Text Links And Google: Should You Keep Or Drop Text Links From Your Site?
Text links may very well be one of the many extra venues to generate some good extra cash from your web site or blog, but you need to be careful in evaluating whether in expanding your income streams with them you may hurt your other revenue providers or even breach their advertising contract with you.
Text link ads may indeed provide significant extra revenue to any web site with a PageRank of 6 or higher, but what very few independent publishers fail to understand is that by supporting text links they are breaking and cheating the very system that gives them sustainability.
But this is not such a clear-cut issue as it may appear to you by reading these first few lines. From what I have learned on my skin, both online text link agencies and Google itself do not help clarify the issue as they should, leaving the inexperienced, small guy wanting to leverage and extract more juice from her hard publishing efforts online to find out the hard way.
I myself am not a saint, and wanting to be an explorer and experimenter of the use of new media and personal publishing technologies I often have to get my hands dirty and to try directly what others (often rightly) do not even look at, or consider.
I have been ridiculed and given bad names quite a few times for my apparently too commercial spirit, but believe me, it is easy to criticize when you have your salary paid systematically by an employer. When you are out there an independent online publisher living fully off your ability to convert your content publishing skills into something with which you can go to the groceries store, you have no other option but to test and verify all of the roads available to you, while basing your decisions on what serves best you and the community you are part of.
Even if your site does not take advantage of contextual advertising solutions like Google AdSense, it does not benefit from search engine visitors traffic, the use of text links should be deprecated as all text links try to do is to game search engine into artificially boosting the ranking of web sites.
What are Text Links?
Text link ads are those small text-based ads you can often see sitting at the bottom of web pages or in other not very prominent positions. In contrast to standard ads those paying for text links have in fact zero interest that you see or click on them. Their purpose is another one.
The text link ad industry has been growing for quite a few years now, and it is definitely thriving now. There exist all kind of agencies which will sell or auction your web pages as destinations for multiple text links. The higher your PageRank and popularity on Alexa the higher the pay you may get for each text link you sell.
Selling text links direct offers much greater revenue margins but may require lots of extra time to manage customers once you go beyond a few, while using a text link agency like TLA makes everything completely automatic.
The final and only purpose of text links is one of tricking search engines and Google in particular into believing a site should be given more relevance than another one.
How text links game the search engines
Screenshot credit: Matt Cutts
Google establishes the ranking of web sites within its search result pages by weighting a number of factors which include obviously relevancy of the content to your specific search, and the credibility of the site providing it.
But how does Google (and other major search engines) measure such online credibility?
Google establishes a value for the credibility of each and every web page, that is known as PageRank, and which is based on the number and quality of "votes" that web page has received.
Let me explain.
When you link another site, Google considers that a vote. The more specific the keywords in your link to that site, the more specific the vote. For example, if I link the words, "independent publishing" to the site of Mary Jane, I am providing Google with an official vote that Mary Jane's site is a valid resource about "independent publishing". So next time someone searches for "independent publishing" on Google, Mary Jane's site will come up higher within search result pages.
Obviously if I have a high PageRank, my votes (links) are worth a lot more, than those from sites having a lower one.
This is how Google "ranks" web sites and decides which site to put first and which one second on its search result pages.
So how do you game the system, and get yourself at the top of Google search results for specific keywords? You try to get as many high value links from as many sites as you can. And when you can't get them for free you buy them.
Small sites buy these next-to-invisible text links from higher ranked sites to get greater visibility and exposure inside Google SERPs.
Obviously, the reverse side of this coin is that small independent publishers, with a good Google Page Rank, and in need of increasing their revenue streams, sell space on their pages for such next-to-invisible ads through text links agencies that manage the whole process for them automatically.
Not all text links are created equal
What I didn't know at the time is that not all text link ads are created equal.
Since text links are "designed" to cheat the system, search engines like Google have identified and suggested ways in which online publishers could have used them without placing themselves in direct contrast with Google's guidelines and without artificially gaming its ranking system.
In essence, you can be a "good guy" with text links if you:
a) Label them clearly as paid sponsored links (so that they can be more easily spotted by major search engine trackers and automatically discounted when passing on link value to other sites)
b) Assign a "no-follow" rel tag to them, which is a technical expression that describes the implementation of a code inside your page HTML that explicitly tells major search engines NOT to follow the link of the referenced text link ad.
But, my humble question is: how can you be a good guy with Google and the other major search engines without defrauding your text link customers simultaneously?
If text links are designed not to be there for people to see them, read them and click on them, but are placed on web pages with the specific purpose of placing artificial votes - links to sites who want to boost their search engine ranking, disabling their ability to pass on Google juice invalidates their original purpose and makes them completely useless.
So even those sites that have "proper", Google-compliant text links are only half-good, as by complying with Google they betray their text link paying customers (who probably don't even understand this thing and can't easily tell by looking at a web page whether their text links are passing on value to their sites or not.)
How much money can you make with text links?
Money-wise text links have indeed made a tangible difference in my overall monthly revenue while supposedly diminishing my dependency on Google's. Without significant efforts text links on MasterNewMedia, Kolabora and MasterViews initially brought in over $1000/month. With focused efforts, a pro-active investment in making them work better and across various vendors we have seen them reach $3000/month.
Remember that the amounts of money you can make with text links are generally not based on the number of pages you have or how much traffic visits your site but simply by the PageRank value of your site. If you have a PageRank of 5 or higher there are many webmasters out there willing to pay a monthly amount to get a couple of words linking back to their site on your web pages. This may range from 25-30 to $50 or more for each link depending on how you sell these text links and what interest area your web site covers.
A web site with a PageRank of 6 could sell text links direct for $70-90/month each while the same text links sold by an agency would generally provide about half or less than that amount. The only way out of this is to carefully select your text link agency and where possible, to contract one-on-one the prices you want your text link ads sold at.
These are clearly not small amounts for an online publisher, no matter where he lives, and these can indeed make a solid difference in providing you with the ability to pay a web designer salary or the work of three additional news editors.
Why did I do it
Text links attract you with the promise of an easy revenue and lure you with their very-low profile visibility, but when it comes to look in the face at who you are really serving, you find that system cheating, or the artificial boosting of web sites that don't really deserve it is what you are really doing. Or not?
"Wow, Robin, that sounds very bad. Why did you consider using them in the first place?"
I guess I was superficial. I have been looking and testing for a long while many possible ways to sustain my online publishing ambitions without having to resort to finding investors, and text links stroke me as one of the options to verify. I didn't reason for a long time at the ethical issues surrounding them. I simply saw them being used on other sites I was studying and I signed up to try this venue myself.
In sincerity I have no justifications for my use of text links. I have gamed the system knowingly even after I became aware of the facts I explained above.
I have hesitated and seriously considered dropping text links a few months ago, when I first realized, fully, the game I was myself participating in. The ethical issue disturbed me the most along side the fear that such use could have provoked negative penalizations of some kind.
For a few days I turned off all text links I had and I pondered what to do. I went and asked to those supplying the text links how they saw the issue and their answer was unequivocally the same:
a) you are not going to get caught (if you follow our advice of where and how to place text links)
b) there are no penalizations from Google if you do this,
Which elegantly bypassed whatever ethical concerns I may have had about this.
For a few days I was very divided about to do, especially because the ethical aspect was as important as the opportunity for extra revenue.
Then after having read lots of stuff on the topic, including Matt Cutts specific posts several times, I decided to go ahead with them. I made the text links "behave" as Google wanted surrounded by clearly visible text labels and with no-follow tags assigned to them.
Twenty four hours later I had email notifications from all of my text link suppliers stating that the ads were not compliant anymore with their guidelines and that either I fixed the issue or they would not continue selling my text links. Some even restricted payments of what I had already earned from them pending my revising text links in a way that was not easily detectable by Google and other major search engines.
So, no matter what you do you are going to either step on Google toes or on the feet of the text links advertisers on your sites. There is no way out.
The Ethics of Text Link Ads
Let me look now at the ethical side of this.
Search engines, like Google, MSN, Yahoo and many other ones out there, are all very useful and important for us in being capable to leverage toward our own goals all of the information that is available on the Internet. If it wasn't for Google and other search engines doing their job properly it would be much harder for me to do my technology research and writing work.
Search engines that provide me with good, relevant results are vital to me and anyone working with information online. I believe that you and I should both voluntarily contribute to make the internet a place where information can be easily found, and where whoever tries to game the system in artificial ways is penalized or banned from participating and contributing to it.
I am a small online publisher and make 85% of my revenue from the Google AdSense advertising program. That is Google is my main customer. If I loose Google, I have little hope of surviving with the business model I have now. While there are obviously several important considerations about the power that Google automatically gets over me under these circumstances, let me stay on topic and point to the simple but evident fact, that if Google is my main customer, I would be a fool and a dishonest supplier if I cheated Google buy also selling text links.
If it is not clear enough, read this: when I sell text links I help other sites game the search engine results quality control system, which is based on the paradigm of links as votes. I make a living and thrive on this same search engine system because it is the same one that elects my site over others inside search engine results and it sends me highly targeted visitors that when will click on my ads will create tangible revenue for me.
If I game this system I game myself.
And if Google wants to come after me (which I really don't know if it is the case or not, but it could very well be) and penalize me for this, I think Google has all the right to do so.
Google's way of monitoring and correcting these issues sucks
The only thing I do not condone to Google is the use of such primitive and rude measures as the ones adopted with me (no matter what the causes were), without taking the simple courtesy of notifying me of the issues they have problems with and allowing me within a limited time to correct them.
Putting me and my team on the verge of having to close shop because we have cheated the system is a disputable approach (assuming again that text links were the cause), which while may serve as great Nazi-style example for others who will follow this story, places more and more Google in a light of a way-too-powerful Big Brother which no-one wants to depend on for survival.
This is why I read with great hope news like this one from a site called Web Marketing Pro where it is reported (in Italian) that Google is indeed about to launch a program that does exactly what I am asking for. Notifying web site owners of possible breaches to Google guidelines allowing them to correct and fix the issues within a given time. (Unfortunately the site reporting this news does not show a date nor a source for this story so I have little extra knowledge for now about whether or not this is something we can expect to happen any time soon.)
Out of hoping that Google is in fact not the evil it appears to be in times like this, the only other major lesson you have to stamp in your notebook is that you want to build, from the beginning, into your site, as many alternative revenue stream opportunities as you can think of. And the more these come from within your own assets (like when you sell your own ebooks, DVDs or subscriptions to premium specialty content) rather than from services provided by a third-party service (like with Google AdSense case) so much the better.
You really must work hard at this.
Let me repeat it: Create and seed many solid revenue alternatives to Google AdSense or the risk of running into horror stories like mine is going only to increase with time.
Google vs Text Links: My choice
I don't think there is really a choice. If you are honest, want to create sustainability for yourself on solid ground and appreciate having search engines that provide you with good, quality, relevant results, text links are out.
I am going to give up over $3000/month just in text links by making this choice, but it is a choice I believe in.
I do not suggest you take off text links or stop considering them because they pose a risk of Google penalizing your site. I suggest this because if it doesn't start from me the being honest and transparent with the system I use to survive this independent publishing game is not going to last very long.
If the blood itself contains the cancer virus there is little hope we can filter it out.
So, if you like me depend on Google and other major search engines, help the system not to be gamed. Accepting and getting paid for text links allows other sites to cheat the system and you should not allow that.
My commitment is to not to use text links anymore and to actually pro-actively evangelize about their true nature to those who have not had yet the opportunity to do so.
Where do you stand?
Originally written by Robin Good for Master New Media and titled "Text Links And Google: Should You Keep Or Drop Text Links From Your Site?"
This may be a stupid question but why doesnt google do their own text links. they could sell relevent links just like they do adsense?
I ran into some difficulties also. I had installed software called "phantom cloaker", which is supposed to HELP my search engine rankings. It basically created a ton of doorway pages to my site, which is against google policies. Truth be told though, I had no clue, didn't even know what a doorway page WAS. The next day I was competely removed from google search results. I erased all the doorway pages and emailed them, a few days later I was back. They had every right to cut me off, since it was clear in the webmaster guidelines that I was breaking the rules, but I REALLY REALLY wish they would have let me know somehow. They have my email, they have those messages they send you in the webmaster controls. Argh ... It truly is a lovehate relationship with these guys. :)
Sorry guys, for my way too late response - these last couple of weeks have been rather difficult here as not only Google enjoyed playing some jazz with my search results but I had also to cover two extra positions that I have remained open suddenly. My sincere apologies. Here is my feedback:
@Alex Choo - thanks Alex. I fully agree with your points. Thanks for that reference but as you see Matt is not saying the same thing anymore in his last speeches. Check out the video clips I published today.
@MeMe - Thanks for this extensive feedback - I think that your statement nails the argument that Google defenders bring up everytime - that is that Google is a business company and it can do what it wants with its search results.
You wrote: "Google has become a virtual utility (similar to water, or electricity) vs. an internet company. Thus, they have a larger responsibility to the population."
Couldn't agree more.
@Daniel - I think there is a large tradeoff here where there is a benefit both for Google and for me. So I don't understand why Google, who has selected me as it Premium Partner to promote and sell AdWords/Adsense and earns probably over $ 200,000/year off my good work should not have the care to inform me on issues that may cause my penalization.
They also have a system to do this inside the Google Webmaster Tools dashboard, but in my case they did not use it.
So again the point is that a small business owner like is completely helpless if he can't even find out the reason of its misery.
@Cristoph - You may have seen some links that escaped our initial clean up or that we needed still to take off. Since we are now off the problem we have either taken down or if we didn't (and we should) they must have been clearly not the cause of our problems with Google.
As I can only learn from this and am not trying to defend position can you point more specifically to those bottom links that you define SPAMMY?
What did or does make them so?
Agree fully on your other comments about business strategy and putting all eggs into one basket. You are definitely right.
@Steve - I wish you completed your statement but something must have happened as you were completing that thought.
I think that post was very, very interesting. Possibly the most interesting post I've ever read on a blog. And that's saying something.
Some might argue you've written this post to buy back your Google ranking, some not.
One thing I wanted to highlight though was a statement in your post that I don't feel makes any sense from a long-term business perspective...
sorry to hear about your site tanking in traffic.
I see two major issues with your current situation
1) while you try to communicate you learnt your lesson regarding Text Link Ads and bash them, you a) still run TLA ads on your site b) still run AT LEAST one or two other link broker networks that are A LOT spamier than text link ads (and may be the cause of your ranks dropping essentially)
2) the broader comment about how your business is setup - while I appreciate your site - it's the old "all eggs in one basket" problem , or at least if appears to be the MAJOR egg in your basket, as you already speak about laying off people after 7 days of tanking ranks...
Again, sorry for this to happen, but I would suggest to rethink your business strategy in genereal to NOT rely all on Google ranks of one site alone
also I would recommend to NEVER again combine 2 or more link networks to maximize your profits - Google is actually right, your link boxes on the bottom ARE SPAMMY
"In sincerity I have no justifications for my use of text links. I have gamed the system knowingly even after I became aware of the facts I explained above."
"The only thing I do not condone to Google is the use of such primitive and rude measures as the ones adopted with me (no matter what the causes were), without taking the simple courtesy of notifying me of the issues they have problems with and allowing me within a limited time to correct them."
Sorry, Robin, I know you are hurting on this issue, but for me, these two statements are quite inconsistent. You know you played the system, but you want to be treated nice when they decide they don't like it.
Yes, they could afford to be a bit nicer about it. No, they have no legal or moral obligation to do so. Whatsoever.
Then going on with the Nazi/Big Brother references in the next paragraph - that's pretty rich.
So sorry to hear about your issues. I can empathize with you. I didn't include my URL in case google is reading and decides they don't like what I say. (I'm being serious).
As little as 6-9 months ago, there was very little information on the validity of buying text links. Last December, we bought links on a guitar site because it was directly related to us. Next thing we know, all of our traffic stopped from Google. They didn't de-index us. They put is in what is know as a -950 penalty. Which means your rankings drop by approximately 950 places.
It took several weeks to figure out what the issue was. We have over 7,000 small instructors that count on us to help them find new students. Most of these people don't have web sites and definitely do not SEO them. During this time, all of these people suffered by a dramatic drop in revenue. It didn't just hurt us, it hurt real people in the real world who depend on us to pay the rent.
I had no moral issues with it because we were paying for relevant advertising on a relevant site. It's no different than suggesting that buying a billboard along a busy interstate is 'evil' because the billboard gets more traffic than your side street.
What bothers me the most is that the small guy is boxed in to using google now. Everyone uses Google search - and if you don't play by their rules, you're screwed. However, they don't tell you what the rules are.
Further, within the webmaster tools, it's now just one click to report a competitors site for selling links or spamming. Your competitors are incentivized to scour their competitors sites and report it to google - even if the information is incorrect! Is there a penalty to the reporting site if they report incorrect data to google? Are they penalized? Or does google just automatically and blindly believe them? Very scary.
Google has become a virtual utility (similar to water, or electricity) vs. an internet company. Thus, they have a larger responsibility to the population.
Imagine if the electric company cut off your power because of something you did, but they don't tell you what you're doing wrong. Further, they tell you that if you don't like it, stop using them and install solar panels on your house.
That's the way I feel with google. You cannot stop using them, but you don't know what they are going to throw at you next.
I am 100 with you on this. The rel=nofollow attribute is so important.
Ethical link selling is fine, I think Google's ok with it too.
What is wrong are those sites that sell links to drive up PR.
Paid links ought to be clearly labelled as that. Paid reviews also ought to be reviewed as that.