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