Feature Article (Pub: April 07) Google to punish websites that sell links? by Paul Rudman

It is a common acknowledgement in search engine optimisation that the quality, theme, anchor text used and volume of links that point to your website all help to 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:

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?
Let's 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 allegedly selling links, so again, how do you decide who is telling the truth?
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?
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
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 improved link popularity. After all, a banner with a direct hyperlink is still a link isn't it? Are these to be punished too? Or ignored because there is no keyword-rich anchor text at play?
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. This is 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 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 did, but something someone else did to get you penalised).

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

If they do go 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 themselves. 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.

Paul Rudman is the director and head of optimisation at CommerceTuned, he's been involved in developing search strategies and search engine optimisation for 7 years.

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