Google Paid Links – Google Sliding Down The Slippery Slope of Evildom

Matt Cutts has again been writing about paid links and has also jumped into the sponsored themes discussion, invoking the power of the Google Webspam team from behind the protection of a carefully worded disclaimer.
As Matt says:-

This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

Disclaimers are strange things…

Matt can basically discuss anything he likes, whether true, false or possibly true in the future, without his parent company being held liable for anti-competitive practices. It would be very interesting to see if that disclaimer would hold up in court, with Matt being head of the Webspam department.
On his unofficial blog he is in the position to cause an awful lot of financial damage to a lot of very well funded startups, and a fair number of massive internet corporations.

Google is in a Monopoly Position

Whilst everyone has a choice about which search engine they use, they have a significant market share of search traffic, and also a significant market share of the website monetization market, recently increased by the acquisition of DoubleClick (there is an agreement in place, but paperwork isn’t finalised)

What is a Paid Link?

We shouldn’t really think about whether a specific link is paid for, but whether there is a monetary benefit in making the link to another site.

Matt Cutts is an employee and probably has a lot of stock options in Google, yet constantly links through to his employer, from which Google benefit.
Microsoft bloggers frequently blog about Microsoft launches, and even have a mailing list set up.
Yahoo employees blog about Yahoo sites.

If you are a large corporation there are a number of ways to get millions of inbound links.

  • Have an affiliate program – use clever redirects on the affiliate links – Google and specifically Matt Cutts has never suggested people report sites that contain affiliate links that are not blocked from being crawled by search engines.
  • Buy websites with massive link equity – how much is The Internet Movie Database worth to Amazon from an SEO perspective? Shopping.com and Epinions.com were Ebay purchases. When you go to these sites there isn’t a nofollow link in sight.
  • Create Widgets – there are tons of widgets that pass on link equity

Once a large corporation has a lot of existing link equity, it is easy for them to pass this on to money generating sites and services.

Companies are allowed to buy links from the Yahoo directory, which is well known to confer a large amount of trust to a domain, and has been propping up Google’s algorithms for years.
Will we soon see Google state that the Yahoo directory should be made nofollow for all paid inclusions? Matt Cutts has previously stated that the Yahoo directory is OK because there is editorial review.

Matt Cutts has been speaking out saying he agrees with Matt Mullenweg on Sponsored Themes.
A company is paying a theme author as a subcontractor to create and maintain a WordPress theme, and there is attribution to the designer, and the company paying for the work.
Maybe it is a charitable contribution and the designer chose to include a link as a thank you.

How many consultants provide links through to the companies they work for?

How many software firms provide links through to their major corporate clients?

If you make a donation to someone, and they decide to give you a link back, is that a paid link?

If you are a consultant, and are paid to analyse a company, but to make the findings known publicly, are you supposed to stick nofollow on all the links?

If you are a VC or Angel investor, should you have to use NoFollow linking through to companies in your investment portfolio?

Are developers working on an open-source project allowed a link back to their sites (cough WordPress), and then use that link equity to dominate search engines on whatever topic they please?

If you are a blog network, or large internet content producer, is it gaming Google to have links to your sister sites, whether there is a direct financial connection or not?
An interesting twist on this is the WPNI Blogroll. They are providing link equity to the members who are then showing adverts – even if the adverts weren’t converting, would you carry them for the links and traffic?

Should a not for profit organisation link through to their paid members with a live link? One of the benefits is always being included in the members directory, and not just for traffic. These are often high quality credible relevant links, and easy to buy.

A large number of WordPress developers have paid links on their personal sites, as do theme and plugin developers.

If you write a blog post, thanking your sponsors, should you use nofollow?

Some people give away prizes for links, or offer some kind of reciprocation. Links have value, and Google invented the value of a followable link, not webmasters.

If you are a expert in a particular field, and someone asks you to write a review of their site, and the type of review you write means that writing that content might take 10 hours of your time to do due diligence, is it wrong to accept some kind of monetary contribution?
In such a situation, why would you be forced to use nofollow on all links to the site being reviewed?
I guarantee I spend a lot more time on a paid review than someone working for Yahoo for their paid directory.

Imagine someone created a commercial Wikipedia, and paid $5 for every link made to it.
You might think that is crazy, but 100,000,000 links with good anchortext would create a website that would rank for almost any term imaginable, and the company would be worth far more than $1bn, and would certainly bring in more than $100,000,000 revenue each year.
There is another evil twist you could add to the mix as well…

Sickened

I have read through the comments on Matts blog from where this is being orchestrated.

Why is it coming from Matt’s blog and not the Google Webmaster blog?

Why the focus on the effect of paid links and reviews for small webmasters rather than on the major corporations?

This is like a witch hunt with a disclaimer attached

Where is the precise definition of a paid link?

Biting The Bullet

I am actually proud of the paid reviews I have written, and I am so confident that they are not webspam, I am going to “bite the bullet”.

I have already submitted The Matt Cutts blog as webspam, because he is frequently linking through to his employer with undisclosed links.

Now I am doing what many would think of as being unthinkable, I am submitting my own content to Google’s Webspam form

Here is what I have just submitted to Google

paidlink

I am submitting my own content, because it is my own strong belief that there is nothing “webspam” related to the paid reviews I write, and am willing to submit them for scrutiny.

http://andybeard.eu/2007/03/sponsored-reviews-now-live-in-depth-review.html
http://andybeard.eu/2006/12/search-engine-glossary.html
http://andybeard.eu/2007/03/volusion-review-and-suggestions.html

I should also note I also give away half my earning from those reviews to WordPress plugin developers.

I would love an official response that I can publish stating whether Google has any problems with the quality of work I have done for my clients, or the fact that I include live followable links in the reviews I write.

Do you think I am going to get an official response?

Do Google employees have the balls to decide whether something is spam, or will they just blame it on their algorithms?

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Comments

  1. says

    I think they will respond to you with a link to one of their faq pages.

    That’s what they always do, they will never change.

    The sad fact is that A LOT of internet sites are now dependent on Google because the rest of the bunch (yahoo, msn) suck and there is no worthy competitor in sight.

    So whatever changes they make either it will end up breaking the internet and causing serious backlashes (imagine a protest in front of the Googleplex) or everybody will just go along with and find a way to circumvent it…as they have done so far.

  2. says

    I agree with Ali, they will probably send you a link to FAQ page.

    I wonder if their CPA is being served in javascripts. If not Google CPA text link certainly carries a monetary benefit with it.

    • says

      One problem, an FAQ that has anything to do with paid links doesn’t exist. I haven’t found any mention anywhere on the Google site that gives an official opinion on paid links.

      In fact the Google Webmaster guidelines suggest that you shouldn’t do anything for search engines, and design everything for human readers.

      The only official opinions are almost total silence when this topic comes up at conferences, and never any specifics.

      I have given them specific examples for which they should be able to give some kind of opinion, after all they must have an opinion if they are training their bots to recognise “webspam”.

      The Volusion Review currently ranks second on Google for Volusion Review, and 11th for Volusion as a single word. 5 of the sites ahead in the SERPs for “Volusion” are actually Volusion subdomains.

      The only information on paid reviews that give an opinion is Matt Cutt’s blog with its disclaimer.

  3. says

    Who is Matt or Google for that matter to say what is for search engines, and what is for human readers? If I was to link to this post, am I to no-follow it since I really liked what you wrote? It made me smile so in effect you just paid me with happiness. So my link to you would be a paid link. (reading = smile = link to you)

    I think that Matt is talking out his ass. The only thing he is doing is scaring whitehat webmasters into another BS parade.
    If you are reading this and agree with me, remove every last link to Matt.

  4. says

    Think of Matt’s posts as linkbait to spread a message. The topic itself is old news from 2003, officially confirmed in 2005. What’s new is the announcement that Google has drastically improved her methods to judge link intent. Time will tell whether these are more accurate. Matt’s warning primarily addresses blatant PR/LinkJuice broking and other obvious link monkey businesses. I think it’s quite fair to allow those concerned to duck and hide under the radar before the shit hits the fan.

    • says

      It is damaging the business model of competing monetization companies from his private blog, and it isn’t a level playing field.
      Without clear official clarification, those companies will suffer financial loss.
      In my opinion a PayPerPost blog review, even if only 200 words is more legitimate than a Yahoo directory listing, yet for some reason, PPP and other paid post companies are attacked “unofficially”, so is linkbait using themes, yet the biggest offenders are immune.
      The big guys are not actually offenders in the minds of internet users, but should be if Google had a level playing field.

      Could Google afford the lawsuit if Yahoo, Amazon and Ebay were penalised for their linking practices?

      Why should the little guys be penalised who can’t afford to buy a website for 100s of millions?

  5. says

    I agree that the Yahoo directory is complete crap. I would gladly spend 300 bucks on reviewme or 20 or so PPP spots. The problem is that PPP is kicking but in the SERPS and I imagine its only a matter of months before a major update is done.

    Back to the topic at hand: (Real Life Example)
    I buy stuff from the same vendor all the time. They give me a thank you gift and I really appreciate it. I then write about their great customer service and wish more companies were like this. Do I need to disclose this? Do I have to do extra work to add nofollow to the link because of a fear that I will get hit with a penalty?

    I feel they have crossed the line this time and have tried to regulate things across the net. This will intern bring government more scrutiny on themselves. They should of just stayed quiet and tweaked their algorithm. They have created a monster with Nofollow and are still trying to keep it contained and working, its not going to work. I am too lazy to add nofollow to my links. Google wants me to create websites without worrying about Search Engines yet they are telling me how to write my site, a bit hypocritical if you ask me.

  6. says

    I have lways felt a full on need to put my links no where near the blogs of the “big players”. Even something like the register only gets a link if I have to do so to make my point. Most of the time anything of that size (that get’s linkage beyond it’s merit IMHO) gets a mediawiki page at wiki.lordmatt.co.uk and I’ll link to that (at least that way it is the corect format for a tag).

    I admire the bravado of squaring up to G!

    Keep us posted.

  7. says

    >It is damaging the business model of competing monetization companies from his private blog

    Really? Google ads are nofollow’ed by definition and nofollow’ed ads are not on Matt’s radar. Hence this analogy is a bit flawed from a technical POV.

    Also, there’s no penalty involved, Google may just decide that particular pages or even sites don’t pass (all) link juice as long as they carry uncondomized ads. Again, Google ads don’t pass link love.

    When I put ads on my pages then I want to drive targeted traffic ready for an upsell to a sponsor. Why should I donate that sponsor link juice? Makes no sense.

    Also, why should I expect search engine love when I buy traffic? I do it to show my sales pitch to fresh vistors, so I pay for targeted traffic. I can buy nofollow’ed ads at TLA and elsewhere, so where is Google penalizing competition?

    Sure I’d like to max out traffic deals of all kind, and I’d take the link juice when I can get it, but sometimes that’s just not going to happen. And that’s old news too, even before 2003 when Google (began to?) devalue paid links most traffic deals were made utilizing ugly and SE unfriendly URLs often even routed via 3rd party servers.

    Ok, that leaves SEO link deals. When I buy links Google will not detect it, and the same goes when I sell links. Every SEO can handle link purchases that way.

    So my question is, who will suffer from more downgrading of commercial linkage? I don’t like it that Google rules my sites, but pragmatically – what’s the alternative?

    You made a very good point in your post. As long as we don’t know what exactly Google considers a paid link which should be nofollow’ed for Google, there will be way too much speculation and overreaction. The current debate proves that point.

    So far Matt mentioned ads, PR selling, sponsored posts and similar stuff. Hence I really wouldn’t be afraid to thank a vendor for great customer service with a clean link, and I don’t see a good reason to post figures or to mention that there is an old and friendly business relationship.

    I’ve answered a few of your questions above on my blog and I’m curious whether you can agree or not ;)

  8. says

    Andy You are the man!

    Now, I’m far from an SEO Expert but one question that has always bothered me which I’m sure has been answered many times is googles adword thing.

    If paid links are pretty much considered “bad” What are adwords? Isnt that just a paid link?

    Again, I don’t know the first thing about SEO and links but the impression I’m getting is Paying for links is bad unless its Google you’re paying…then its ok

    • says

      Adwords when displayed on a website (Adsense) use javascript, and in theory search engines don’t read javascript that is pulled down from another server and activate it. It is client side content.

      Advertising in javascript has been around for longer than Google, and before links had any search engine value.

      • Javascript can be changes dynamically
      • Javascript is browser dependant, and does not require specific server configuration – it should be noted that PHP and SQL databases were a luxury item when Google first launched their advertising.
      • Javascript is webmaster independent – it is hard to hack the javascript that appears on your site
      • Javascript can provide tracking

      There are problems with javascript though for advertising, especially on blogs.

      • Javascript is blocked by many adware blockers, including some actively promoted by browser manufacturers
      • Javascript doesn’t work in RSS feeds
        Google have been beta-testing (closed) some kind of advertising method for RSS feed content for some time (2 years?), and as on many blogs 90% of the content is read via subscription, this is a major problem
      • It generally can’t be inserted within the content in such a way that it doesn’t affect layout, unless it is something like Kontera which uses javascript and modifies the CSS for particular words.

      I took a risk writing this post, and submitting my own content as webspam because an exact definition of what is allowed isn’t available, and that the FUD has a vast affect on the decisions of my readership on which avenues they use for advertising, and it also has an affect on my future business plans (which I declare all the time, but keep confidential)

      The main reason I write sponsored posts isn’t for the income, but to educate in how quality content can be sponsored or provide some monetary benefit, and to provide specific examples in situation like this, that might help clear up the FUD.

      There can be no mistake that I was paid money for those reviews, but can Google be justified in calling them Webspam?

  9. says

    I’ll be interested to watch this post and the outcome. This is exactly the reason I came up with that idea I spoke to you about the other day.

    I spent many years marketing; long before google and Matt Cutts. The most important part of our job with our clients was to take their product to the street.

    Get reviews from consumers. Get feedback, input and constructive criticism. Well, the days of knocking on doors is over and business is done on the internet.

    If my site is set up free of charge to help companies adopt to their clients via consumer reviews and the same type of constructive criticism that has been used for hundreds of years, will Google have a problem with it because it’s on the net?

  10. says

    Hope you haven’t edged too close to the precipice. If, one day soon, you are nowhere to be found, we’ll know you were sucked into a huge, black void.

  11. says

    Great write up Andy! I couldn’t agree more that some type of definition for “paid links” needs to be set so that we can know what we can and can’t do.

    I am a big fan of your blog and am REALLY glad that you have put yourself out there for Google to take action against and I am anxious to see how they reply to your spam report!

  12. Classifieds says

    Nice post Andy,
    Kudos to you for submitting your own information although I don’t expect you will receive a reply.

    Google really is trying to pull a fast-one with this paid links threat, it has nothing to do with SERPs being improved.
    In fact I think it will produce the opposite effect and reduce the quality of the index, thus making ADSENSE look a great deal more targeted (more clicks for Google!)

    Eventually they will just have the whole first page (or two) of search results as adsense, and be done with it.

    I am withdrawing my promotion of ADWORDS referal across all of my sites and will never promote it again.
    It’s my little piece that I am able to do as a website owner.
    Apart from using adsense (YPN not available in the UK yet)
    I will never promote a Google product again and I have already stopped the pesky “advertise on this site” Google link from the adsense display.

    Regards.

  13. says

    Great post as usual Andy. Grey area … just about everything in this world has that grey area that falls in between of the black or white. For Google, they are threatening to judge the grey area of link intent and value and determine FOR US what is black and what is white. They will make this judgment without fully knowing the intent, misjudging the true value to the user and most definitely they will not compromise anything related to their own earnings.

    That bothers me.

    • says

      i completely agree with aaron. google cannot even begin to assume they can determine the intent of why something is linked. i could report 100% of all my #1 competitor’s back links (that i can find), and hope that google determines at least 20% are “paid” so i can jump to #1.

      and andy, you’ve pointed out some great examples of these gray area links. what is influencing someone to link? it’s not as simple as: advertiser pays publisher, publisher posts advertiser’s link under “sponsor” section… legitimate links will be discounted. i also wrote a similar argument a few days ago. it makes me mad, this whole thing doesn’t sit right with me.

  14. says

    I’m a bit late to this party, but I read Matt C’s original post on this issue and all the comments that followed. Your post is the best article I’ve read debunking the absolute absurdity of what he proposes. Even more impressive is your willingness to put your money where your mouth is by submitting your own material. I hope the response Matt has gotten to this issue convinces the others at Google that pursuing this line of action will at best lead to massive ambiguity, and at worst all out sabotage between competing websites. Thanks for standing up!

  15. says

    This was such an AWESOME POST! Thank you for finally being one of the big boys to fight back. I think its crap Google or actually all these fools with Google Stock options are attempting to ruin our Internet just because they have the power of massive monopoly behind them… Bahhh!

  16. Andy Baxter says

    I have only just latched onto this paid links witchhunt recently and, of all the things Google has done over the years, this is surely the most ill-advised.

    Paid links are only ever sought by people who seek to make a profit from their websites.

    That being the case, if my site sells “Red Widgets” then I am going to try to increase my serps for the term Red Widgets.

    If doing this makes me Number One on Google for the term “Red Widgets” then what is the problem?

    When a user types in “Red Widgets”, they will see my link, click on it and think, “Oh great, this site sells Red Widgets, this is exactly what I am looking for”.

    If Google now decides to penalise me for paying for links that have made me top for “Red Widgets” they are hurting me and hurting the user.

    The whole point of a search engine is search-term relevancy.

    If my site is the very best resource for “Red Widgets”, who are Google REALLY penalising when they make my site drop out from the serps?

    Answer: A: Themselves (because they are now not providing their user with the best resource for the term), B:The Searcher because by the time they have penalised all the Red Widget sellers, who knows what will come up tops? C:The business and website owners who give Google something to give to their users.

    I have long thought that Google basically want every dollar that is spent on the internet to somehow go through them so that they pick up a least one cent.

    This new measure just goes to prove it.

    The only way they want webmasters to monetise their sites by selling those little bits of white space is through Adsense.

    It has been some time since they made a crackdown on Affiliate Sites – their argument may be that they clog up the serps with duplicate content. I disagree but this isn’t really the argument. The problem they have is that affiliate sites don’t pass on any revenue to Google.

    If it were possible to prevent every business owner from being so scared of Google and show some balls as the author of this site has done then I would say, “Just carry on, buy links if you have the budget, when Google penalises every busines owner in the world for buying links, where will that leave their serps? A search for Red Widgets will come up with Blue Widgets and their users will soon tire of that and move elsewhere.”

  17. says

    I am writting an operating system called “TheZoid” at http://thezoid.co.uk

    I have no choice but to add this due to nasty search engine which will not advertise my busuiness called google addwords on http://www.google.co.uk which wishes to charge very high prices and as an excuse call my website very poor quality. If you manage to find this website as http://www.google.co.uk is trying its best to keep it out of its search engine that is unbelivable. I would like to know why google cannot recognize TheZoid as an operating system !!! Please send http://www.google.co.uk lots of emails and tell them that shitting on the small man is good business sense. If google wishes me to remove this from my website than advertise my business fairly, at resaonable rates !!!!

    Did you know google.co.uk wishes to charge upto five pounds for one Click for the word “Operating System” and many other words, I would like to know what is this Bullshit !!!!
    Please show your outrage by boycotting the google search engine !!!!

    This message was posted on 15/11/2007 just after I cancelled my google adwords account which will not advertise my business. I will not pay stupid prices for one click for one keyword !!

    If you work at http://www.google.co.uk and find this fucking offensive then I am fucking hope so and you can go fuck yourselfs. PS keep pissing of the small man, and I hope you go out of business !!!!

  18. says

    Money is the root of all evil. Google upset because they want to own all links and tell webmasters what they can and can’t do. The reason why it is an issue is due to two factors:

    1. Links affect their results
    2. Links make money

    They have to understand that money buys all business unless you are lucky to get referrals. They need to bite the bullet and understand that the real world works in the same way. Its a money and popularity contest. Money gets you places. Thats why no one cares about my comment right now and thats why it wont make a difference.

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