Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Monday, August 27, 2007

Google FUD: Paid Text Links Evil? More On My Ongoing Discoveries

Sponsored Links

Does Google penalize web sites who buy and sell text links? Text paid links and their ambiguous relationship with Google guidelines hold again the front stage as over a week has now passed since all of the pages of this site, Master New Media, were suddenly pushed to the bottom of Google search engine result pages with no clear or communicated motivation.

Page views sudden slope on Master New Media during the Google penalization period - the above costed over $5,000 only for lost AdSense revenues - stats by Hitbox Professional

In fact to this very I day, I could not firmly say what was, if anything, that specifically caused all of my web pages to drop at the bottom of Google search results. From what I know now, it could very well be that Google did some temporary change to its index in which my site was coincidentally involved or that some algorithm changes on Google servers resulted in such glitch. This is supported by Google not sending me any message or reporting to me any active penalty report via the direct messaging system which is now available inside your Google Webmaster Tools dashboard.

What doesn't support this hypothesis is the fact that Google never stop indexing all of my pages, and that my results were all inside Google... only a few hundreds results lower. But since I am not really an expert about Google penalization rules (how can one be I wonder) I really wonder whether these are signs only pointing to demonstrate the contrary. (Maybe some of you know more on this front and could provide some insight into this in the comments section.)

Not knowing the cause of one's own misery is maybe worse than the misery itself.

Would you live in a state where while the laws are publicly shown, people are arrested and detained for arbitrary periods of time with NO explanation for putting them under custody? What woude you say then if the government of that state then heavily advertised the purchase of those services that are clearly forbidden and penalized for in its constitution?

But that is exactly what Google does. It evangelizes the evil nature of text paid links on web sites but then it heavily fills its own AdWords inventory with hundreds of ads from text link agencies like in the ad here below.


Nonetheless the many of you now carrying the flag "Links are evil" and "you Robin should only shut up", I think it is wise to look and question a bit more in-depth the issue and to ask whether Google itself acts and utilizes as honest and transparent rules for its own search business as it pretends from those using it.

I maybe too naive as an online entrepreneur, but as of now, it appears to me that making sound business decisions of what is best to do in this scenario is not easy at all.

This is why I went back fro you to look at what Matt Cutts and other SEO experts said a few days ago while meeting at the SES Conference in San Jose. Text Links and Google was actually the topic of one of their sessions and the insights that came from it are quite enlightnening ideed.


Right after hell raged here at Master New Media, with traffic slashed to 1/4 of its standard levels and AdSense revenues penalized even more, in San Jose, California, Matt Cutts from Google and some of the most competent SEO experts were meeting for the annual SES Conference, devoted to this and other search engine optimization and marketing issues.

If you have not read the previous articles on this story and don't what exactly happened here at Master New Media, please go check the following titles:

Back to the present. As I have mentioned mentioned, a specific session during last week SES Conference was specifically devoted to Google and text links (session name: Are Paid Links Evil?) and some of the ideas expressed in that session are very relevant to those, like me, are honestly trying to better understand the issue.

After having read, watched and listed for several hours at what had been said, I am again puzzled at what is correct and what is not, as the listening and the looking deeper into this text links issue has indeed brought up more considerations and reflections that I had not dwell upon before.

Worst, it seems to me now more apparent than not that at best Google is taking advantage (and maybe rightly from its business viewpoint) of a climate of fear, uncertainty and doubt surrounding the text links penalization issue. I think that this approach works wonders at naturally evangelizing and discouraging web publishers from increasing any incompetent or indiscriminate use of text links. At the same time not questioning and understanding in full your rights and Google often not-so-trasparent business practices would be foolish by any online independent publisher worth of that name.

What in fact stands in stark contrast with Google apparently good motivations against the use of paid text link ads are some of these facts:

a) Google letting all large and small text link agencies advertise on its very own search result pages.

b) Lack of more information and examples relating to the proper and improper use of such text links, the penalizations inflicted along with clear and unambiguous examples of proper use of text links on small and large sites alike.

c) Public acceptance of "some" paid text links, when these appear to have received some form of editorial selection or review (e.g.: Yahoo directory)

But let me shut up for a while while I bring to you here some of the most interesting content, comments and information that I have found researching the matter and by following the SES Conference blog postings on the topic of text links. You can then draw your own conclusions.

The basic argument against Text Links

"The basic argument that search engineers in general, and Matt Cutts in particular, has presented is that paid links represent manipulation and pollution in the index. The links are not "editorially vouching" for the quality and relevancy of the pages they point to, but due to the ulterior motive of financial compensation, adversely affect the quality of search results."

(Source: The Paid Links Debate Rages On - SES San Jose 2007)

Link Are Bad - Andy Baio

Andy Baio did the best job of summarizing my own original feelings about this story, which I believe may likely be the common sentiment of most online publishers out there who have not yet dipped into this matters further. In essence:

"...paid links shouldn't be used because they ruin a public resource, are deceptive and hurt ordinary users.

If your focus is traffic, that's terrific. But that's not the focus and Andy believes that the industry (of paid links) is "shady."

However, he strongly agrees ... that allowing link brokers to run ads on Google is hypocritical.

and also... If the websites who wanted to rank were "good enough", they wouldn't need to buy links."


Matt Cutts - Does Google Penalize and Ban Web Sites for using Text Links?

If you research and study Matt Cutts statements and posts he is pretty clear and straightforward about Google negative stance on text links. It seems clear to me that he is also increasingly indicating that there may indeed be sanctions (although these are rarely exemplified) for sites selling text links and that such sanctions ARE becoming heavier as time passes.


As an example of the above, at the SES Conference last week, Matt Cutts says that Google had removed a very big site (WhenU) in the past for 43 days in total from the index, and this was noticed by Ben Edelman.

Here is also a very short video excerpt from the WordCamp that took place a month ago in San Francisco, where at the end of his session Matt Cutts was precisely asked to comment on paid text links. Here is what he had to say:

Video credit: Jpozadzides

During my research I found also another one-minute statement from Matt Cutts recorded two months ago from the SMX Advanced Conference 2007.

"Matt Cutts and Danny Sullivan sat down to discuss search engine marketing and field questions from the crowd. One of the audience members asked Matt how Google is going to respond to the rise in link buying in the search engine marketplace. Matt explains that link buying IS against Google guidelines and warns those who are participating in such schemes may face tough times ahead as Google works harder to remove them."

Video credit: Stepforth

In the Q&A session following the Are Text Links Evil? panel at SES last week, Matt Cutts was also asked about Google own ability to catch and stop PageRank flow from text link ads.

Q: Can Google remove the ability of individual pages to pass linkjuice?

Matt Cutts replied that not only can Google remove single page's ability to pass PR but Google can also remove the ability of only certain links on a page from passing PR, and it already does.

Are Paid Links Evil? - Michael Gray

Michael Gray's presentation was titled, "" was as reported by "confrontational, political and emotional to a degree... not preivously seen at a SES conference."

Here is Michael PowerPoint presentation:

At the core of Michael's anti-Google sermon was the following series of arguments:

  • Both commercial and non-commercial queries exist on the web
  • Commercial websites are NOT generally linked-to naturally
  • Non-commercial websites are much more likely to entice natural links
  • By eliminating paid links, Google will fill the top results for commercial queries with primarily non-commercial results
  • Thus, when a searcher wishes to take a commercial action, the only relevant results will be the paid listings
  • And, thus, searchers will be more likely to click on AdWords links, which earn Google money

What is to be noted from Michael radical perspective reports SEOmoz, is that "Google is not the government, should not be attempting to influence how webmasters build sites and is engaged in precisely the activity they claim to abhor - paid link sales, albeit in a different format, and one that makes themselves the primary earner."

(Source: SEOmoz.og)

Can Google really enforce penalization on sites that sell and display text links?

Worth mentioning and reflecting upon what Todd Friesen from Range said as well:

"Outside of the link buyer and seller, no one (especially not the search engines) know who is involved in a link purchase.

Thus, if SEOs ever find that Google will actually ban sites (or directly penalize them) for link purchases, those purchases will be made by competitors to attempt to fool the engines into believing that they are violating the guidelines and should be penalized."

(Source: SEOmoz)

What should you do if you are an online publisher using text links?

According to Matt Cutts, there is a precise set of approaches to make your paid links safe for search engines like Google. The simple labeling of paid text links as "sponsored links" or "advertising links" is not enough anymore while this is a list of OK actions to take on your site if you are displaying text link ads and making them Google-compliant.

b) Use a redirect through the URL blocked by robots.txt

c) Redirect through a URL using a 302

d) Use JavaScript to direct the link

e) Apply the rel="nofollow" attribute to the link

f) Add the Meta Robots = "nofollow" to the page header

It is also interesting that while Google does not recommend you to buy paid text links, they are "officially" happy with text link ads bought and sold via:

What To Do?

That's a good question. :-)

For what I am concerned I had already stated clearly my position about text links and had taken down all of them during the Google search slip. This costs me over $3000 in monthly revenue but I took the decision based on what I did feel most ethical with my own beliefs and obviously because I did not know where the search result apparent penalization was possibly caused by them.

Now, after having studied things a bit deeper, the situation is not anymore as clear cut as I saw it before: me evil and Google good.

If I had to give advice to a friend trying to increase its online revenues by using also text link ads I would recommend her to use the text link providers Google approves of (as those do not seem to pass any valuable Google juice to other sites) and to carefully select only those that are not only relevant to your site but which you would personally endorse as web site or services to your own customers.

More reading:

Paid Links - Can't Be a White Hat With 'em, Can't Rank Without 'em

In the current search marketing environment, it's exceptionally hard to find a website that's ranking highly for competitive queries in niche fields that isn't employing paid link tactics to bolster their position.

July 2007

Originally written by for Master New Media and titled "Google FUD: Paid Text Links Evil? More On My Ongoing Discoveries"

Readers' Comments    
2007-08-30 18:36:54


You may well want to reference the video interview between Rand Fishkin and Michael Gray from SES San Jose as well. It gives a nice overview of the situation from two of the respected faces in the SEO industry.

2007-08-27 13:30:31

Robin Good

Dear Antone,
thank you for your well expressed and thoughtful comments. I must agree with your points and clarifications wholeheartedly.

I especially welcome your suggestion that "Google would do well to better balance the need to avoid giving too much information to unethical individuals with the need to provide more information to ethical individuals who sometimes get penalized as a side effect of algorithm changes aimed at unethical individuals."

2007-08-27 09:27:34

Antone Roundy

"Google is not the government, should not be attempting to influence how webmasters build sites and is engaged in precisely the activity they claim to abhor - paid link sales, albeit in a different format, and one that makes themselves the primary earner."

I have to disagree somewhat with this line of reasoning. A few key points:

* Google is not the government, but it's not a public utility either. It's a business that provides an extremely valuable service for free, which makes a lot of money for a lot of other businesses.

* Nobody complains about Google influencing webmasters to write good page titles and headlines by giving more weight to keywords in those parts of their webpages. And most of us are glad that Google does its best to penalize spammy sites that would otherwise make it difficult for us to find the information we want.

* The ads that Google sells are JavaScript links (except on it's own search results pages, which aren't indexed, and so those links don't affect search engine rankings). So it's not participating in what it abhors -- it's following it's own guidelines precisely for selling text links.

That said, I do agree that Google would do well to better balance the need to avoid giving too much information to unethical individuals with the need to provide more information to ethical individuals who sometimes get penalized as a side effect of algorithm changes aimed at unethical individuals.

Perhaps when a site is penalized, details about why it was penalized could be hidden by default, but if the webmaster requests that information, a Google employee could take a quick look at their website, and if it looks legitimate, grant access to the details. That process should be easy to streamline so that it takes a low-pay employee less than a minute to process each request for access.

posted by Robin Good on Monday, August 27 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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