After years of giving searchers the option to report search results they are unhappy with, or sites that appear to be misrepresenting their content, Google has decided to add paid links to the list of acceptable things to tattle about. Vanessa Fox posts the details at the Official Google Webmaster Central Blog.
Links are an important signal in our PageRank calculations, as they tend to indicate when someone has found a page useful. Links that are purchased are great for advertising and traffic purposes, but aren't useful for PageRank calculations. Buying or selling links to manipulate results and deceive search engines violates our guidelines.
Today, in response to your request, we're providing a paid links reporting form within Webmaster Tools. To use the form, simply log in and provide information on the sites buying and selling links for purposes of search engine manipulation. We'll review each report we get and use this feedback to improve our algorithms and improve our search results. in some cases we may also take individual action on sites.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. It's understandable that Google is trying to find a way to crack down on manipulation of their algorithm, but I'd argue that they sort of set themselves up for this. They're the ones feeding PageRank estimates to the masses. Is it any surprise that webmasters would spend all their time obsessing about the fastest way to get a little more green? Or that site owners would gather their own green by offering up paid link space?
Graywolf has some good insight on the Google paid link issue:
...how do you or anyone else, know with any reasonable degree of certainty, that I was paid to put up a link. Maybe Matt slipped me that nice black Google polo shirt I was wearing at SMX because I linked to him. Maybe he gave it to me so I wouldn't point out that Google secretly hired Sasquatch to camp out on the Grassy Knoll and assassinate Kennedy or any other anti-Google conspiracy theory that I come across. Does throwing a great party at a conference count as paying for a link? Maybe I don't get the cash directly, but I did drink some carbonated beverages (that's my story and I'm sticking to it) and eat some food when I was there. Didn't some one have to pay for the food and drink? If I write about it after the party and put up a link didn't I get something of monetary value for that link. Food and drink is certainly a lot more real than toolbar PageRank dontcha think?
Graywolf makes good points about the problems Google is going to run into as far as putting this rule into effect. I'd go a step further though.
Google is a company that has the right to decide how it wants to do business. If that means making up some stupid, arbitrary, impossible to enforce standards, then they are will within their rights. They're even within their rights to penalize or banish the sites that don't play by their rules.
But what will happen when they do? How many sites will they lose? How many good sites will they lose?
And if they lose those sites, will their index be worse or better?
I mean theoretically, Google could decide that they didn't think sites that use drop-down navigation schemes are bad and exclude all of them from their database as well. That doesn't mean it's a good idea.
When a search engine starts penalizing sites that are trying to sell (or buy) ad space instead of sites that are actively seeking to game the system, there's a good chance that their search results will suffer.
On the other hand, Google is probably powerful enough to pull it off.
I haven't fully decided where I come down on the issue yet. I think it's a bad idea, but I understand Google's reasons. It will certainly be interesting to see how this all plays out in the next several months.
(HT to Andy Beal on Graywolf's coverage)
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