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 Waxy.org'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:
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.
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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