“Now Warwick, tell me, even upon thy conscience, is Edward your true king? For I were loath to link with him that were not lawful chosen”. Henry VI, Act 3, Scene 3 by William Shakespeare.
To buy or not to buy, that is the question.
The head of Google’s Webspam team was advising over a year ago that “…if you sell links, you should mark them with the nofollow tag. – Matt Cutts”. A more recent post has caused alarm bells to ring in the minds of those who buy or sell links. The post in question details how to report any sites you find that are selling or buying links. Matt explains that these external reports will be used to test out some new techniques in algorithmic paid link detection.
So why is Google so keen on detecting paid links you might ask? Look no further than Google’s Corporate Information, Philosophy page “Google works because it relies on the millions of individuals posting links on websites to help determine which other sites offer content of value. Google assesses the importance of every web page using a variety of techniques, including its patented PageRank algorithm which analyzes which sites have been “voted” the best sources of information by other pages across the web”. So it is hardly surprising that Google views paid links as ‘paid votes’ and therefore likely to introduce bias into their PageRank algorithm.
With the introduction of PageRank (originating from Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s 1997 paper) Google created a new commodity – links that improve ranking. Economists from Karl Marx to Milton Friedman have recognized that for every commodity there will always be a market and hence the buying and selling of links has become an industry. Text link brokers have been making hay while the sun shines and Google now feels that it needs to get on top of this problem before the PageRank component of its algorithm breaks. Algorithmically detecting and then discounting paid links is one approach and hence Matt Cutts request for data.
As well as improving the detection of paid links Google’s solution includes extending the use of the nofollow tag from its original conception as “…an easy way for a website to tell search engines that the website can’t or doesn’t want to vouch for a link - Matt Cutts” to a “…machine-readable disclosure for paid links… – Matt Cutts”. It appears likely that once Google encounters a paid link without a nofollow then at the very least it will be discounted.
What should you do?
The obvious course of action is to only buy links for traffic and make sure they are nofollowed or if you are selling links then make sure they too are all nofollowed. However you can be sure that no professional SEO will be signing up exclusively to this approach. Paid links are too important a tool in SEO to be given up on Google’s say so, especially when Google are still in the process of creating an improved detection algorithm. So my advice if you buy links is:
- Go into stealth mode if you aren’t in it already.
- Don’t buy links that are advertised or from a broker.
- Approach site owners directly by telephone.
- Check the site to make sure it would pass a human inspection for paid links.
- Make sure your link is embedded in content and that it is relevant content.
- Make sure the link points to relevant content on you website.
- Don’t buy home page links.
If you employ an SEO or are about to, make sure that they have a clearly defined policy on buying links based on the above. If you don’t want links purchased for your site make sure that your SEO knows your position on the subject.
June 7, 2007
Google has provided guidelines in its Webmaster Help Center titled Why should I report paid links to Google?
June 12, 2007
Google has put up a Paid Links Reporting Form on Webmaster Tools.
December 1, 2007
Google have simultaneously published two important posts on paid links in a concerted effort to draw a line in the sand:
On Google Webmaster Central Blog - Information about buying and selling links that pass PageRank
On Matt Cutts blog - Selling links that pass PageRank
December 30, 2007
Ted Murphy of Izea (formerly PayPerPost) has published part of an email he received from Matt Cutts “Google (and probably all search engines) will consider all links in a paid post to be paid”. (My embolding)