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Paying For Links


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#1 Randy

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Posted 30 August 2005 - 08:50 AM

I almost hesitate to bring this one up because the discussion is so convoluted and many faceted. But it's still an interesting discussion.

From my personal perspective I only purchase links from other sites when I think I'm going to get enough real traffic from them, focused traffic, so that the links are profitable for me. And yes I track that stuff and will change things if they're not. If there's any ranking boost to be had, that's all good. But that's not why I purchase advertising.

There is an interesting discussion out there about those "crap" links you see being sold on some fairly authoriative sites. The main question revolves around how these paid links are handled by the search engines. eg Whether they pass reputation or not and if they can actually end up hurting the site that is accepting payment for link placement in the long run.

Okay, that's the preface and a bit of context...

One of the best discussions on the topic I've seen is over on Tim O'reilly's blog where he's been struggling with the subject somewhat, as it can be a moral dilemma. It's a long read even though it's only a week old --and quite convoluted as blog comments can be-- but there are a few gems there that may make you sit back and go hmmm.

The most interesting blurb to me is the second comment from Matt Cutt's of Google, which is something I've always suspected but not seen confirmed in any way by a legitimate source before. To partially quote him, Matt said this:

QUOTE
Tim points out that these these links have been sold for over two years. That's true. I've known about these O'Reilly links since at least 9/3/2003, and parts of perl.com, xml.com, etc. have not been trusted in terms of linkage for months and months. Remember that just because a site shows up for a "link:" command on Google does not mean that it passes PageRank, reputation, or anchortext.


Emphasis added by your's truly.

Honestly, such a stance makes absolute sense to me, given Google's background. I can see why they would attempt to come up with a way to devalue some of these paid ad links that are totally irrelevant. But it's interesting to see that they're actually doing it.

My question then becomes, at what point does paid advertising --that is out of control of course-- actually start to hurt the linking site's reputation in their own field? Or should they be able to get away with it, simply by the search engine devaluing selected outgoing links, but leaving everything else untouched? Is it an immediate thing, or should it be, ala the old Link Farm debate where the entire site gets hosed if even a fraction of the pages are participating in a Link Farm?

If one is looking at intent those questionable outgoing links may certainly tell a story, regardless of whether they're being paid for or not. I know that as a surfer I mentally ding sites that show this type of thing, even if the rest of the site is top quality. I wonder if the search engines shouldn't be doing so also?

#2 Jill

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Posted 30 August 2005 - 10:12 AM

QUOTE
My question then becomes, at what point does paid advertising --that is out of control of course-- actually start to hurt the linking site's reputation in their own field? Or should they be able to get away with it, simply by the search engine devaluing selected outgoing links, but leaving everything else untouched? Is it an immediate thing, or should it be, ala the old Link Farm debate where the entire site gets hosed if even a fraction of the pages are participating in a Link Farm?


I have no idea of what Google or any of the engines are currently doing, but it makes sense to me that they would attempt to figure out which links might be purchased ones (and therefore not a vote) and simply not count them as a link.

I can't imagine them penalizing for them as that would be trying to dictate something that has potentially nothing to do with the engine and its own mission.

But it makes sense for them to just not count paid links.

That said, most of the time it's going to be very difficult for any engine to determine a paid link from a non-paid link. They can look for words like "sponsored by" near the link, and use that, but as we know those buying the links just for link pop. will do everything in their power to make sure their links appear to be a natural vote link, so they'll never catch them all

I doubt the engines will care if they catch them all anyway. As long as they can eventually discern the difference between paid links and real links, their algos should remain intact.

I think they're still a pretty long way off from being able to tell the difference other than in the most obvious cases.

But the main thing is that imo, you shouldn't have to worry about a penalty or anything like that.

#3 qwerty

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Posted 30 August 2005 - 10:27 AM

What about the other side of the equation? If I run a popular, authoritative site, and I sell advertising space on it, am I taking any chances? Sure, I can tell my advertisers that I can't guarantee they'll receive any SE benefit from the ads, but should I worry about linking out to garbage sites and being penalized for that?

What I'd like to see is a recognition from search engines that ads are none of their business. Since it's a business transaction and not a vote, the ad shouldn't affect the link pop of the advertiser, and it shouldn't put the site owner at risk of being labeled as one who links to bad neighborhoods.

#4 Jill

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Posted 30 August 2005 - 10:34 AM

QUOTE
What I'd like to see is a recognition from search engines that ads are none of their business. Since it's a business transaction and not a vote, the ad shouldn't affect the link pop of the advertiser, and it shouldn't put the site owner at risk of being labeled as one who links to bad neighborhoods.


I would imagine that's exactly what will happen eventually once they work out a way to figure things out.

#5 Randy

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Posted 30 August 2005 - 10:35 AM

I agree Jill.

And I'm not really into the Whole Paid or Not Paid thing. I rather doubt the engines are either since there's no way for them to tell absolutely if something is a paid link or not.

Just my opinion as a frequent surfer here, but if a link is relevant to what the linking site/page is about, I could care less whether someone is paying for the link or not. I'm going to click through.

On the other hand, if I'm on a Technology site that is all about Perl programming and I see a link to a Discount Vacations site, as a consumer I'm going to ignore it.

On the third hand (lol.gif so I'm a freak!) if I go to the same Perl site and every page has 20 links that are going to places that range from Discount Vacations to Viagra to Online Dating to Online Casino's...

As a consumer I am never going to visit that site again, no matter how good their information about Perl programming is. Distractions aren't something I need.

That's where the rub comes in for me. If I were a search engine programmer I would try to come up with some sort of threshold level. Start off by ignoring the crap links that are obviously off topic. But when those off topic links reach a certain level I'd just nuke the entire site and be done with it.

After all, the linking site has proven their intent by taking on so many link partners (again, paid or not) that lead to sites that are so far from being relevant it's laughable. Have they not?

On the fourth hand, I'm very glad I'm not a search engine engineer trying to figure out this Intent or trying to come up with a threshold level.

#6 Jill

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Posted 30 August 2005 - 10:37 AM

Good point, Randy. And that's of course where relevancy filters will have to really come into play.

#7 SearchRank

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Posted 30 August 2005 - 10:44 AM

I think Bob is right on and that is the way things will probably eventually go. In the same Tim O'Reily blog, Matt Cutts says,

QUOTE
As others have noted, if you're going to sell text links that pass reputation/PageRank, the way to do it is to add rel=nofollow to those links.


So you can see that their position is not so much against a site's right to sell ads but that those ads do not work to game their PageRank algo.

I can't really see Google starting to penalize authority sites because searchers are looking for those types of sites. If they all of a sudden begin to disappear from the SERPs, searchers are going to go elsewhere to find what they are looking for IMO.

#8 lyn

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Posted 30 August 2005 - 10:49 AM

I would hope, in the long run, that this becomes a more-or-less self-correcting issue.

Garbage ads aren't really an issue in traditional media because space is limited and the price too high for frivolous placements. The ads tend to be bought by advertisers with the greatest relevance to the audience.

Websites can, theoretically, expand ad space indefinitely so anyone with dime to spend can get place an ad. But if, as Randy says, all the low-relevance links result in degrading the overall value of the site, then a good site should eventually be able to raise its rates enough to become less attractive to advertisers with littel connection to the audience.

As ads become fewer and better, their relevance to the content should increase somewhat as well, so their presence becomes a more meaningful indicator indicator to SEs.

If this reads a little funny to anyone, try it again with your rose-coloured glasses on, ok?
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#9 clueless

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Posted 30 August 2005 - 10:52 AM

I wrestle with both sides of this issue with my own site, and the more I get into it the less resolvable it becomes. There is no place to draw any of these lines. As people become increasingly reliant upon the Web for just about everything, the parallels to the print/tangilbe world become more relevant. Dodge pays about $80,000 per second to advertise during the Super Bowl. And football has nothing to do with trucks. By any standard of relevance online that is bad behavior. Every major print outlet sells ads based upon some assessment of something similar to pagerank - the credibility of the outlet and scope and size of the audience. That is exactly what people buy, and there is nothing suspicous or unseemly about that. The linking situation is much more complicated - and with good reason. I don't know that Google could ever appreciate why Sothebys advertises in the financial news section. But they do, and I can't for the life of me see how anyone could effectively address that situation without shooting everyone - the SEs, site owners and users - in the foot.

#10 amabaie

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Posted 30 August 2005 - 10:57 AM

QUOTE
And I'm not really into the Whole Paid or Not Paid thing.


Neither is Google. It displays sponsord listings beside its regular links.

#11 qwerty

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Posted 30 August 2005 - 10:58 AM

QUOTE
Dodge pays about $80,000 per second to advertise during the Super Bowl. And football has nothing to do with trucks. By any standard of relevance online that is bad behavior.
True. I read a post like that a year or two back, and it was one of those moments where you hit yourself for not having realized something. The writer said that if you think an ad for a travel agent on an SEO site is obviously just intended for link pop, you must not think SEOs ever travel.

#12 SearchRank

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Posted 30 August 2005 - 11:02 AM

IMO, people buying links should try to place ads on sites that are somewhat relevant to what they do. If their site is related to travel, then buy on a travel authority site. If they are a contractor, buy on a construction authority site. Etc., etc. I think it is foolish to buy ads on sites that are totally unrelated - thus becoming a garbage link (E.g casino links on a business resource site).

It would be nice if search engines can work towards determining if a text link ad is on a relevant site and then give PR credit for it. If it is not, then no credit is given. I'm not sure if they are currently doing that or how possible it actually is.

Right now many people are enjoying the link popularity benefits an authority site can pass - both those who are buying them and those who are selling them. It would be nice if that can continue but relevancy factored in so that relevant ads are given credit and irrelevant ads are not.

#13 Randy

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Posted 30 August 2005 - 11:03 AM

One of the major differences with print advertising and online (link only) advertising is Presentation in my view Clueless.

Pick up a newspaper or magazine, or see an ad on TV, and the consumer can immediately recognize it's an ad because of the way it's presented.

Buying a link, and only a link, is a different story. Often there is no way for the consumer to tell if it's a paid advertisement or not. Especially for those normal surfers who are not as immersed in this stuff as we are.

It's a sticky situation to be sure. And I honestly don't see any easy outs. But I'm wondering if the premise of the blog and comments, while completely legitimate, might be missing the big picture by focusing on the paid/not paid element.

From the site selling advertising maybe they should simply go back to what we've always said here about outgoing links in general. If it's not valuable to their users, they shouldn't do it. No matter how much they're offered.

Not like that'll ever happen. Can I borrow those rose-colored glasses Lyn?

#14 torka

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Posted 30 August 2005 - 11:06 AM

QUOTE(lyn @ Aug 30 2005, 10:49 AM)
But if, as Randy says, all the low-relevance links result in degrading the overall value of the site, then a good site should eventually be able to raise its rates enough to become less attractive to advertisers with littel connection to the audience.
Or all the low-relevance ads will drive away a significant portion of the site's core audience (people like Randy, who won't go back if there are too many ads, no matter how good the info is, for instance). Even if they do still rank highly in the SERPs, they won't be able to retain much of the traffic they get -- I'd expect an increase in "click and release" visitors who bail as soon as they encounter the first page stuffed with mortgage broker/discount vacation/bargain meds ads.

And you can be sure as the "big boy" agencies move more heavily into online marketing, they're going to be tracking their ROI on these paid ads. Without the sustained, click-through-type traffic, these sites won't be able to charge as much for their ad space, so they'll be forced to either pile on more ads (starting their way on a downward spiral of ever more crap ads and ever fewer visitors)...

...or they'll wake up and smell the coffee. Bite the bullet, take the bull by the horns, and several other assorted clichés. Cut back on the crap ads. Concentrate on relevant advertising and the good content that made them popular sites in the first place. Sites that make that transition will be successful in the long term, MHO.

Back in economics class, I was always a free market kinda gal. I am virtually certain that old Adam Smith's invisible hand will sort things out in the end, but it will be interesting to see how things shake out along the way. smile.gif

--Torka mf_prop.gif

#15 SearchRank

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Posted 30 August 2005 - 11:13 AM

QUOTE(clueless @ Aug 30 2005, 07:52 AM)
Dodge pays about $80,000 per second to advertise during the Super Bowl.  And football has nothing to do with trucks.  By any standard of relevance online that is bad behavior.

That is a very good point. However I think a search engine may look at it differently because the Dodge ad is not affecting a matematical algorithm. The original idea of PageRank was like a voting or endorsement system. One site links to another because they find it a valuable resource. The search engine sees it as a "vote of confidence" that this is a good site.

However that is not the way it works anymore. One sites sells links to any site that is willing to pay for them. Because this scenario exists, there are those who work the system. Google sees this as a threat to the relevancy of the SERPs and as such looks for ways to fight it.

I think it was Greg Boser who said at SES San Jose something to the fact that Google created this "link popularity" game and now they want to take their ball and go home.




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