The discussions that take place in the search marketing world are like sports talk radio to me. It's fun to listen to the analysis and armchair quarterbacking because I view it as harmless entertainment. Now, every once in a while you'll hear a radio sports host making statements about a coach that are off track and the coach will call in to the show to set things straight.
I don't blog. That's Jennifer's territory. But this week, I felt the need to respond to public statements about Search Engine Guide.
Jill Whalen's article, Google's Paid-link Smack in the Face, presents a "get things back on the right track" opportunity for me because of the things she said about Search Engine Guide. Keep in mind, Jill really isn't talking smack like radio hosts do. She's simply expressing her opinion. I don't have a problem with that, which is why we ran an article of hers that many have viewed as an attack on us.
Opinion or not, when someone with Jill's stature makes incorrect negative comments that portray our site and advertisers in a poor light, it's important to respond in order to sort opinion from fact.
So, let's have a look at what she said.
"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!"
If you aren't familiar with the term, a link farm is basically a set of web pages built for the sole purpose of exchanging links and manipulating PageRank. Relevance isn't of much importance to link farmers.
To a publisher, having a portion of your site portrayed as irrelevant junk meant to manipulate search engine rankings can be a pretty severe insult. But I think this is a case of myopic thinking on Jill's part. She eats and breathes SEO so naturally she sees the world through SEO glasses. She makes assumptions based on her perspective as an SEO without understanding the perspective of the business she's critiquing. Jill sees a categorized list of our advertisers on our homepage and she thinks "link farm."
I'm not an SEO. I'm a publisher. A big part of my job is to do my best to get my advertisers as much exposure as possible. If I hide them away I'll be going out of business pretty quickly. So guess what? I proudly showcase my advertisers and do whatever I can to shout out to the world about their businesses and what they do. It's why I list them on our home page. I want everyone to know who our advertisers are. In fact, I use big bold lettering above them to declare:
"Please visit our sponsors who make Search Engine Guide possible"
As you can see, I'm not trying to hide anything or slyly manipulate anything.
So is it a link farm? Obviously not. It is what it is... a showcase of our advertisers. Nothing more, nothing less.
Of course relevance is another factor that her SEO-centric perspective would likely focus on. If you look at our advertisers you'll see things like directories, a bank, business opportunity affiliates, web hosts, a press release service, software, seminars, a big list of SEOs and search marketing firms and a number of other products and services all relevant to our audience of small business people.
When companies promoting things like jewelry or real estate show up with their advertising dollars I turn them away. Why? Because I know my audience and I know they aren't at Search Engine Guide to learn about those types of companies. They don't mind ads relevant to small business issues because the ads provide an opportunity to learn about products and services that could benefit them.
If my audience didn't mind seeing non-relevant ads would I sell them? Of course. As long as it wasn't anything illegal, immoral or in my opinion distasteful, you bet I'd sell those ads. The bottom line is my audience doesn't want those ads so I don't sell them. There is always that balance I have to keep.
Here is another statement from Jill I'd like to address:
"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."
Actually, Jennifer posted her thoughts on the situation right around the same time Jill published her own article.
And lumps? What lumps? The shifting of little green pixels (toolbar PageRank reduction) is of no relevance to us. Now, if our revenue dropped because of the pixel shift, you bet I'd consider that lumps. It's no secret we took our first green pixel hit earlier this month yet we've had no revenue drop. And if our advertisers really were in it for Google's green fairy dust, wouldn't there have been a mass exodus? There wasn't.
Another thing to keep in mind is this is not the first time Google has adjusted either our green pixel number or our ability to pass PageRank. In fact, it's not even the second. It's at least the third time and for all I know it could have happened more than that.
I don't pay attention to how or if we pass PageRank because it doesn't improve the experience for our audience and it doesn't help me sell ads. The reason I know about previous instances of Google blocking our ability to pass PageRank is because we have a bunch of very successful SEOs as advertisers. They told me about it. And you know what, we didn't lose them as advertisers then either. Why? (drum roll please)
They weren't buying ads for PageRank.
Jill goes on to say:
"It will be interesting to see if they (and others) remove the paid links altogether..."
ARG! This drive me nuts. It's as if Google and a good number of people can't comprehend that links are for anything other than trying to boost PageRank. You know what? Quality links drive traffic and can be quite effective for branding. Oh my, how's that for a crazy thought?
"Since they're [the links] 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."
Well, Jill did say it's just her opinion and I can't blame her for the fact that she doesn't understand our audience, advertisers or business model. Of course, that fact that it's her opinion doesn't change the fact that she is wrong.
Once again I believe Jill is suffering from tunnel vision. She calls the list of advertisers on our home page "buried... where they won't be seen by actual visitors..." Uh... buried? Errr, ok... I guess my big...
"Please visit our sponsors who make Search Engine Guide possible"
...heading isn't enough in Jill's mind to grab the attention of our visitors. Maybe she thinks a big flashing neon sign is necessary to get our visitors to notice? (Hmmmm, flashing hot pink neon might be kinda cool actually.)
And Jill says she "...can't imagine that they bring much traffic to the ad buyer's website." Well again, Jill is making statements on a subject she knows nothing about. She can't imagine our text links delivering traffic (don't forget my crazy branding notion either) because she doesn't know a thing about traffic patterns on our site or what our audience looks at.
Now I do have to take Jill to task for being lazy when she says:
"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."
Remember how I pointed out that I don't hide our advertisers? Well, I don't hide our rate card either. The link to our rate card is right up there at the top of the page so everyone can see and visit it:
Now, the reason I said I think Jill was being lazy is because it's apparent she didn't even bother to look at what our advertisers are purchasing. We sell CPM ads and we sell a Site Sponsor Package where I've bundled a combination of static and rotating text ads with rotating graphic ads at a flat monthly rate. CPM ads for larger advertisers and Site Sponsor Packages for the smaller advertisers.
Contrary to Jill's opinion that the Site Sponsor Packages are being purchased "...for the sole purpose of gaining PageRank and/or anchor-text juice" I think our advertisers actually do purchase the package because they see the value of having:
1. A featured, non-rotating link on our home page
2. A non-rotating link in our marketplace directory
3. A rotating, run of site text box ad
4. A rotating, run of site 300x100 graphic ad
5. A rotating, run of site 125x125 graphic ad
"Hold the phones! Mr. Robert, did you just say you sell text ads?!" Yep. Since 1996 I've been selling text and graphic ad packages on our sites. Proud of it too. Why? Because we deliver a good value for our advertisers.
And in case you missed it, that's 1996 B.G. (Before Google)
I don't know, maybe Jill thinks we just sell text ads. And I would if they made business sense to do so. But think about it, what would I charge for a single text link? $50 a month? I can't afford to service clients who are only spending $50 a month. Naturally customers want to talk with me, submit changes, ask questions, etc. My business can't provide that support for $50 ads and make a profit. And just so there is no confusion, I have no qualms selling text ads, graphic ads, video ads, or whatever if it benefits my audience, my advertisers and my business.
I also want to address from another angle Jill's belief that our advertisers are purchasing our ad packages for the sole purpose of gaining PageRank. The reason I bring this up is because there is something about the way Jill, and apparently Google, appear to view my advertisers that bugs me.
Look at our home page. There are a zillion and one links on there. How much PageRank value could a single link from that page really provide? I don't even pretend to be an expert on PageRank but it seems obvious to me there is very little, if any PageRank value. Certainly not enough to justify spending the $150 for our advertising package.
Now Jill made the following comment after one of Jennifer's posts:
"Thanks for the clarification, Jen. I wonder if they will continue to buy them if you removed those ones on the home page? (Not saying you should by any means!) Because I can see those ones being the draw as far as real PageRank and anchor text go."
I was surprised by that statement so I responded to Jill: "Wait, are you saying you actually think that with the 10 zillion advertisers I have linked that anyone is actually getting PageRank benefit that would remotely matter?"
"No idea if they are or aren't; but it doesn't matter what I think, it's the perception of those buying them that matters."
I told Jill that my advertisers aren't as ignorant as she seems to think they are. Let's face it, only an idiot would spend $150 solely to get PageRank value when there probably isn't any to be had. I know it. I believe she knows it. And I certainly hope everyone buying ads from us knows it.
The bottom line is, I don't think my advertisers are idiots. Of course, it will be easy enough to see if I'm wrong. If we have a bunch of advertisers suddenly defect, feel free to publicly parade them in front of me as proof that they were buying only for PageRank and that I was wrong.
Now there is something that Jill said that I do not disagree with:
"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.'"
Jill very well may be right about that and it's a dilemma many publishers like me face. Knowing we've done nothing wrong, why should we bow to Google's demands that we make changes that have no benefit to our visitors and are solely for the benefit of a search engine? On principles's sake, we shouldn't.
Do I really think Google wants to unfairly punish people they know have done nothing wrong by yanking them from their index? No, I don't. But I do think Google is willing to inflict collateral damage on the innocent in the name of making their jobs easier.
Even worse, I'm afraid the people in charge at Google are drinking too much of their own kool-aid and they are beginning to believe their own nonsense that only sites trying to cheat them won't comply with their demands.
Are we willing to risk losing the traffic Google sends simply because we don't buy into this crazy notion? Will we nofollow every paid link just because Google demands it? At this point, I don't know. It's a decision that will be made based on what is best for, and with the input of, our readers, advertisers, contributors and employees.
Search Engine Marketing Columnist
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