PageRank down? Traffic taking a dive? If you are wondering whether your web site may have been penalized by Google, because of your adoption and use of text link ads here is my final answer on this: yes, and it is now also official (as many of you already know): Google will indeed penalize your site if you have been selling your web page space to text link advertisers.
Photo credit: Fernando Soares and Google - Mashed up by Robin Good
If you are not familiar with text link ads you should know that text links are a particular form of online marketing and advertising that works on the very premise of how the whole Google system (and many other major search engines) works.
Essentially Google, the search engine, ranks and organizes sites according to topics and relevance for each by using the links of the web as actual "votes" determining rank and "theme" for any individual web page on the web. Google looks at who is linking to who and depending on what the "anchor text" of the link says, it determines also the "focus" and relevance of each web page for any specific topic.
By purchasing relevant text-based keywords links on already highly-ranked sites anyone could rapidly buy its way up on Google search engine result pages for just about any term that he could think up.
This is why a blooming text link ads industry has exploded in the last 3 years and this is why Google is now forced to change some of its rules and to crack down on text links sellers. Text links work! But since they are evidently a way to "game" the system, they could also be one of the key factors to de-value Google search out of its so far unchallenged dominant search position. Thus Google has now decided to wave a quiet but very resolute war against text links by penalizing web sites that utilize them.
This is big news, for anyone trying to make a living online, as Google past official stance was not of penalizing sites using text links in any way, but simply to silently switch off its ability to pass PageRank to any one site it would link to.
In this scenario, penalizing a site means getting a site to appear so low inside Google search engine result pages that hardly anyone will go that far to find it. Being penalized in this way it is very much like being completely excluded out of the Google search engine.
In some cases the penalization may even consist of a loss of PageRank and a consequent very significant loss of visibility (and therefore traffic) from Google search engine results.
a) since April-May of this year the situation with text links has started to change.
b) Google does lower PageRank values for sites selling links.
c) Google may penalize sites selling links also in other ways, including full drop from their index, or significantly lowered visibility and ranking inside their search engine results.
d) Not all sites are penalized, both because of time and resources restraints as well as because of the very strategy Google uses (read on to find out how this works).
This is what I have seen happen on my sites and what I see reported also by SEO experts working in this field.
There are no more doubts about this.
Selling text links is a risky business if you need to count on Google's traffic.
Yes, you can still make significant money with text links, but since Google has now declared an open war on sites that sell them, either you match Google new and more explicit requirements in this direction (drop all your text links) or you better start learning now the subtle and undetectable ways to integrate text links on your site without being caught.
I have personally made a definite step in this direction and have closed any and all my relationships with text links advertisers.
Some have fully understood and respected my choice, while some others have tried to penalize me, fine me and even outlaw me from their accounts.
My recommendations here are therefore targeted at those interested in maintaining a positive relationship with Google while not trying to cheat the system in any way. Money can be made in hundreds of other more enjoyable ways without littering the Google system with sites we would never vote for.
Here, based on my personal experiences and what I have read and learned in the last two months, my key advice and recommendations for all online publishers.
Some Key Things I Have Learned about Selling Text Links
a) If your site has good authority and ranking, you can make some significant money by selling text links. In the last month I have used them this year, I was able to get around $3,500-4,000/month just out of this revenue stream.
b) Good authority and ranking means you must have at least a PageRank of 5 and a growing audience as measured by your scores on Technorati and Alexa.
c) Traffic numbers are not important, as those who use text links are not really looking to get direct greater exposure but only want you to pass some link authority back to them.
d) Do not trust text link agencies and text link ads brokers of any kind. My overall impression has not been a positive one with these companies. From TLA to the lesser known text link brokers the only good thing I saw was the money being delivered. For the rest nothing to tell your friends about. Actually the behaviour of some of these companies was so bad and unjustified that even if they were operating in a different market segment I would be proactively recommending my readers to avoid getting involved with them at all.
e) Don't get lured in by the easy money. It is as real as the trouble you may get yourself into. Unless you are a pro "cheater" I would take advantage of the many other alternative monetization opportunities you have available today.
f) Text link ad agencies are going to face tough times. Google communication strategy against text links is now official, and while Google advertising keeps promoting and displaying ads for text link broker left and right on its SERPS, Google the search engine brother seems to be getting tougher and tougher in its war on paid-for links. And as the news of site possibly penalized for having used text links gets broader, more and more independent small publishers are going to let go of this revenue stream. As Google has now openly declared a war on those selling text links on their sites, the fear of being penalized by Google is spreading like wildfire and text link advertisers will have little new convincing arguments to get new accounts and web sites to work with them.
g) Google terror strategy is very effective and if some of the sites you are linking to have already lamented possible penalizations get yourself clear before Google does it for you.
h) Google is not going to be able to stop this paid-for text link phenomenon but can only get better at identifying artificial text links placed to boost other sites popularity and not to provide as originally conceived a vote of authority and theme. Google does not own the Internet, and until it is sued for being in a monopolistic position it can decide whichever rules it wants to impose on its search and advertising business based model.
j) While you may soon start seeing lots less explicit text links around the web sites you visit, you'll be actually digesting more of the same without even realizing it. The latest tactic utilized in fact by text link agencies (and they have been refining these for at least the last 2-3 years) is one of either hiding their text links inside apparently "standard" content paragraphs placed into selected articles, or of directly creating "ad hoc" web pages built exclusively for the purpose of integrating valuable text links inside them while making the text links next to impossible to detect.
k) Google has already started to deeply change its ranking and evaluation algorithms so that, while links remain a key factor in establishing a site relevance and focus, many more factors are now being used to confirm and corroborate its search index relevance data. This approach provides better protection to established sites that have seen their market gradually shrink thanks to the aggressive paid-for linking strategies that their competition had embarked in. Buying one's own way up to the top of Google search results is certainly no guarantee of a quality presence, and as Google knows this all too well, it is doing everything it can to conquer back some of its original impartiality and high quality results. But it is not an easy task.
Google, many people lament (me included) does not give enough information about how to behave and what to do with text link ads. Google even heavily promotes text link ads agencies via the very ads it distributes on its search engine and via AdSense partner sites. Still, its strategy seems clear if you want to see it. Avoid getting involved with paid-for text links and you will be fine.
One interesting thing I have read about and which may have escaped others is that Google wants to keep a situation in which it is not easy to tell who has been penalized and who hasn't, as having a transparent system that showed all the sites that had been penalized, would offer again a lot of valuable information to those wanting to cheat the system further. Under those circumstances you could in fact discover which were the sites that while using paid text links were not detected by the Google system and emulate their "camouflaging" approach.
"For the same reason, Google is only decreasing the PageRank for a subset of the sites they actually know about."
It is important that you understand well the above statement. Although Google knows of a great number of sites that would require to be penalized as they are active text link sellers, it penalizes only a subset of these as to not make immediately evident its strategy and selection criteria.
The sad news is that, for pretty slef-evident reasons, smaller sites like yours and mine may be much easier penalization targets than the very top sites that provide core key content readers expect to find on Google search engine result pages.
"...In contrast, if you're a smaller site not deemed as important to relevancy, a harsher punishment of a ranking penalty may be dealt out (the Text Link Ads site is an example of this)."
This is why if you have seen significant PageRank decreases on your site you may be indeed victim of a text link generated penalization.
"By using PageRank decreases (something Google first experimented with in the SearchKing case in 2002), Google can hurt the perceived value of buying links from a particular site without harming core relevancy.
Google stressed, by the way, that the current set of PageRank decreases is not assigned completely automatically; the majority of these decreases happened after a human review. That should help prevent false matches from happening so easily."
Source of previous citations: Search Engine Land - Oct. 7th 2007
1) If Google traffic is important to you avoid using text links.
2) If you have used text links before or are using them now consider seriously dropping them before Google catches you. Getting back in is not easy, fast or assured.
3) If you have used text links before or are using them now and have decided to drop them altogether as I have done do submit a "reinclusion request" by utilizing the dedicated form inside the Google Webmaster Tools main page.
4) If you don't want to play by Google rules, have a site that doesn't depend on Google for traffic and you have the time and skills to hack your contebnt pages the way you want, make sure your text links are completely invisible as such to anyone, don't talk about them and do not make your site URL visibile on text link auction sites and databases. That is, if you do it, you better not tell anyone and make a very fine job of this.
5) If you like Google and want its search engine to work better, do not cheat the system. Those like you who do honest content writing work have all to gain from this.
Recent related resources:
Originally written by Robin Good for Master New Media and titled: "Selling Text Links Ads And Google Penalization: What You Need To Know"
Heart's lovers: Photo credit: Boroda003
Other considerations: Photo credit: Bartosz Ostrowski
Final recommendations: Photo credit: Andres Rodriguez