Feature Article (Pub: February 08) Link Networks by Paul Rudman

Just recently I've noticed that there is some very strange SEO work being done by very big brands here in the UK. What seems to be happening is that companies are taking more and more risks and chances in their quest to get to the top of the Google listings. Obviously sites have always known that being ranked #1 in Google is a license to print money in a competitive sector, but now in the UK the stakes just get higher and higher due to recent reports that suggest that Google now has over a 90% share in the UK search market, and what has Google always loved? links!

Just a brief note here for the un-initated. Google has always worked on a model where they reward "votes" or "vouches", so the idea is that if you have 100 websites linking to yours, then you are obviously more important and relevant than if you have 5 websites linking to yours, as more of your peers are vouching for you by providing a link.

Of course it's not that simplistic as a link from an authority site like the BBC is obviously far more valuable than 50 links from sites that are not respected by Google, but you get a basic picture of how the system works.

So what's been happening is that a certain company (I am not going to name names here) has created an ad network which appears on millions of websites, and through joining this co-operative network you can, over time, end up literally with millions of inbound links pointing to your website.

This is really interesting for a number of reasons:

  1. Google has yet to show any sign that they're frowning upon this network and being part of it still appears to be legitimised in their eyes
  2. Very very big companies and brands are taking this risk of being associated with something as obvious and artificial as this network while the potential gains are so high.
  3. It highlights that sheer numbers of inbound links will eventually overload the "quality" aspect of the Google algorithm, i.e. 1,000,000 links will get you to the #1 slot regardless of what the quality is?

It's a very dangerous game these big companies are playing for the simple reason that it's taking an single SEO principle to an unbelievable level and scale, and what is being achieved is not being achieved through hard work or having an interesting site, it's achieved by being associated with a very visible, very obvious link network, and this can only end in tears for those involved. It's also obvious which companies are involved with the ad network, so it's effectively a ticking time bomb for them. Short-term gain, no matter how lucrative, is still only short-term gain, and the longer term ramifications are of a very big, established brand getting a penalty or even banned from the search engines.

Personally I would never recommend to a client to work with an ad / link network that is so visible and obvious. Of course, as an SEO who has clients that want and expect results, you do learn from what others are doing, and if the risk is low you will always copy them to some degree to try and replicate their success, but with this, I actually see a lot of important sites going supernova and getting banned as a result of upping the stakes to this level.

I think that half the reason a lot of the bigger companies are getting involved with ad networks is because they firmly believe that their brand strength, and also to some degree the amount they probably spend on Google Adwords is their cloak of protection against a serious backlash from within Google. After all, if you spend £2,000,000 per year on PPC, you are probably right to think that an element of "turn-the-other-cheek" will be involved when you bend the results to get higher rankings in the natural search index.

Is this the case though? If you trawl through any reputable online SEO forum it won't take you long to read case studies and examples that have been highlighted of who some of the companies involved are, and how they've had penalties imposed on them as a result of their activities. Money does talk however, and I think you'd find that they got their rankings back and the penalty removed pretty quickly compared to if you or I was to indulge in the same link building activities.

So to wrap this up, it's an interesting area if SEO is your bag, there's definitely more of this story to run as link networks are gaining in popularity as every big company tries to oust the others of the goldmine Google top spots, while the rest just look on, no doubt continuing to submit dossiers on perceived law breaking activities to the Google quality control team, and wondering which way they'll go, will Google ban the 'offenders' or will the more ethically-minded SEO teams cave in, in the face of pressure to deliver results and get their hands dirty too? Keep posted on this issue, as it's sure to be an interesting conclusion...


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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