'm still glad we tried it.
Nofollow and Scope Creep
It didn't take long before nofollow went from being a supposed solution for blog comment spam to being the generally accepted way of linking without passing any Google juice. (A concept Robert Charlton quickly dubbed "the link condom.")
Still, it didn't take but a few more months before Google was claiming the need for nofollow on links that had been purchased. Back in August of 2005, I posted about the O'Reilly/Ringnalda paid link debate. Really, the fuss over O'Reilly was the starting point of Google's new crusade against paid links.
At the time, O'Reilly argued his point by defending his right to sell advertising on his blog:
It's pretty clear that the practice of "cloaking" -- that is, hiding links so that you're selling only the page rank -- is illegitimate. But what if someone pays you for a real ad, even if you know that they are paying you primarily because of your page rank rather than your targeted audience? As long as there's no deception as to the nature of the sponsored link, and a legitimate opportunity for click through, isn't this still an ad?
Matt Cutts followed up with a comment explaining:
Selling links muddies the quality of the web and makes it harder for many search engines (not just Google) to return relevant results. The rel=nofollow attribute is the correct answer: any site can sell links, but a search engine will be able to tell that the source site is not vouching for the destination page.
O'Reilly went on to ask in his original post if it is "the search engine's responsibility to adjust their heuristics to counteract any attempts to game the system?"
I echoed O'Reilly's sentiments. After all, Google rose to the top of the search engine game because of their ability to stay ahead of those who aimed to game the system with irrelevant results. Considering Google is the one who built a system that ranks web sites based on incoming links, you'd think it might be up to Google to learn how to discount the links they don't wish to count. (There's that darn tee-shirt again.)
After all, can you imagine what would happen if Google would issue an edict asking all Viagara spam sites to add the following meta tag to their site:
<META NAME="Quality" CONTENT="WeSpam">
Yep, they'd be laughed off the web.
At this point, someone usually asks me: "But can't you just not count the bad links? On the dailycal.org, I see the words 'Sponsored Resources'. Can't search engines detect paid links?" Yes, Google has a variety of algorithmic methods of detecting such links, and they work pretty well. But these links make it harder for Google (and other search engines) to determine how much to trust each link. A lot of effort is expended that could be otherwise be spent on improving core quality (relevance, coverage, freshness, etc.). (emphasis mine)
Pardon me if I don't jump right on making my life harder to make Google's life easier. It's this pesky site I have to run and those darn bills I have to pay. I'm all for altruism, but a girl's gotta make a living.
Of course earlier this year Google switched from "we don't like paid links" to "now help us get your competitors!" That led to quite a bit of backlash as site owners and SEOs alike cried foul on Google's attempt to define how one site can link to another.
Of course now the question becomes even foggier as many begin asking if Google is on a crusade against paid text links or on a crusade against ALL paid links, not to mention how relevancy factors in.
Is our graphic ad for Search Engine Guide on a blog about making money as a blogger on the same level as the Jack Daniels ad on O'Reilly's tech site in Google's eyes? If so, does that not strike you as a little strange? Wouldn't you think a search engine that prides itself on relevancy could do some relevancy calculating of it's own? Especially considering that most of the blogs our ad appears on link to us editorially as well (even before we purchased ads from them.) Somehow I doubt that Jack Daniels ad was a regular part of O'Reilly's conversation.
Is it "wrong" to purchase a banner ad on a site without having that link nofollowed? After all, a banner ad or graphic ad isn't going to pass any link text, though it may pass some link juice. Besides, how hard would it be for Google to simply discount links from images in the standard IAB ad sizes? I'm fairly certain the brainiacs at Google could program a nice little algorithmic diddy like that.
Where does it end? Google doesn't like paid text ads. Google doesn't like paid graphic ads. Oh, Google doesn't like sponsorship of blog themes either.
But what if you actually created those blog themes? Are your links going to get tossed out with the "sponsored" links folks are buying and attaching to the code of these templates. If so, you have to as yourself...how is creating and promoting a popular blog theme any different from creating and promoting link bait?
You can see the slippery slope argument coming into play here. Where will it end? Will Google ultimately have an entire page outlining what we're allowed to link to and what we're not allowed to link to if we wish to stay in their good graces?
Will we eventually need to nofollow any links that have keywords in them? Perhaps Google will decide that every link created should use the words "click here" to make sure sites aren't unfairly passing contextual information along with a link. The sarcastic part of me wonders what Google would do if a worldwide effort was launched to block Google from indexing any link. Seems like it might leave them hurting just a little bit, wouldn't you think?
Stay tuned for part two of this article when I question or not Google plans to take part in selective destruction.
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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