(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.)
Don't miss the first four articles in this series...
Today I'll be wrapping the series up by taking a look at what's likely to happen if Google continues on their current course and why I believe it could make the Internet a worse place for small business owners.
Driving Link Brokers Underground
The most obvious consequence of Google's crusade against paid links will be the shift from an open economy to an underground link economy. While many (perhaps even most) sites currently selling links will stop in fear of retribution from Google, a great deal will simply join the underground. Link builders and SEOs will carefully and quietly build relationships with more sites and will buy link placement for their clients.
Less link buys will happen by email and more will happen by phone and in-person networking to remove the trail. This means those who are new to the game will have to play quite a bit of catchup to build up their own relationships with link sellers or to create new in-house networks for sites.
Google's crusade may simply be the catalyst for pushing the industry back underground. Many SEOs have been calling for the shift for some time anyway, citing Google's (supposed) ability to find and discount links marked as sponsored. In fact, SearchRank Blog's David Wallace wrote about the need for the paid link industry to go underground just last week.
Google has declared war on paid links, which they clearly have the right to do. We however have the right to fight back. Because we are at war, we as search marketers should be a bit more tight lipped about our strategies, making it more difficult for Google to combat this very effective means in helping sites to improve their visibility in the organic search results.
In fact, blog posts are already popping up with information and advice on how to buy and sell links in the new underground market. Jeremy Luebke offered up seven of them in a post over at Marketing Pilgrim last week.
Of course not everyone thinks the shift to underground link buying is a bad thing. (In fact, a great deal of marketers are quite happy about it.) Ben Cook points out how the shift will benefit those who remain willing to sell text links:
With more and more website owners falling for Google’s intimidation tactics, the supply of available links is going to diminish. However, the market for those links is well established and as long as it remains beneficial to buy links (and trust me, it’s still VERY helpful to purchase links), that demand isn’t going anywhere. So, as we all learned in grade school, when the supply drops but demand stays the same, prices go up. Those of us who continue to sell links will have less competition and will be able to sell more links, charge more for the links we’re already selling, or both!
For as much money as TextLinkAds has made for it's member sites, underground link sellers stand to make even more. As Ben points out, limited supply will lead to increased costs. Those who have built marketing strategies that don't rely too heavily on Google will find the financial payoff of link selling far outweighs the small risk of losing their Google traffic.
Thanks to Google, the profitability of link selling just went up.
Clearly, a world in which seasoned SEOs buy and sell links to their heart's content and the average webmaster trucks along without the benefit of all those links isn't one of Google's goals. That leaves me asking myself why Google might want to push the link buying industry underground.
If You Hide Them, Will the FTC Come?
One of the side effects of driving the paid links industry underground that I haven't seen mentioned yet is the FTC issue.
This is even more surprising because Matt pointed the FTC issue out when he blogged about the need to provide a disclosure on paid links earlier this year:
The other best practice I’d advise is to provide human readable disclosure that a link/review/article is paid. You could put a badge on your site to disclose that some links, posts, or reviews are paid, but including the disclosure on a per-post level would better. Even something as simple as “This is a paid review” fulfills the human-readable aspect of disclosing a paid article. Google’s quality guidelines are more concerned with the machine-readable aspect of disclosing paid links/posts, but the Federal Trade Commission has said that human-readable disclosure is important too
He went on to link to an article in the Washington Post talking about the FTC statement on word of mouth marketing disclosures. In it, Mary K Engle of the FTC says "We wanted to make clear . . . if you're being paid, you should disclose that."
Consider the following section of the FTC's statement on the disclosure of paid search ads back in 2003 when not all engines were properly labeling the pay per click ads on their sites.
Thus, any Web sites or URLs that have paid to be ranked higher [on search engines] than they would be ranked by relevancy, or other objective criteria, should be clearly labeled as such using terms conveying that the ranking is paid for. In the staff's view, to avoid deception such labels need to convey that the sites listed are placed higher, or otherwise presented more prominently, because they have paid for their ranking or position, rather than solely based on some objective criteria relating to the probable relevance of their content to any particular search request.
It makes me wonder...does Google plan to let the FTC sort out the paid links problem once the issue goes underground? After all, the most Google can do is remove your site from their index. The FTC has the power to issue cease and desist orders and to levy fines against U.S. based companies that violate deceptive advertising principles.
Granted, it's going to be pretty difficult for Google or the FTC (or anyone else) to spot paid links in the new underground link economy, but it won't be impossible. Besides, fear of FTC reprisal will probably go a lot further toward shutting things down than fear of Google.
Ultimately, whether the FTC gets involved or not, an underground link network does the most damage to small businesses.
Say Bye Bye to the Little Guy
What tends to happen when a major avenue of ranking goes underground? Only the experienced and the deep-pocketed have access to it. With link hunters trolling the web on behalf of Google, site owners wishing to buy and sell link placement will have to operate stealthily. This is going to make it tough for the average small business owner to compete in the rankings.
Until now, almost every site launched had an equal chance of working it's way to the top of the rankings. All site owners could learn how to optimize their sites through reading SEO sites and experimenting by trial and error. They could write good content, seek out quality links and work their way up the rankings. Organic search served as one of the great equalizers of the marketing world.
Unfortunately, while any site with even a small budget can currently buy relevant links to boost their rankings, the new underground link economy will result in sky high prices and small networks of brokers managing most of the inventory. Seasoned search marketers won't have a problem making the connections to purchase ads for their clients, but mom and pop shops wading through the world of SEO on their own will be left out in the cold.
That will once again widen the rankings gap between deep-pocketed big business and the DIY small businesses.
Wrapping it All Up
Ultimately, what bothers me most about the issues I've covered in these five articles is the damage Google is going to do to the small business web site owner. Google has long been touted as the "fair" marketplace. While it was true that sites with large budgets could game the system, Google has always worked to improve their algorithm to block those tactics.
It's certainly nothing new for a small business to stumble into a Google penalty. I've seen my share of small businesses who've been penalized for using hidden text or violating one of Google's Webmaster Guidelines. The difference is, each of those sites was penalized for actively trying to game the system. You don't just accidentally hit some keys and generate one hundred keywords in the same color text as your background.
A small business owner can accidentally forget to put the nofollow tag in place. Especially since most of them will have no idea what a nofollow tag even is.
I'm not generally a Google critic, but as I explored the topics at play on this one...I just can't help but walk away feeling a little dirty.
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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