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August 22, 2007

Are Paid Links Evil? – SES San Jose 2007

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 & Have I mentioned that this is going to be good?

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.

Matt 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 and get site owners a reason to do 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 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.

Author:  Lisa Barone is a Sr. Writer with Bruce Clay Inc.