Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Will Google punish websites selling text links?

by Paul Rudman

It is one of the most common acknowledgements in search engine optimisation that the quality, theme, anchor text used, and volume of links that point to your website helps improve your search engine rankings, through increased link popularity.

However within the past few weeks Matt Cutts seems to have turned the SEO world on its head by strongly suggesting that Google intend to set-up a 'Snitch on a link selling website' service that allows people to hand over details of websites they know are selling links from their site.

I'd just like to offer my opinion on this as I think it's a diabolical, un-workable idea that oozes hidden agendas:

1) If a site is reported, how can you prove it? - So you've reported a site you are convinced are selling links to Google, what next? To be able to track and prove a website is selling links they either have to be very stupid (advertising 'buy a link on our site!') or Google have to have a paper trail back to the money, after all, how else would they be able to prove the allegation was correct?

2) Lets all report our competitors! - So is it innocent till proven guilty or guilty till proven innocent with this proposed scheme? I believe there will be a great deal of complaints made directly by competitors in order to get other website owners into strife. Maybe they've got higher ranking placements? Maybe they stole your best customer? Maybe you just want to get some companies out the way to generate more business yourself? I don't understand how Google can accurately identify the agenda and motive behind the person reporting the site selling links, so similar to point 1, how do you decide who is telling the truth?

3) How do you tell a paid link from a non-paid link? - As far as I'm aware Google haven't yet become powerful enough to indict individuals and businesses and legally demand bank records so unless you are caught with your hand in the cookie jar (e.g. you send out advertising costs for text links to a Google private investigator) then I fail to see how you can tell what link has been paid for and what was just someone linking out to a site they genuinely respect?

4) Google Adsense - Google Adsense is a bunch of text link adverts people splash all over their websites to make a couple of cents or pence from Google's advertising network. People pay for the privilege of having their website listing appear on the Adsense network, effectively a form of text link advertising, so there will be inevitable cries of "Hypocrisy" if this proposal goes ahead

5) There are genuine reasons for buying a link - This isn't always SEO related, sometimes people buy links on websites because they are popular sites with a relevant target audience to the person buying the link and hence they will get direct traffic from this form of advertising while not necessarily even considering the benefits in terms of improve link popularity. After all, a banner with a direct hyperlink is still a link isn't it? Are these to be punished to? Or ignored because there is no keyword-rich anchor text at play?

6) Google created this in the first place - The guys at Google have to accept that an entire new generation of SEO tactics and techniques only occur because online marketers are obliged to get high ranking placements within the Google engine because it's the most popular by a country mile. If link popularity was never a factor then buying links would never have become a necessity so in that respect Google created this situation, so again, there may well be calls of hypocrisy, as Google appear more than happy with the forms of revenue generated through SEO such as pay per click advertising campaigns

Other factors you have to consider are:

- What will the punishment be? How will this be implemented? Will sites get black listed? If so, when you stop selling links are you back in? Will that site owner then go underground and start up selling links on another site now understanding what they can get away with and how they can get around it?

- Will sites buying links be penalised? So will the penalty chain be passed down? If so, will people start buying links and pointing them at their competitors' websites to get them penalised? Any time a site is penalised for something 'off-page' it is a very dangerous precedent because it may not be something you actually did but something someone else did to you get penalised

I firmly believe this is scaremongering by the Google team, they are trying to think of ways to eliminate a form of online marketing that exists 99% because of their engine's popularity but they aren't seeing a dollar from in terms of income.

If they do follow down this route I believe it is a continuation of their attempts to render the natural search listings obsolete and push the prominence of pay per click even more than they currently do.

I'm hoping they see sense, I've never heard of anyone complaining about anyone else selling links other than through annoyance because their site isn't as valuable as their competitors so they're not making as much money if they sell links. I'm hoping that Matt Cutts is being used as a canvassing tool by Google and that the backlash of the SEO world has been sufficient for them to drop the idea, focus on being the best search tool, and let the marketers market.

About the Author

Commercetuned have been offering market leading, affordable search engine optimisation and pay per click marketing services since 2004.

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