Feature Article (Pub: January 08) Text link advertising - will the market die or evolve? by Paul Rudman

Unless you've been hiking around the jungles of Borneo for the past few months, you'll no doubt be aware of the raging debate in the SEO world around paid links, and Google's crack-down on sites selling text links.

A brief summary for those just recovering from their trek is as follows:

  • Google algorithm places a lot of emphasis on the number, quality, and theme of the links that point to your website
  • People pay websites to put a text link on their site
  • Google really doesn't like this attempt to manipulate their algorithm and cracks down on link sellers

So where are we at now?

At this point in time we are seeing more and more evidence that this issue isn't going to go away or be resolved quickly. After the initial mention of this issue on Matt Cutts blog, followed by some 'heated' (2 SEO guys raising their voices - not exactly Gladiator I know) debates being contested in some SEO conferences, we're now at the stage that some well known link sellers appear to have lost a great chunk of their page rank as a result of the fact they sell links. The example at the top of everyone's list is the Washington Times, which went from a PR of 7 to a PR of 4 (naughty, naughty).

The first thing I'd like to comment on is that people seem to have taken their eye off the ball a bit in terms of what's really important when it comes to SEO. For years, optimisation experts have been hammering home the point about page rank not being important, what's important is your SERPs; how well your website ranks, and how much and how relevant the traffic is that you get from Google and the other engines.

Assuming Washington Times was punished by Google for being a link seller, did they actually lose any traffic or ranking placements from Google as part of this penalty? This represents an excellent potential case study for SEO's to analyse, as it appears to be the first strike from Google in this new war on paid link advertising, so it would be fascinating to know the extent of whatever penalty they've imposed. Was it just restricted to reducing their page rank? Would this 'penalty' be lifted if the Washington Times removed paid links, and their page rank restored? What sort of process would the site have to go through to get this penalty and page rank restored?

The difficulty with this is that while it's fairly obvious to all that a penalty is exactly what has occurred here, there is no formal acknowledgement from Google that they have applied a penalty -- therefore, how can there be an established process for removing one?

Google penalties for paid links

There have always been very good reasons why Google may ban or penalise a website, such as hidden links and cloaking, but this is un-chartered territory now for all concerned so I've outlined my thoughts on this issue below:

Reduction in Page Rank

If the penalty applied by Google was a reduction in page rank only, it strikes me as being a rather toothless response; it is dependent on people actually caring about what the PR of their website is. I've always viewed page rank as something cosmetic as I've seen how easy it is to generate high page rank without actually providing useful and interesting content, it isn't a very good indicator of actual website or page quality.

Let's face it, you could have a really rubbish boring home page which should in theory have a PR of something equally rubbish, but then you could have 5 guaranteed ways to become a millionaire on a sub-page, which in theory should have a great PR, but which probably won't as PR dilutes throughout websites (don't forget, it's just an algorithm, it's not a Michelin Star inspector).

Importance of PR to websites
Do the Washington Times actually care what their Page Rank is? It's a very strong brand which probably gets 90% of its traffic from people searching on "Washington Times", bookmarked favourites, or typing the URL directly into the browser address bar. It doesn't strike me as the sort of website that focuses aggressively on getting traffic from Google in the first place, so will they actually care that the little green PR bar has shrunk from 7 to 4? I very much doubt it, and it's a bit tragic if Google believe what they've done will strike fear into the hearts of anyone contemplating selling links from their site
Advertising revenue will always king when it comes to sites like Washington Times.
I don't know how much the site makes from selling links, but assuming they sell links across the entire domain, I'd say the income from this will be in the tens of thousands per month minimum. They're going to continue to sell links until people stop buying them, but why would you stop buying because the PR got dampened? The site gets 100,000s if not millions of visitors each month from sources other than Google, so in terms of direct exposure, it still represents great value
Is the punishment even relevant?
Why is Google getting involved in something that may have nothing to do with them? I've just looked at the Washington Times site again, and the thing that strikes me most about it is that it's not an optimised site. You can tell from the meta data, the focus of the copy, the build of the templates, that this site is not optimised. So the question has to be asked, if a brand this big doesn't try and get better rankings in Google through optimisation, have they really sold text links to get people better ranking in Google? It doesn't make much sense, as if they had an internal SEO resource who would have pointed this out (as a reason for selling links to start with), then they'd have been sure to actually optimise the site itself. So if Google wasn't a factor in any of it then why are Google penalising them?
The scope of the punishment
It still appears to me that link buyers aren't being affected, only link sellers. Again this appears to be a toothless firing-over-the-bows effort from Google, as the truly guilty part is the one that hands over the money, not the one receiving it

Anyway, there's loads more to think about and discuss, but I've realised I've gone pretty much off-topic on the original focus of the article so lets get back to that.

What does the market hold for paid links?

  • The market will always be there so long as Google count inbound links as a method of ranking websites
  • It will go underground to a large degree. There will be a lot more direct contact between link sellers and link buyers rather than the use of "Link Brokers", as they always have the risk of publishing inventories of sites selling links, which is a real smoking gun for Google. After all, who need worry about finding proof or evidence when you are listed in an inventory as a link seller?
  • Link Brokers will evolve their processes to stay one step ahead of the game. They'll start making inventories ultra-secretive, link sellers in the inventory will modify how they include paid links to avoid algorithmic detection, and generally just sharpen up their act as they realise that if they don't, people just won't buy links on their site anymore
  • Google will soon realise the "punish paid links" system is open to abuse and as the fallout from the scare-mongering gradually dissipates, this issue will die down. After all, if you don't want good rankings don't hire an SEO, it's simple, if you do want good rankings then remember from the start that Google doesn't like them or what they do, whatever that may be, it's all about attempting to manipulate ranking placements for our clients. In fact, come to think of it, why can you even find SEO's when you search in Google? Oh yes, probably because SEO's push and promote pay per click campaigns which then in turn make Google lots of money

I could talk all day about this, and I'll probably come back to it at a later date to bore you some more, but for now I'm off to analyse the sites buying links from Washington Times to see if how they've got on!

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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