Imagine what you would think if your local Yellow Pages rep showed up in your office to lecture you on the direct mail advertisement you sent out last week. Perhaps they'd tell you that your direct mail piece made it less likely that customers would need to use the Yellow Pages to find you. Perhaps they'd inform you that you weren't sending it to an audience they approve of. Perhaps they simply don't like the image your graphic designer picked out and they think you should change it.

You'd find the idea ludicrous wouldn't you? After all, the team behind the Yellow Pages has no business telling you how to run other areas of your marketing campaign.

Why should Google be any different?

Nonetheless, that's exactly what's happening right now as many Internet marketers scramble to figure out how to react to Google's new crusade against paid links. While the talk about paid links has been going on for quite a while now, it started reaching a fevered pitch during Search Engine Strategies San Jose last month.

For those who haven't caught the debate, the basic idea is this:

Google announced earlier this year that paid links violate the Google Webmaster Guidelines. They then asked for the community's help in reporting sites that were selling (and buying) links so they could work to either discount or penalize the sites that used these tactics. Since paid links are one of the most popular and reliable ways of building link reputation, this move has the potential to shake up a LOT of web sites.

(To note, Google has said they have no problem with paid links if those links are tagged using nofollow or a similar method that would keep Google from spidering them.)

Last month in San Jose, Search Engine Strategies offered up a session titled "Are Paid Links Evil?" It pitted Google's Matt Cutts abd's Andy Baio against Michael Gray, Todd Malicoat and Greg Boser. (Lisa Barone has great coverage of the session at the Bruce Clay Blog if you haven't already read it.)

Matt continued to push Google's new line that paid links are "wrong" because they are being purchased by people who are seeking to increase their search engine rankings.

Most of the others agreed that search engine rankings were a strong motivator for paid text links, but explained that Google's reliance on links and inability to distinguish (and not count) paid links without webmaster help isn't really their problem. After all, web site owners are in the business of marketing their web sites, not of helping Google improve their algorithm.

What's My View?

Google has the right to do whatever they want with their algorithm and their index. They run a business and they make decisions that impact that business. If they want to discount, penalize or even ban sites that buy and sell text link ads, they're well within their rights.

On the other hand, I as a business owner have zero obligation to Google. It is not my job to help make their algorithmic life easier. It is not my job to limit my ability to rank my web site or to buy and sell ads to make Google happy. It is my job to weigh the pros and cons of each type of marketing for myself and my clients and to make decisions accordingly.

In other words, Google has the right to do it, but I have the right to ignore them.

You are not breaking laws by buying and selling text links. You are not violating some invisible code of internet ethics by buying and selling text links. You are not destroying the integrity of the Internet by buying and selling text links. If you are buying relevant links, you aren't doing anything worse than taking the time to put the keywords in your title.

All search engine optimization is designed to manipulate the algorithms. The Google Webmaster Guidelines were supposed to be designed to keep people from GAMING the system by manipulating their way to the top using non-relevant methods. Search engine algorithms are supposed to try and value content and web sites the way people do. The last time I checked, most people find value in relevant links. Whether they are purchased, bartered or given simply because the linkee is as cute as a teddy bear.

That doesn't even consider the idea that neither Google nor a viewer has any way to understand if a link has really been "paid for." Sure, it's fairly easy to see if a link is marked "sponsored text ad" but what if the link comes about because someone took you to dinner? What if they link exists because someone has sent you a gift? What if the link exists because you've "paid" for the link by linking back to them? Who is Google to decide that money changing hands is the only way to qualify a link as "purchased?"

Of course when you're the most used search engine in the world, you often get to make the rules. How many web site owners follow those rules will probably determine whether the rules stay in place, or whether they get dropped. After all, if enough major resource sites rebel that the quality of Google's search results take a hit, they'll lose traffic to underrated competitors and will have to give serious thought to changing course.

What's a Small Business Owner to do?

So what do you do with this information? Any number of things.

1.) Comply with Google - If a good Google ranking is the number one goal you have in marketing your web site, then you would probably do well to fully abide by Google's decision on paid links. To do that, you'll need to make sure any text link you buy or sell is properly distinguished from other text links by using one of the following options:

  • Redirect through a URL that you've blocked from spidering using robots.txt
  • Redirect through URL using a 302 server redirect
  • Use Javascript to direct the link
  • Apply the rel= "nofollow" attribute to the link

2.) Wait and see - While there are some reports starting to trickle out of sites dealing with drops in rankings, the actual impact of continuing to buy and sell paid links is still unknown. Most web site owners will likely go this line, proceeding with caution until they understand exactly what will happen.

3.) Keep on keeping on - While Google is a powerful source of traffic for most sites, it's not the only source of traffic. Many site owners will decide that the potential benefit of a Google penalty is outweighed by the potential rank and traffic boost that comes with paid text link ads.

How paid links will play out remains to be seen, but small business owners would be wise to pay attention to the debate.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

September 10, 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.


I've been following this topic for awhile and appreciate your "plain talk". But I really don't understand how google exepects to gain by encouraging a "ratting out" enviroment. What they are going to get plain and simple is a bunch of crap e-mail by people whining about their competitors buying links whether they are or not, and google may not have way to prove it one way or the other. To be frank I'm wondering if this isn't a major crack in google's foundation. If nothing else they are exposing the folly of links counting as votes for releavancy.

Concur totally Jennifer! Really wish Google would let this go. I just dont understand why keep toolbar PR if they hate paid links so much

I cannot for the life of me understand what Google aim to achieve by this. If I am willing to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on links then surely I will buy links with anchor code that is very relevant to my site otherwise I have wasted my time and money.

For this reason, surely paid links are even more reliable (from a relevancy viewpoint - which concerns Google the most) than a reciprocal link?

If Google are suggesting that I could get #1 position on a search term simply by buying enough links with that anchor text then the rest of their algorithm (the bit that compares the actual site content with the links pointing to the site) must suck.

Thank you for the blog post, but I feel that your initial premise might be a bit flawed.

Google is not preventing you from doing anything. You can buy and sell all the paid links you want. What they are saying is the behavior (mainly selling paid links) could affect your ability to pass link juice.

The correct analogy would if Yellow Pages prevented you from purchasing ad space from them, and then using that visibility for profit by then reselling that positioning to other advertisers.

Obviously, this analogy is flawed, but the reality is that there is no proper analogy for the paid links situation.

For years, I've been one of the biggest proponents of paid links out there (both buying and selling) but being that I'm a white hat, I have now phased that technique out of my overall strategy.

The bottom line is this. Google has the right to define the parameters for how they will index and rank documents within their search engine.

They're not suing you or bringing forth criminal charges if you engage in paid link strategies. They're simply adjusting their serps accordingly.

I wish they could find a middle ground - something similar to what they've done with reciprocal linking (allowing for some, if they're natural and targeted) but at this point they're not, so we as webmasters must deal with that.

Not by complaining, but by adjusting our plan of attack.

Well said Jennifer.

I think Google is sort of stuck in some kind of anti seo trench. Fighting these evil webspammers must have a drip drip effect.

Silence might sometimes be the better policy.

The thing that gets me with Google is that they like to open up this huge aspect of fear and uncertainty by saying if you do this on your site, then we might not like it and hurt you in return. We then get into this crazy adversarial thing and debate that often degenerates into a tittle tattle round of name calling and stuff like that.

The cat can't be put back into the bag, but at times it would be a whole lot better if Google just said a whole lot less. Let people do what they like and let users vote with their feet.

If Google want to restrict the power of tactic a or b, then let them do so, if they want to remove asite out of their index then again that is their choice, its their index, they really don't have to keep on shouting the odds and bullying everyone into their world view.

Of course to say that opens up bigger questions around monopilasation and restriction of trade, but thats a topic for another day perhaps!

Well said Hugo. I could not agree with you more.

The idea that both owners and Google cannot or should not do as they please with their own sites is silly at best. If you don't want to put nofollow on your paid links.... Don't. If you do want to put nofollow on them.... do it then.

Whatever you do, Google simply adjusts it's SERPS up or down. It shouldn't make a difference to owners at all. It's the same with any type of search engine spam, and has been the same for years now. Do it, or don't do it. It's really that simple. No use in crying about what Google is doing or not doing. Google isn't losing any sleep over what site owners do, so why should owners?

Over the years people adjust. Do things differently than you were doing them in years prior. Isn't this the exact same thing we all should be doing with everything?

You completely failed to also mention the double standard of Google telling us we can't buy relevant links to promote our business...b/c it will incorrectly (in Google's eyes) move my site up in the organic SERPs. HOWEVER, it is completely ok for me to buy a paid link from Google (with a built in slowly increasing price) to show up next to/above relevant organic results that I can't rank for. This rule really doesn't benefit Google in anyway does it? I love how the couch it in terms of improving search engine relevancy, when all they are really saying (in a microsftian way) is you can only buy paid ad text links from us and only put paid text links on your site from Google. It is so lame...Its like if the biggest yellow pages in the world said I couldn't buy ads in smaller yellow pages because it would make my company seem more valid in its own book. Keeping in mind that the biggest yellow pages in the world makes all its money from the same kind of ads and only wants me to buy ads from it and they want me (and my competition) to keep buying bigger and bigger ads. It's ludicrous! Do they really think we are that dumb to just blithely think the motive behind this is some altruistic need to keep their organic results clean. That may be true on the surface, but if you dig down even a little it is always about $$$ and we know what Google's cash cow is. Little relevant paid text ads...

Andy, Google Adwords are not the same as a "Paid Links" in this context. Adwords ads do not pass along and link juice, PR, etc...

Hugo - I realize that...but take one step further. I can't buy relevant small text ads on other sites that may move me up in Google organic results, but I am ALWAYS welcome to do the altrnative - Which is - for the right ever increasing price - to pay Google for small text ads to show up NEXT to the organic results I can't show up in - because I am a commercial site selling products that no one really has a reason to editorially link to... I can't believe no thinks there is connection between this policy and that fact...

Andy; Your comparison does not hold any water.. sorry. You claim that Google is in it for the money.. well duh? Of course that is true. Isn't your website in it for the money as well, and are not buying that text link for the money? Of course you are.

This debate is truly silly. I wonder why NO ONE out there said one word to Google or Matt Cutts when you clearly stated TWO years ago in his blog that Google is seeking out "paid links" and will NOT give them value when they find them? So where was this SEO industry two years ago, huh? I could have told ALL of you 4 years ago about all of this,... and did so many, many times then, and have done so since then.

I feel the industry is about 3 steps behind. :-)

"I could have told ALL of you 4 years ago about all of this,... and did so many, many times then, and have done so since then."

Only four years ago Doug?

I seem to recall it being five (maybe more) years ago that Bob Massa had that point publicly proven...

What we need is a private NON-profit company to provide a Search Engine. Somebody made Craigslist famous. Someone can do the same for a search engine.

This way, we can take the element of Corporate GREED out of the equation.

Jennifer, excellent article. I think this whole hullabaloo is absurd! Unlike all other methods that have been developed to manipulate PR paid links were around before the algo was developed. So, IMO, it is a legit argument to say that this is a mess of their own making and therefore theirs to clean up. Should SE's expect publishers to bastardize their HTML with non compliant attributes in the href in order to sweep up the mess they created? I have yet to see anywhere that Google has made any attempt to get the attribute added to the spec. One bonus to that would be that it would be controlled by a 3rd party who are less likely to add even more draconian uses for it. When have the SE's done any of this in any way that could be deemed successful. One need look no further than the Robots.txt protocol and NoIndex tags to see where this could end up.

When it is spec compliant, then, I think we should consider using it, til then I say we all give them the one finger salute! Google will find, in fact it's already happening, that this attribute will be exploited also, so it's easy to see a time and place when Google will come back to the well with another likely lamer fix!

Google loves paid links, so long as they are the ones doing the selling or getting an end. That, IMO, is the crux of the matter! I agree that publishers shouldn't feel they are owed but when these attributes are a must, and they start a snitch campaign that can be described only as a witchhunt you'll see a lot of publishers and charities loose the income which supports their efforts. What will their alternative be? Likely a SE's publisher program. IMO, one could also argue that this is a possible other benefit to SE's enforcing this abomination.

I haven't seen any other mentions about this being non compliant but there's likely a good chance that I'm the only guy left in the industry who doesn't think Google wrote the spec.

Couldn't agree more Terry...

This isn't about a "wah, Google can't do that" kind of thing.

I fully acknowledge Google can do anything they want, they're a private business. However...I'm not obligated to do what they tell me to and neither is any other business.

Somewhere along the line, I think people forgot that...

Umm I think that you forgot that Google has no obligation to offer you ranking either or display your website at all!

People stop whinning already. If you don't like it go start your own search engine that works off of people buying links. Who ever has the most money gets the top position. That's what you want right?

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Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > The Idiocy of Google's Paid Link Crusade