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SEO Website Audit

Google’s Paid-link Smack in the Face

October 24, 2007

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 Internet.com (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!

 

Jill

 

[added: Just noticed Jennifer Laycock’s take on this at Search Engine Guide.]

[added: Robert’s take at Search Engine Guide.]

 
 
Post Comment

 Beth said:
Comment @ 10/24/07 at 6:39 pm Talk about a Smack. I recently did a spin off page to offer wares at a reduced rate to commercial accounts. Thought I would do Google Adwords to beef up the traffic. Instead, now when customers input my new site address on google, they get all the unrelated pages that google has placed my site on and the possibility of a browser hijack to boot. Needless to say, I cancelled the adwords account and will have to wait it through for the banners on sites (that have nothing to do with X-ray Markers) drops off. Live and learn.
 Jill said:
Comment @ 10/24/07 at 7:12 pm That’s interesting, Beth, but not really sure how it relates to the topic at hand.
 John said:
Comment @ 10/24/07 at 7:15 pm Jill, you touched on the issue of PageRank and I think that’s the key to combating paid link schemes. If Google cut PR from their toolbar and stopped making the value public altogether, wouldn’t that stop the vast majority of paid linkers? Who would want to pay for a link if they didn’t know exactly how much link popularity weight that page carried, if any?
 Ahmed said:
Comment @ 10/24/07 at 7:28 pm Well said Jill :) The organic search shouldnt be manipulated in anyway by buying links - I hope google goes one step further and alters the SERPs. Pass that popcorn would you? :P
 Sebastian said:
Comment @ 10/24/07 at 7:41 pm Spot on. It’s a message. The great unwashed will ignore it as usual. I couldn’t resist and blogged that too, also enjoy Greg Bosers post on toolbar hysteria.
 marie said:
Comment @ 10/24/07 at 7:43 pm I’m a bit confused. 1. How does Google know which links are paid and which aren’t? 2. Does this mean people shouldn’t exchange links anymore? 3. What about doing links to sites without exchanging links or charging for them? I guess it leaves me a bit nervous about adding links now!
 Mike said:
Comment @ 10/24/07 at 8:13 pm Jill - I’m not all together convinced it is just a simple case of penalising paid links. Let’s take the case of Andy himself, Brian at Copyblogger and Blog Bloke over at InstaBloke. None of them have sold any links so why have they been hit? Is it a case of Big G destroying the beast they created or is it something else? Let’s assume that paid links are the main reason behind all of this. By removing visible PR to these sites, it sends out a message that Big G won’t tolerate any no-followed sponsored links. Fair enough. It’s their game, they make the rules. But does this mean that paid links will simply disappear as a result? Hell, no! All that will happen is that the link brokers will find a new metric to gauge prices. What they seem to have missed is the fact that the very people they’re attacking are the very people who made them what they are today.
 Andy Beard said:
Comment @ 10/24/07 at 8:17 pm I don’t think anyone in the industry our outside it can really stand on the sidelines totally. Lets for a moment look at your sidebar That link to Basecamp I see is one of the following An affiliate link A paid link with a tracking reference Some kind of traffic exchange for advertising An advertising link that you forgot to stick nofollow on (you are not selling pagerank obviously) You are trying to get the attention of Basecamp for some reason so you include a reference back to you they will see in stats It is a referral competition for a free account or special member bonuses As a human with some SEO knowledge I can’t tell which it is, and it is likely Google’s human inspectors can’t either. Whether a bot can spot other linking patterns and judge the intent is possible, but unlikely. They can spot unnatural linking, but they can’t fully understand your email conversation even if they had access.
 Jill said:
Comment @ 10/24/07 at 11:21 pm Andy, the basecamp ad is an affiliate link. And I agree with you that it’s going to be extremely difficult for Google to spot all the paid links out there (which they know). For now, they have appeared to target the most obvious ones, which I’m sure in their mind is a good start. And now they watch and wait to see if their message was heard. They sure are sneaky bastards! :)
 Weed said:
Comment @ 10/25/07 at 8:22 am yep, i’m with you on this one Jill (as usual) — sitting back, smiling, watching those who try and manipulate search engine rankings having a panic attack every time Google makes a minor change to its rituals :) PS i think there’s a minor problem with this entry box — it scrolls off the screen (1024×768) and right hand side can’t be viewed
 Wayne Smallman said:
Comment @ 10/25/07 at 5:05 pm “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.” True, and a good point. But I can’t help shake the feeling that maybe there’s also an element of Google running scared from Social Media. Think about it —while ever people like you & me are finding stuff on Digg, StumbleUpon, Reddit and del.icio.us, we’re not searching for stuff on Google — and that attacks at the very heart of Google’s revenues. So by hitting those ‘blogs and websites that are the most visible sources on the Social Media portals, I get the feeling it’s some clumsy attempt by Google to make them less visible, too. Which won’t / can’t really work…
 Jill said:

Comment @ 10/26/07 at 11:36 am

 

Well this article certainly caused a firestorm in the SEO world! Robert over at SEG was not very thrilled with the article and seemed to take it as a direct attack on his business model, which was never my intention.

 

I’ve replied to him there, but wanted to also post my reply here:

 

First, it’s important for everyone to know that I have already personally emailed Robert with an apology for appearing to attack his business model. As I stated in my article, we happen to be good friends, and have been for a good 6-7 years. I would hate to have something I said in an article come between our friendship, and my one big regret with the whole thing was using SEG as my example, when I could have chosen any of the other sites that had previously been mentioned in the other posts on this topic. Robert responded that there were no hard feelings at all and that he just felt it was necessary to clarify some points for the community.

 

So for anyone looking for an out and out mud-slinging brawl, it’s not going to happen here!

 

With that out of the way, let me explain why I did choose SEG to use as my example even though they are friends. For one, I know that Robert has always appreciated my outspokenness on all SEO issues, and I had hoped he would take my article in the spirit to which it was intended…me reporting on why Google may have reduced the toolbar PageRank of SEG. Remember here folks, I’m not the one who reduced their toolbar PR. I was just trying to make sense out of it.

 

When I saw in the previous posts on this topic that SEG was a Google target, my first reaction was complete shock. I thought, “Huh? Why in the world would SEG’s toolbar PR be reduced?” I’ve obviously known they’ve been selling ad space for years, but never thought of that as something Google was targeting. It was only when I visited their home page and saw all the text links at the bottom that I thought, “Ahh…okay…exactly the thing Google stated they were going to start targeting.”

 

That’s really all their was to it. No judgment on my part as to whether what happened was a good or bad thing, simply a reporting on why it probably was happening.

 

To comment on Robert saying that I was being lazy in not looking at their advertising packages, I have to whole-heartedly disagree with this. Why would I need to look at that? Why would it matter to me or to the point of the article what their ad packages were? The package they’re selling was obviously of no interest to Google, as they are the ones who lowered the toolbar PR, not me!

 

All in all, I believe my article was a fair representation of what was happening and it was in no way meant as an attack on SEG or anyone else. The one thing I wrote that was wrong and that I would like to retract at this time was calling their paid text link ads at the bottom of the home page, a link farm. That was admittedly an overstatement, and done more as poetic license for maximum affect to the reader. But it was an inaccurate label as link farms by the definition I’ve always used for them are something completely different. (Link farms are a group of sites that get together to all link to each other.) Clearly this is not what SEG’s links are, as all the sites that advertise do not all link to each other as far as I know.

 

Whether the SEG ad buyers’ purchase their ads for PageRank or anchor text purposes (as well as for direct traffic purposes), who knows? I suspect many or most of them do, which is perfectly within their right! That doesn’t make them idiots at all, as Robert seemed to try to suggest that I was saying. But let’s be honest, text links such as those on the SEG home page can often provide a nice SEO benefit (which is why Google hates them). People buying them for that purpose is not surprising, nor is it dumb. It is simply good business sense. You do whatever works for you in this business, and that’s fine.

 

My major point in the article was really to wonder out loud what those who do advertise for the anchor text/PR benefit would be doing in the future if/when that is taken away by Google. I wrote about buying text links back in Feb. ‘06 which may be worth another read now that it’s all coming to a head.

 

I do hope that people will re-read the original article in light of Robert’s comments, and see that my intent was certainly not to attack Robert, his business model or SEG. And to Robert (and Jennifer) I do sincerely apologize if it came across that way, and also for using the incorrect and inappropriate “link farm” phrase to describe your links.

 

For the record, I did immediately post a link to Jennifer’s article on this topic with my original article as soon as I saw it. I will also post a copy of this post/comment with my own article and point to Robert’s post here for reference.

 

Thanks for listening!


 Chris Nielsen said:
Comment @ 10/26/07 at 11:36 am While I did notice some talk by Arron Wall that the rankings he checked were the same despite the lower PR, it didn’t click with me that this is just a “message” and really doesn’t mean all that much really. It seems that sites with or without paid links may or may not have seen a change. I think it’s a safe move for Google, but it’s really not going to change the paid link industry, they will just move “underground” and it will be even harder to tell what is and what is not a paid link.
 Jonathan said:
Comment @ 10/29/07 at 1:07 am This pageRank reduction for me is such a laugh, i am in South Africa and have several sites here, which i noticed one of my sites, after being live for 4 years fell from a PR4 to PR3. Just in case you wondering, its just an ordinary accommodation site. For me, what is so funny is the Google’s own South Africa search engine, fell from PR8 to PR7. Dont think they actually know what they doing, how ridiculous is that……
 Jill said:
Comment @ 10/29/07 at 8:00 am Hi Jonathan, Besides the “smackdown” PR changes, there appears to have been a normal PR update. Sometimes they adjust it across the board so that many sites go down. It’s a function of more and more pages coming online and nothing to do with your site. You shouldn’t lose any traffic over it, so I wouldn’t worry about it. Jill
 Arjun S said:
Comment @ 10/29/07 at 8:44 am I don’t personally think it has anything to do with “no follow”. Modulus Systems has had all pages PR5 for a long time. I restructured it to include about 20 nofollow links on the homepage and there you go.. page rank dropped to 4. I guess, it is just the links, nothing to do with nofollow. Any other experiences?

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