The SEO world is abuzz today with Google's smack in the face to a number of websites that are selling obviously paid-for, keyword-rich text links.

I read about it first at Andy Beard's blog (through Sphinn) but there are a number of other blog posts and articles cropping up as well.

The gist of it is that the toolbar PageRank number has been reduced by a couple of points (or more) for many websites. The assumption is that this toolbar PR reduction is the same thing as a reduction in actual PageRank (the real thing that only Google knows about), and therefore this will affect the rankings of these websites.

I'm not so sure about that, however.

My guess is that the toolbar PR penalty is just that -- a lowering of visible PR in order to make a statement.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Make it appear that the website's PageRank isn't very high, and people will be less apt to want to purchase a link from that site. Well, at least those that are buying links only to subvert Google's PageRank algorithm. Those who are buying their link ads for the actual traffic won't care, and the PR smack won't hurt them.

What I don't understand is the outrage over this.

Everyone has known that if you're going to buy/sell links you shouldn't be doing it blatantly, and yet tons of sites are doing exactly that. Take a look at some of the sites mentioned in Andy Beard's post and look at the text links. If most of those aren't a blatant attempt to manipulate PageRank (and anchor text as well), then I don't know what is.

Even my very good friends at Search Engine Guide were smacked down. I hadn't been to their home page in ages since I usually visit through direct article links, but when I looked at their home page today and scrolled down to the bottom, I was taken aback to see what looks more like a link farm than anything else!

Please don't think I'm passing judgment here -- I'm not. Jennifer Laycock from Search Engine Guide has written extensively on this subject and I agree with most of what she says. (See her 5-part series entitled "NoFollow is for Blog Spam...No, Paid Text Links, Wait...Paid Ads...Aww Heck, Just Stop Linking and Let Calacanis Decide the Rankings".) In part, Jen says that it's not our job to tell Google which of our links are bought and which are true votes...and it's not. I haven't seen any comments from Jen or SEG yet on this recent development, but I'm sure they will be taking their lumps like the professionals that they are. It will be interesting to see if they (and others) remove the paid links altogether, or use Google's recommended "nofollow" attribute on them instead. And if they do that, will people continue to purchase them? Since they're buried at the bottom of the home page where they won't be seen by actual visitors (IMO), I can't imagine that they bring much traffic to the ad buyer's website. There is no denying that at least in the case of the SEG site, the links do appear as though they were purchased for the sole purpose of gaining PageRank and/or anchor-text juice.

Paid links of this type are nothing new. I remember being amazed at how blatantly (which later became Jupiter Media) sold anchor-text links. And we're talking a good 3-4 years ago I believe. But guess what? They seemed to work like a charm to boost the rankings of the sites for the keyword phrases being used in the anchor text.

I've personally been frustrated by paid anchor-text link ads in the search engine optimization space, as they have boosted tons of SEO-company websites to the top of the SERPs for important phrases such as "search engine optimization" -- ultimately pushing down those sites who don't purchase text links. (Certainly not all of the top 10-20 sites in the SERPs are buying links, but if you do some homework you'll see many are.) But that's business, and everyone has the right to optimize their pages in whatever manner they see fit, just as Google has the right to fight back however they see fit. It will certainly be interesting to see whether the SERPs start to shuffle under this new, interesting development. If Google is simply making a show of it but not actually penalizing pages, then the results shouldn't shuffle too much.

I imagine Google is putting on the PR-smackdown show in order to make a statement, and I believe that statement is: "This is your chance to put nofollow on your paid-for links. If you don't, we might actually make this penalty the real thing."

What happens next is anyone's guess. I'm going to grab some popcorn and watch it all play out. I'm lucky enough not to be buying or selling links so I'm just a bystander at this point. That said, I don't think there's anything wrong with buying or selling them, and I'd buy them in a minute if I felt it would be something worthwhile for a client. What I've never done, nor would ever do, is buy or sell anchor-text links in a blatant manner that basically dared Google to penalize me. That's just asking for trouble!


Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

October 24, 2007

CEO and founder of High Rankings®, Jill Whalen has been performing search engine optimization since 1995 and is the host of the free High Rankings Advisor search engine marketing newsletter, author of "The Nitty-gritty of Writing for the Search Engines" and founder/administrator of the popular High Rankings Search Engine Optimization Forum. In 2006, Jill co-founded SEMNE, a local search engine marketing networking organization for people and companies in New England.

High Rankings is an internationally recognized search engine optimization firm located in Framingham, MA specializing in search engine optimization, SEO consultations, in-house training, site audit reports, search marketing seminars and workshops. High Rankings has a 100% success rate for substantially improving client rankings and targeted traffic.

Jill speaks at national and international conferences and has been writing about SEO and search marketing since 2000. She's been quoted in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report and The Washington Post. Her articles have appeared in numerous print magazines and online websites including CIO Magazine, CMS Focus, The Internet Marketing Report, ClickZ, WorkZ,, Entrepreneur, Lycos Small Business, WebProNews, SiteProNews and others. Jill has also appeared on many online and offline radio programs such as Entrepreneur Magazine's E-Biz Radio Show, SearchEngineRadio and the eMarketing Talkshow.


I actually have responded to the Google Smack on Search Engine Guide. You can read my response here.

Oy vey, doesn't anyone care about FINANCIAL FREEDOM? On one hand, I know and feel the allure of sitting in one's little rose garden, tweaking Google's nipple and then gauging the results. But for the love of g-d, what happens to your tweaking if you break both your arms?!

I'm not sure what you mean about the link farm at, Jill. Do you mean to smallbusinessbrief?

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Search Engine Guide > Jill Whalen > Google's Paid-link Smack in the Face