(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. In the second article, I took a look at some of the complex issues in the "are paid links ok or are they evil?" argument. In part three I explored the options Google has in dealing with this problem and why I disagree with the route they've chosen. Today, I'm going to look at why I'm opposed to putting nofollow in place, why "opinions" are fair game for marketing and what I think Google may be after with this whole crusade.
What's the Big Deal?
I've heard two points about this debate being tossed out time and time again by Google backers.
1.) You knew it was coming
2.) If you aren't selling PageRank, why don't you just nofollow your ad links?
I addressed the first point in part two of this series I also pointed out in part three that while those in the search industry may have known it was coming, the greatest majority of web site owners have no idea Google has a problem with them selling links that are not nofollowed.
When it comes to the second point, the answer is pretty simple. Why should I have to?
Google tells us time and time again not to do things specifically to impact our rank in their engine unless it also improves the value for the user. Descriptive title tags make sense for both search engines and users. Easy to follow navigation makes sense for search engine and users. Securing links from relevant sites makes sense for both search engines and users.
Implementing nofollow? Tell me again how this benefits my users?
Even apart from the fact that I shouldn't have to take the time to nofollow every ad on my pages, there's still the extremely important issue of webmasters who have no idea Google has laid down this decree.
Instead of announcing the new policy (refuse to nofollow paid links and risk being banished from our engine) on the official Google blog, they chose to let the word spread via an "unofficial" company blog and a leading industry site. Now, with all due respect to Matt Cutts and Danny Sullivan, how many site owners outside the industry actually know who they are and read them?
In other words, Google has not only decided to penalize site owners for something they have no idea they should be doing, but spread the word via two sites that aren't even officially related to Google.
It'd be sort of like the school bully beating you up after school every day until you find the ONE random kid in the playground who tells you the bully just wants you to high five him on your way in the door.
In fact the the more I think about it, the more I'm left asking myself if Google's crusade against the use of PageRank to value ad sales is out of line.
Opinions Have Been Used to Sell Things for Years
Personally, I've always come down on Google's side in thinking they have the right to restrict the flow of PageRank if their algorithm detects something they don't like. However, I've been doing some thinking on the issue in the last two weeks and I think I'm starting to change my opinion a bit.
While I do still believe Google has the full right to restrict the flow of PageRank to any site they choose, I'm starting to have more and more of a problem with their claim that they "own" PageRank and no one else can profit from it.
I was emailing with a blogging friend about the issue this week who is new to the world of search marketing. When she mentioned potential lawsuits, I tried to give her some background and insight into the Search King lawsuit that happened back in 2003. (Read background on the Search King lawsuit.) I explained the court had found PageRank to be a protected form of free speech which meant Google had every right to change it whenever they liked.
The more I thought about it though, it seemed like if Google had the right to change their opinion, other people had the right to capitalize on it. (Whatever "it" was at the moment.)
One of Google's primary arguments in the paid link war is that PageRank is "theirs" and no one has the right to profit from it. The problem with this assertion is that Google chooses to make PageRank public. Companies have been using opinions as a way to sell products (and advertising) for as long as opinions have existed.
Consumer Reports, Motor Trends and Zagat are just a few companies that spring to mind when I think of companies whose opinions are used to sell products. Think about it for a minute and see if you can recall how many television commercials or newspaper ads you've seen by Toyota touting the Camry as the "Motor Trends 2007 Car of the Year."
The same holds true with consumer opinions. Four out of five dentists use Crest. 9 out of 10 Geico customers would recommend them to their friends. Google has assigned a PageRank of 7 to Entrepreneur.
If Toyota can sell their car by citing their win as Motor Trends car of the year, why is it so wrong for Entrepreneur (or any other site) to capitalize on that public PageRank to increase ad sales?
Google doesn't want anyone to sell ads based on Google's opinion of a site? Fine. Call up the relevant programmer and say "Take the friggin' green line out of the toolbar!" After all, the fastest and easiest way to put a damper on the practice of buying and selling links in the hopes of passing PageRank is to quit telling people what their PageRank is.
Of course if Google did that, how many site owners would either remove the Google toolbar, or simply stop using it? That wouldn't be very good for Google, now would it? Then again, with more and more people using personalized search, Google has plenty of other opportunities to gather data on users.
The solution seems so simple, but Google has chosen to push nofollow so hard. Honestly, it makes me wonder if there's another issue at play here.
Is NoFollow the Key to Making Google's Life Easier?
Part one of this article series covered the history of the nofollow tag and it's rapid progression from comment spam fighter to paid link qualifier. I have to wonder if paid link fighting is the final destination for nofollow or if Google has quite a bit more in mind for that simple little tag.
Search engine marketers began experimenting with using the nofollow tag to channel the flow of PageRank almost as soon as it was announced. Of course it's only been in the last few months that Google has not only acknowledged this practice, but began endorsing it.
In fact, Matt Cutts posted the following comment to Google Groups just this week:
What are some appropriate ways to use the nofollow tag? One good example is the home page of expedia.com. If you visit that page, you'll see that the "Sign in" link is nofollow'ed. That's a great use of the tag: Googlebot isn't going to know how to sign into expedia.com, so why waste that PageRank on a page that wouldn't benefit users or convert any new visitors? Likewise, the "My itineraries" link on expedia.com is nofollow'ed as well. That's another page that wouldn't really convert well or have any use except for signed in users, so the nofollow on Expedia's home page means that Google won't crawl those specific links.
I've seen some folks point to this quote and shout "hypocrite." After all, the team at Google is telling us we can't manipulate PageRank by buying or selling links, but they're also telling us it's just fine to manipulate PageRank by using nofollow within our own sites or to screen the link juice to sites we don't like. To many, these two points make it sound as if Google is talking out of both sides of their mouths.
I'll take it a step further.
Perhaps it's not that Google doesn't mind site owners trying to manipulate PageRank. Perhaps it's that they see nofollow as the perfect band aid to Google's algorithm problem.
Having trouble dealing with comment spam? Get all the major blog companies to join forces to make nofollow the standard link type for blog comments.
Paid links messing up the accuracy of your algorithm? Tell people they need to nofollow those links or you'll toss them out of the index.
The Internet getting big enough that indexing all those "useless" pages (TOS, logins, itineraries) are weighing your servers down? Convince webmasters to implement nofollow on all those pages to lighten your load.
We already know that site owners are tossing nofollow tags into links to sites they don't like. In fact, Scoble shouted his praise from the rooftop over the idea he could now link to a site without giving it a boost in the Google rankings.
Perhaps Google's next crusade will be to force all of us into nofollowing the links to those "useless" pages on our sites to make their lives easier?
In part five of this series, I'll wrap things up by taking a look at what's going to happen to the Internet if Google continues with their paid link crusade.
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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