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March 17, 2014

Just How Does Google Sniff Out Your Paid Links?

Photo Credit: 401(K) 2012 via flickr

SEO and link building are critical aspects of marketing online. They can mean the difference between reaching a growing target market and finding great success or falling flat and remaining stagnant. However, as search engines have gotten “smarter,” and audiences have become more aware of what they’re exposed to online, paid links have become harder and harder to use without penalty. Check out the criteria below to ensure your paid links will not hinder your search rankings and other online efforts.

Google’s Guideline and How to Follow It

Displaying advertisements on your site is an easy way to improve credibility while bringing in a little extra revenue. Recently though, some sites have lost their Google rankings or have been removed from results altogether because they don’t stand up to one simple rule.

Officially, the guideline published by Google states: “Make reasonable efforts to ensure that advertisements do not affect search engine rankings.”

It’s important to note that displaying ads is legal in Google’s terms, however, if these ads affect ranking, it’s gone too far. To ensure your paid links do not hurt your own site, or the sites that they are displayed on, consider the following tips:

  • Make sure any links or ads have a “nofollow” or are redirected through files that are excluded by any robots.txt.file. Tools exist to double check if you’re unsure.
  • Advertising purchased through search engine programs, like Google AdWords, are generally fine.
  • While affiliate advertising or advertising through press releases while linking back to a site are acceptable, checking against the aforementioned robots.txt.file is important to protect your brand.
  • When using a third party to purchase advertising space, make sure they follow the guideline to ensure your safety pertaining to search rankings. Using the wrong advertising service could do more harm than good.

Sometimes, however, even when a high level of caution is used, it seems as though certain pages and brands are penalized by Google. How does this work? How can the search engine sniff out the paid links? What can you do to avoid this?

It’s simple. Google has set up 5 basic criteria that their algorithms use to determine whether a sites’ paid advertising affects rankings, as prohibited by the rule above. Understanding these rules is critical to a successful, “legal”- in Google’s eyes – paid ad campaign.

Flat Out Link Sales

Certain sites and brands make a habit of explicitly selling links. For instance, a webmaster sells a link to another webmaster in exchange for a specific amount of money, which is clearly advertised and displayed. It’s common sense that this would be easy to detect while raising red flags. In situations like this, following the “nofollow” rule is absolutely essential. However, for protection, it might be better to avoid situations like this altogether. One misstep could ruin a site for life. This common scenario is one of the most prevalent, and therefore the easiest for the search giant to detect.

The Value’s Proximity to Money

Google’s second criteria for evaluating whether a link is paid – and therefore alarming – or generic is how close the value of the ad is to the money. This can be confusing and difficult to understand; what was paid for the ad. Is it a gift card for a certain dollar amount that would closely match how much the ad would be sold for in dollars? Or, is it a simple marketing material – a pen, a t-shirt, a $5 gift card to a coffee shop – more of a “thank you” than a payment? This distinction can be evaluated by the search algorithms in milliseconds and therefore should be carefully examined before setting out on a paid link campaign.

Gift or Loan?

In some situations, companies try to avoid the payment situation completely by offering free samples for review. These reviews, while not traditional ads, still link back to the site in question, leading to an increase in traffic and possible conversions. This is not in question, however, the way the review was handled is. If the product for review – laptop, car, subscription, exercise equipment, whatever the case may be – is given freely with no expectation of return, it is a considered a gift and can therefore be questioned – it’s much closer to a paid link. If, however, it is loaned out with an expected date of return, it is safer for all parties involved.

What’s it Mean for the Audience?

Say your company or brand hosts a conference or large event. Maybe just a simple meeting or focus group. What is your intent and what is the intent of those in attendance? If you’re holding a conference where small thank you bags are given out, with zero expectation in return, and those items are reviewed, fine. If, however, the gifts are given out with the clear expectation that those in attendance will link back to your site, there’s a definite intent. This is generally not kosher.

Is it a Surprise?

This may seem insignificant, maybe even a little silly; but, to the search engines, especially Google, it matters more than you may think. Did someone write a positive review about your company that you’d like to reward without warning? Or, is there a popular blogger that covers your industry that you’d like to attract? Send a gift – more of a “head’s up” than something with expectations. If, however, that line is crossed, and the gift is given with the clear expectation that a review or link will come back to your company as a result, the “surprise” effect can be lost and penalized.

Some of these rules and regulations may be surprising. Who would have thought a search engine could find information relating to these guidelines and sniff it out? However, the fact remains, they can and do. Sites that cross the border between acceptable and not find themselves in situations that can be hard to recover from where rankings are concerned.

Protect your brand, understand the Google guideline and do what you can to be sure you’re covered in any scenario.


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Adrienne Erin writes twice weekly for SiteProNews about online marketing strategies that help businesses like SITECH Southwest succeed. Follow @adrienneerin on Twitter to see more of her work or get in touch.

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