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November 29, 2012

Google’s Matt Cutts Talks Paid Links – Finally!

Don’t even act like you haven’t thought about it. I’ll go ahead and put this out there: I have. Thought about it, I mean.

Yup, we’re talking about paid links. Many a webmaster’s dirty little income secret. Paid links are also the tried-and-true shortcut for online advertisers with deep pockets who are looking to rank in a hurry.

However, we’re all keenly aware that paid links are a big time “no-no” for Google. If Google catches you selling links (which is tough, but G does have its ways), your PageRank will be stripped. The result? Your website loses most of its appeal for advertisers, and you lose your cash cow. I’ve witnessed this firsthand. More on that later.

On the other hand, if you’re an advertiser looking to buy links, you run the risk of losing it all and having your website buried in the SERPs. Still, untold numbers of advertisers engage in the practice, knowing full well that they are gambling hardcore with each and every link purchase they make.

Google expressly warns against buying or selling links in its quality guidelines. However, until now, we knew little about G’s reasoning for the ban. Recently, Matt Cutts released a webmaster Help video on YouTube, and it delved into paid links, at long last.

Cutts on Paid Links

Cutts begins the video by outlining the difference between displaying ads from networks on your web property – think services like AdWords, Chitika, or Facebook advertising – and displaying paid links. He says that the key difference is that paid links manipulate search engine results and ad network links do not. According to the video, Googlebot knows how to avoid ad network links. However, he points out that private, paid “dofollow” links are a deliberate attempt to game the search engine results – and artificially inflate rankings by passing PageRank.

Cutts continues by explaining that link buyers are essentially paying for something that skews results for search engine users. Plus, he adds, paying for links diminishes the organic search experience for users, which he implies is the most heinous of SEO crimes. The best way to remedy the situation is to make use of the “nofollow” tag in all paid link situations without exception. This attribute is Google’s way of knowing which links are paid (and thereby should be ignored by Googlebot when figuring a website’s ranking power). When paid links are not disclosed, Big G considers this a straight up violation of the good ol’ TOS.

Real-World Application

I’ve seen the devastation that results from paid links firsthand in a highly competitive niche on the ‘net. I knew many of these people personally, and it was a sad thing to behold. A high-profile group of bloggers had been engaging in selling links for years. Most of them were pretty hush-hush about the practice. Then, someone felt the need to report many of the blogs directly to Google, and – voila – every single site saw its PageRank stripped overnight.

This had a tragic domino effect that caused many bloggers to lose their primary sources of income overnight. Was this practice a violation of Google’s TOS? Absolutely. Was it fair for Google to manually punish blogs that weren’t bringing in even a microscopic fraction of crumbs from Google’s table?

That’s debatable.

One thing is definite for sure, however: many bloggers and site owners who sell links clearly mark them as “advertisements” or “sponsored.” Yet those links are still against the rules if money changed hands and the “nofollow” tag is not present.

The Ultimate Double Standard?

I understand the war on paid links. As Cutts pointed out in the video, paid links without the “nofollow” attribute do cause websites to unfairly rank better in the SERPs since they pass PageRank. I get that. However, is AdWords itself not the ultimate paid link system?

Even if Googlebot ignores AdWords links on websites when it comes to ranking signals, does the service not place AdWords listings above the organic results – in a place of prominence – based upon how much said advertisers are willing to pay?

Of course, for the highly competitive keywords, AdWords ads now take up almost an entire page above the fold. Users must scroll down to even begin to see organic results. So is this a double standard?

I would argue yes, simply because Google is doing exactly what it warns webmasters not to: they have a program that allows people to pay in order to have their websites listed more prominently on search result pages. Some would call it gaming the system; I call it free enterprise.

Here’s the flip side of that coin. If Google was a public resource, I think more would take issue with this inconsistency. Unfortunately, Big G is a public, for-profit company, and their turf means their rules. So, okay, according to Google, paid links are bad. However, with such a far-reaching hold on search, one could argue that the creeping expansion of AdWords is bordering upon ethically irresponsible. In fact, this was precisely the issue in the FTC’s recent case against Google. According to Bloomberg:

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This is why Google’s global hold is so intimidating and slippery. The algo is top secret and the terrain is untested – which means there’s not really a precedent for this kind of worldwide dominance… yet. The FTC has backed down for now, but you can be sure there’s more to come from the US and other governments in the years ahead.

For now, I’d recommend playing by the rules and using the “nofollow” tag if you sell links. For those of you who like to live dangerously, buy and sell on the uber supreme down low, and know that you’ll eventually get caught. But do me a solid and enjoy the heck out of that wave until it crashes ashore.

Nell Terry is a tech news junkie, fledgling Internet marketer and staff writer for SiteProNews, one of the Web’s foremost webmaster and tech news blogs. She thrives on social media, web design, and uncovering the truth about all the newest marketing fads that pop up all over the ‘net. Find out more about Nell by visiting her online portfolio at Content by Nell.