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August 21, 2007

Are Paid Links Evil?

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I’m giggling. I don’t know why. It’s probably the combination of lack of food and because someone was crazy enough to put Michael Gray, Matt Cutts, and Greg Boser on the same panel to discuss buying links. This is going to be so totally good that I can’t even take it!

Seriously though, the entire search community is represented in this audience. I’m talking about Shoemoney, Matt McGee, Neil Patel, Bill Slawski, Dave Wallace, Jim Boykin, Rand Fishkin, Barry Schwartz, Andy Beal, Chris Boggs, Rhea Drysdale, everyone! My heart goes out to Matt Cutts. We’re really all just here to watch him squirm. (Hi, Matt!)

Okay, Jeffrey Rohrs is moderating the session with speakers Michael Gray (Atlas Web Service), Matt Cutts (Google), Todd Malicoat (Stuntdubl), Greg Boser (WebGuerrilla), Todd Friesen (Range Online Media) and Andy Baio (Upcoming & Waxy.org). Have I mentioned that this is going to be good?

Jeffrey starts the session with the following video from Dave at Rentvine:

Heh.

Okay, up first is Matt. He says it’s kind of funny because he tried to put some jokes in the presentation and his wife veto’d them (hee!), so he’s sorry if it’s boring.

Matt says that asking if paid links are evil or not is the wrong question. He says the right question is, "Do paid links that pass PageRank violate search engines’ quality guidelines?" The answer to that is yes.

He adds that the FTC has said that word of mouth marketing is like any other kind of marketing, and if you’re being paid to say something you should disclose that. Adequate disclosure means it is understood by both people and the machines.

How do you disclose a paid link to the search engines?

  • Redirect through URL locked by robots.txt
  • Redirect through URL t hat does a 302
  • JavaScript
  • Nofollow the link

Google says you can buy links within search engine guidelines – meaning they can’t pass PR. Google doesn’t care about those links. However, you cannot buy links that pass PageRank.

Examples of PPP links – fundraisers, donate cars, online, credit, super slots, providers, junk yards, online casino, bypass pill, dating advice, USA online poker, etc.

Matt says paid links are like littering – it makes the Web a dirty place. Heh. (If only you could have seen the look on Greg Boser’s face when Matt said that. It summed my thoughts up pretty well. ;) )

Link buying obstacles:

  • It can be difficult to buy PPP links
  • Buy for a limited time?
  • Buy "run of site" links
  • Buying links from slopping sellers
  • Checking if a link seller cloaks
  • Can a competitor spot your paid links?

Google’s approach: Google uses both algorithmic and human detection. They are more than willing to take strong action against PPP links and this is an area Google is focusing on. He talks about Rand’s recent post about paid links and how if you buy them to help you rank that you’re not a white hat.

Next up is Michael Gray. This should be good.

Michael says Matt paid him 100 dollars to wear his Google shirt.

Michael argues that Google is not the government. They have no authority to dictate policy to you. They are a for-profit company. He compares Matt saying Don’t Buy Links to Ronald McDonald saying Don’t Buy A Whopper. Hee!

Google developed an algorithm that is based on links. Now they expect you to change your business model to compensate for their flaws. Google made 1.12 billion profit last quarter. Did you? Google expects you to sacrifice income and profitability to help them make money.

Nofollow was originally developed to combat blog spam, then, three months after it was widely adopted, Google changed the rules. Now it is used for paid advertising. They took advantage of the rules.

What constitutes a paid link? If you link to Google tomorrow about the Google Dance does that count as a paid link?

With a paid link, unless you’re one of the two people involved, you have absolutely no way to know for certain if that was a paid link or not. Paid links work, that’s why Google doesn’t want people using them. They don’t want to have to change their algorithm.

Google’s campaign is about creating fear and uncertainty and doubt. They’re trying to convince you that by buying or selling paid links you are breaking the law or being unethical. Google is not the government. They can not change your ethics. (About three people just said "yet…" Ha, I love this session.)

Google has overstepped its bounds. Google’s mission statement is not to tell you how to build your Web site. It’s not to tell you how to buy or sell ads. It’s not to tell you how to run your business.

Michael is finished and pretty much gets a standing ovation.

Todd Malicoat is up next to give 7 reasons why he is a link libertarian.

  1. Semantics: "Paid" is ambiguous. Every link has a relative value and cost.
  2. Incentive – blame the algorithm: Google put PR in the toolbar to give site owners a reason to download it. Top rankings are worth money. The algorithm encourages linking
  3. Economics: The indifference principle. Efficient market hypothesis. Eventually people will become sick of paying for links and they’ll stop.
  4. Transparency and Relevancy: Advertising has never been fully transparent. As a consumer, he likes it. As a marketer, he loves it. As an SEO, it’s not his responsibility. Paid links help with traffic. That’s all he knows and cares about.
  5. Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt Vs. Transparency
  6. Competition is Good: It advances the Web.
  7. There IS such a thing as search engines. We can’t design our sites like there are no search engines because there are search engines. If there weren’t search engines, we wouldn’t have to use nofollow to begin with.

Risks: The invisible nofollow (you think you’re getting PR that you’re not), may incur manual review, may incur penalty.

Rewards: higher traffic, rankings and sales.

Why Todd won’t report paid links:

  • My competitors have taught me a whole lot with paid linking
  • I doubt much would get done
  • I buy links too and it’s okay.

Todd Friesen is next. He says he thinks there’s much more of a middle ground that what is being presented. Obviously, Google has to say it’s bad. And the examples everyone is showing are really egregious. He shows the gambling and casino sites.

Are you going to buy 10 thousand off-topic links? Or are you going to go out and actually researching it? Todd views it as two separate things. You have to go out there and do what you need to do in order to compete in your vertical. You have to be able to compete and sometimes if you follow the rules you can’t do that.

If you’re going to get into link buying, you have to go into it with your eyes open. In the worst case scenario of link buying, you’re flushing your money down the toilet. Google cannot ever come out in good conscience and ban you from buying paid links because they can’t prove it. Only the buyer and the seller know for sure.

If you’re going to do it, be careful. You have to stay in your space and follow the rules governing your vertical.

Greg Boser is next. He admits to sometimes driving in the carpool lane when he’s late because the value of getting to the meeting on time outweighs the ticket.

Greg says if you want to clean up the Web, stop polluting the Web with stupid videos like the RentVine video we just saw. That’s the stuff polluting the Web, not paying for a link on a relevant site.

Site owners should be held accountable for making good editorial decisions. He talks about the Yahoo Directory and how they take your money to "evaluate" your site to see if it’s worthy enough to add to their directory. Is that not a paid link?

He talks about the rumors that Danny’s old blogroll on SEW didn’t pass PR and how Greg thinks that’s basically crap. We trust Danny to select good sites. Those links should have counted. Google should have nothing to do with your personal business. Stop rewarding anchor text the way that you do and it will go away on its own.

Last but not least is Andy Baio. He’s the lamb to the slaughter. Or something.

He agrees with Greg and the two Todds. If you’re reviewing a site and there is editorial judgment than he doesn’t think those are the links that people are worried about. That’s not polluting the Web.

Andy says he has no commercial interest in this issue and he’s here to speak on the behalf of everyday users. Everyone wants the Web to be valuable and easy to use. The only reason he agreed to the panel was because he felt so strongly about the issues. He says that, in many cases, buying links is not acceptable and it should be looked at with the same disdain as other spammy tactics.

Ask yourself, are you making the Web better or are you making it worse? Andy says he has a background in journalism and in journalism school, they teach you the value of being objective.

By buying paid links, you’re trying to trick search engines and alter the results users get when they search for things.

And then when the links finally are detected, they get purged from the index, and people are really upset. Google is not purging these sites because they hate competition to their own ad products. They’re doing it because the sites that are being advertised are not as good. And in extremely competitive categories, they’re not doing enough to beat out their current competition in the SERPs. If the company was better than its competitors, it wouldn’t need paid links to rank higher.

Andy says that we’re currently at the stage where paid links still work. But over time that will backfire. You don’t want to be on that side. Don’t buy links; it will hurt your reputation.

He talks about popups and how they were a novelty back in the day. And the more they got popular, the more it impacted the quality of life online. That’s where we are right now. Paid links seem innocuous. Until everyone understands how it impacts them online, it will still be seen as legitimate, instead of one step away from Viagra ads.

Matt’s rebuttal: He thinks most people understand Google’s response. He compares it to guestbook links. If you want a long term success in search you have to look at the white hat ways to get those editorial types of links.

Greg: To put buying links in the same category as push button marketing is such a skewing of the argument. The idea that I find a blog that matches my demographic and pay to link there, that is so not comment spam. To frame it in that argument is absurd. The other argument that gets thrown out is that it will hurt your brand. How many people changed their impression of BMW when they got caught for spamming? Are we all driving Mercedes now?

It’s not search marketers’ problem that there are flaws in the engine’s index. The big brands get special treatment and are able to survive because Google can’t not bring up WordPress.com if someone does a search for it. However, the little guys get blasted from the engine and are never heard from again. That’s not right.

Greg says he’s all about playing by the rules but he’s not about instilling fear. At some point you just have to roll up your sleeves and compete and that’s the reality of it.

And on that note, bid farewell to day two of SES San Jose.





24 responses to “Are Paid Links Evil?”

  1. Geri writes:

    I thought Google is the biggest seller of links! It seems like a case of the kettle calling the pot black!

  2. Darren McLaughlin writes:

    Nice summary. Michael Gray’s comments seem accurate to me. Why would anyone go out of their way to help Google fix their algo? They have enough resources to deal with the links issue, and if they were serious about it, they’d remove the stupid green Toolbar once and for all since so much of the link underground economy they’re responsible for comes from that.

  3. Marie writes:

    What a brilliant set of write ups, as always, Lisa. As I am not in SJ, I am relying on your excellent recounts. Well done, you!

  4. Dave Dugdale writes:

    Lisa,
    Nice writeup – I wish I was there to watch my video played to the audience. After I upload the video to YouTube and I had my wife watch it, she told me it was dorky, so I am curious if the crowd got a laugh out of my video or not.
    I have a request (a very self serving one), if you liked my video is there anyway I can get you to link to my blog post [yes I know, a shameless request].
    Dave Dugdale

  5. James omdahl writes:

    Awesome write-up. I’m now officially depressed I missed SES this year…seeing that would have been worth the trip!

  6. Chuck Brown writes:

    Such a fascinating argument. We all want to support a quality web experience…but we also need to be seen. And especially the SEO community, who gets really big money for delivering results.
    So while we might agree that Matt Cutts has a point overall, we can’t seem to shoehorn our personal ethics into a state of compliance. Why? Because there’s money involved…because Google isn’t perfect, either…therefore, it becomes easier to rationalize.
    Definitely a thorny matter…and worthy of continued discussion. I like Todd Mallicoat’s supposition that eventually this will cease to be an issue. But, as with most other things…we ride the horse til there’s no point in continuing to do so. And…there is something to be said for the fact that webmasters & SEOs didn’t make the rules…and the need for this is partly Google’s fault for making monetization easy, but neglecting to police the MFA disaster than followed until it was completely out of control and had caused massive damage to all legitimate webmasters.

  7. David Besnette writes:

    Hi Lisa,
    Looks like the link (URL) to Dave’s blog – “video from Dave at Rentvine:” isn’t correct. Goes to a blank page..

  8. John Hunter writes:

    Great post, thanks.

  9. PJ writes:

    Is Google afraid paid links take money away from AdSense?

  10. AussieWebmaster writes:

    You really were paying attention at that one… got a lot more notes then I did and agree with others who have said you caught the main points and the voice of the session

  11. Doug Heil writes:

    The only thing I agree with in that session is the fact I do not like Google accepting monies in Adwords from link brokers, and I also do not like the fact that Google will penalize or ban sites, then turn around and accept advertising money from those same sites.

    But that is where it ends.

    Adwords is separate from the organic serps. Always has been. While I don’t agree with Google on this issue, I understand it. What I truly don’t understand is the SEO community seeming to want things both ways. They want Google to do as SEO’s want them to do and give SEO’s all the free tools possible, and they want Google to give SEO’s all the free advice and guidelines as possible, and SEO’s want Google to explain in detail about how their algo works, etc,

    BUT:

    when Google gives SEO’s other type tools such as the nofollow tag, etc, and Google wants to protect and defend their SERPs from the same SEO’s, … SEO’s start balling like children and just can’t seem to understand. :-)

    BTW Lisa; you stated the “entire search community” was represented in the audience. Respectfully; I highly doubt that. How about this instead:

    “A few groups of SEO types was in attendance, along with a few website owners and other types of firms.”

    That sounds better. :-)

  12. Chocolate boy writes:

    Make a good website, continue to develop it, be a resource to your user and the links will come by themselves.
    In competitive sectors such as gambling/medical etc, its total B.S.
    Write online casinos in google. What do see?
    Link buying, link buying and then some more link buying.
    Take a site like gamblingplanet.org which seems to rank for a lot of gambling related terms. Linkdomain: it and see what you get.
    Unrelated PR5-7+ paid links. And heck it works.
    “In the future maybe link buying will backfire” blah blah blah.
    In the meantime they are making money. How can people who do SEO for competitive industries do White Hat, when they see that black hat does the trick and that you can’t compete with the black hatters ?
    I am not talking about philosophical issues of spamming the net and stuff like that. I am talking practicality. The point is, you don’t want people to buy links then don’t reward their location in the SERP for that! It’s your job Google, not the webmasters job. You are the company thats worth a billion gagilion dollars, so it’s your responsibility.
    Peace

  13. Yvonne Nicholson writes:

    Payed links aren’t evil as long as they don’t modify the SERP :)

  14. Ed Canape writes:

    paid link is not EVIL, controlling the whole internet is EVIL! so how come google says dont be evil?
    -ed

  15. SEO Critic writes:

    Paid link is evil, but many webmasters use it. I think Google cannot really identified paid links…

  16. Mosxu writes:

    Google is not able to deal with tricks from link exchanges. A lot of spam here. A lot of websites end up with one way links and I assume this type of websites will come up if they would discount directory links.
    Or if they will give more credit to on page factors and user behavior they will look like MSN or ASK?

  17. Text Link Center writes:

    Great article! There is tremendous debate on the topic of buying and selling links. I think this article pretty much hit all of them on the head. Thanks!

  18. n1ce writes:

    The main issue for many webmasters here is that they are using automated text link selling programs such as text-link-ads.com and there is no obvious way to add rel nofollow to those links. And if the network suddenly nofollows all those links people are paying monthly for, they can kiss goodbye to their entire business.
    I say this is mainly FUD from google pr and actually their algo can basically already detect paid and irrelevant links wihtout manual ‘flagging’.

  19. Ken Teegardin writes:

    Great write up.
    I have been javascripting my outgoing links but thought the search engines can still see the URL in the code. I am glad to hear that does not give away the little love my site has.
    I think Dave Dougdale’s video was excellent. It caused people to think (even argue) and it generated back links. What else can you expect from a puppet show?

  20. chris writes:

    Great article. Paid links! not ethical. but i would say that with a current page rank of 0! So how much would 1000 links cost???? lol
    We all have views when it is someone else’s business or website, but when it is your own, and you want more traffic to bring in the £’s or else business could fail! its a bitter pill to swallow, but I would bet most would coff up the cash, take the links and live to fight another day.

  21. opseo writes:

    I really enjoyed the summary. The big problem with paid links is it almost impossible to compete without them. Most of the websites occupying the top spots have bought that many links to get them to the top, the only way to make money is by competing with them.

  22. wayne cadman writes:

    It seems to me that Google are targeting specific sectors and industries to look for paid links.
    For example, gambling sites, pharmaceutical,finance etc. This seems to be where all the spam links are.
    This is a great article guys and I have posted this in my favourite places.

  23. Greg writes:

    Obviously what Google says about this is a load of idealistic clap trap. For example, if you start a new business (and there will be a lot of people doing this now), and people use the search engines to find services and products such as yours, it is an imperative that your site is seen. One therefore has a business needs led requirement to do what is necessary to be seen on Google. What does Google expect a person to do, wait 5 years for adequate ‘natural’ links to be created so maybe you get onto Google’s first page of SERPS? Of course not. Your business may also be better than the older more established competitors, and your website may be better too. If you wait years you will be out of business!

    Also, how does one define ‘relevant’? It is problematic at best. What if the only relevant sites are competitors? How likely are you to get a relevant link then?

    Google is out for itself, and all it says are in its interests. Its activities are the evil ones. It uses monopoly power to artificially segment markets in its interests, not in the interests of web users or the world economy. Most of its so called white hat rules are just inventions to make SEO difficult and to skew business marketing behaviour towards using Adwords. Regardless of what Google says, this is what it does!

  24. Saint John Web Design writes:

    This is true. While google sells links it does not encourage others to do the same! Does not make sense.



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