Will The FTC Investigate Google & Matt Cutts For Paid Links? (updated)

In October 2009 Matt finally added a disclosure policy to his blog and it is very comprehensive.

Of note:

  1. He doesn’t nofollow links to the companies he invests in
  2. When he mentions Google products, he doesn’t nofollow the links, or generally have specific disclosure in posts
  3. In social media for his investments he does disclose which is grea, but not when Tweeting about Google

The FTC Guidelines state

Example 8: An online message board designated for discussions of new music download
technology is frequented by MP3 player enthusiasts. They exchange information about
new products, utilities, and the functionality of numerous playback devices. Unbeknownst
to the message board community, an employee of a leading playback device manufacturer
has been posting messages on the discussion board promoting the manufacturer’s product.
Knowledge of this poster’s employment likely would affect the weight or credibility of her
endorsement. Therefore, the poster should clearly and conspicuously disclose her
relationship to the manufacturer to members and readers of the message board.

Full PDF

Original Article

Will The FTC Investigate Google & Matt Cutts For Paid Links? (updated)

I don’t think so but…

  • Matt probably earns a salary from Google as head of webspam
  • Matt has been with Google since 2000, so probably has a few stock options
  • If Matt says something about a new Google service that encourages other bloggers to write about it as well, it probably has an effect on Google’s share price, so there is a specific financial incentive.

We have seen how blog discussions can have both a massive positive and negative influence on large company share value, especially with Apple.

Full Disclosure From Google – No Way?

  • Matt doesn’t have a comprehensive disclosure policy – he does have a short disclaimer to hide behind
  • Matt doesn’t use nofollow on links to his source of income
  • Matt used to post messages on popular SEO forums as “Google Guy”, but there was never any specific disclosure

Now whilst Matt has mentioned the FTC in relation to paid links before, it has always been in the sanctuary of his “private” blog. At SES San Jose I believe he is there in his official capacity.

Here are quotes from 2 live bloggers

Tamar at SEO Round Table

Matt is up first. Are paid links evil? He says that this is the wrong question. But the right question is – Do paid links that pass PR violate search engine quality guidelines? The answer is yes.

The FTC has said that you must disclose whether you are being paid to market.
Disclosure on the web: the web is used by both people (surfers) and machines (search engines)

What is adequate disclosure on the web? It is understood by both machines and people.

Make a clear disclosure: this won’t pass PageRank –
– Redirect URL blocked by robots.txt
– redirect through URL that does 302
– JavaScript
– nofollow
– Meta tag with nofollow

The Lisa at Bruce Clay Internet Business Consultants

Matt says that asking if paid links are evil or not is the wrong question. He says the right question is, “Do paid links that pass PageRank violate search engines’ quality guidelines?” The answer to that is yes.

He adds that the FTC has said that word of mouth marketing is like any other kind of marketing, and if you’re being paid to say something you should disclose that. Adequate disclosure means it is understood by both people and the machines.

How do you disclose a paid link to the search engines?

* Redirect through URL locked by robots.txt
* Redirect through URL t hat does a 302
* JavaScript
* Nofollow the link

Google says you can buy links within search engine guidelines – meaning they can’t pass PR. Google doesn’t care about those links. However, you cannot buy links that pass PageRank.

Examples of PPP links – fundraisers, donate cars, online, credit, super slots, providers, junk yards, online casino, bypass pill, dating advice, USA online poker, etc.

Both people and machines have to be able to understand the disclosure?
Also why does Lisa use the PPP acronym and not that of paid links rather than paid reviews?

Lets Take A Look at… YouTube

There is no requirement for disclosure
Views and ratings are counted whether a video is commercial or not, and commercial content can make it to the top of YouTube rankings.

Lets Take A Look At… Referral Units

Seven months ago I first published an article about how Google’s guidelines for their referral units don’t tally with FTC and WOMM.
3 Months ago I highlighted that specific questions regarding WOMM with referral units in response to articles on the Google Adsense blog were going totally unanswered.

So Many Different Compensated Links

Just the other day I wrote about the need for a level playing field for paid links.

Based upon current logic the WOMMA should be kicked out of the SERPs for having paid links on their site, along with all their members.
Hey guys, it only costs $1000 per year to join WOMMA, but you could probably barter a little SEO help and get them to pay you, with all those member pages being counted as duplicate content and supplemental.


Matt is known to be a supporter of WordPress, and Google are going to make a lot of money displaying advertising on their high ranking blogs.

Surely Google should also have had a word with them about their linkfarm – I have also written about their linking structure in the past.

Matt Cutts still retains a link to WordPress.org on his blog.

From the WordPress default theme (hidden in a comment)

If you’d like to support WordPress, having the “powered by” link somewhere on your blog is the best way, it’s our only promotion or advertising.

So you are paying for use of WordPress by giving them a link – it is advertising without a nofollow on millions of blogs, not to mention the default blogroll and half the WordPress developers selling text links – yes Matt Cutts is using blogging software funded in part by text links.

Web2.0 Sites

At least one of the following sites is sponsoring a very popular WordPress plugin that gives them links, lots of them, quite certainly from millions of pages.

Digg, Del.icio.us, Netvouz, Dzone, ThisNext, MisterWong, Wists

The Sneaky Javascript Advertising

Javascript advertising and widgets is never totally innocent

If you want to be standards compliant as well as using script tags, you also use noscript, and include a link.

1000s of top search terms are dominated by people using links hidden in noscript that most users never see, and copy and paste without even realising it.

Some also take a standard link, and then modify it using javascript and CSS to look like an image link.

Do these huge corporations using these tactics have to now include nofollow on the noscript links?

For a light-hearted look, I have to post this video

Rentvine created this video, which isn’t their niche – they are a home rental site.

Ultimately it is Google’s search engine, and they want to provide better search results and encourage ethical SEO practice.

When I write a compensated review of a service, I almost always spend hours on them, far more than your average Yahoo intern working for the directory, and I earn far less.
The reviews are always relevant to my audience, and I am selective having turned down the last 3 offers I was made to review sites, over $400 I could have earned but didn’t because I respect my audience, or didn’t feel qualified. I only review a service when I can offer insight, opinion and feedback.

As I have mentioned in the past, this topic is of specific interest because of my future startup plans, where the links will be as “whitehat” as Matt Cutts linking to Google, or Robert Scoble to Podtech

If 100,000 shareholders, employees and companies for whom I provide a very specific service for link to my site, is it going to be webspam if they are linking through to authoritative and highly relevant content? I have no plans to ask them to nofollow the links.

Update: I just read Rand’s writeup at SEOmoz on this paid links session at SES San Jose and it offers insight into the tone of the session, further clarification and there were also revelations from the Q & A afterwards.

To Matt Cutts – can Google remove the ability of individual pages to pass linkjuice
Matt says that not only can they remove single page’s ability to pass PR, they can also remove the ability of only certain links on a page from passing PR, and do.
To Matt Cutts – would Google ever ban a large brand for an extended period of time for engaging in manipulative link practices?
Matt says that Google had removed a very big site in the past for 43 days in total from the index, and this was noticed by Ben Edelman (sadly, I haven’t ID’d the site or post and Matt did not mention it)

The Ben Edelman reference seems to be in relation to WhenU 3 years ago and it seems that was mainly to do with cloaking.

Andy Beal sums up this SES session

I encourage you to read the notes and digest the information. Like me, you’ll probably come to the conclusion that buying select links from highly relevant pages isn’t going to get you into trouble with Google. Buying tons of spammy, non-relevant, run of site links, probably will.

On a subject like this I will quite happily link through to Fantomaster who sells cloaking software

Will it work? Will the Google monster, the paragon of Web Apartheid, finally relent?

Dana on the Online Marketing Blog likens this to a Transformers battle between Optimus Prime (Matt Cutts) & Megatron (Michael Gray)
I am sure the Toprank team recommend buying links on Yahoo, why is a paid review worse?

Update 2

Yesterday Duncan Riley on Techcrunch attacked the general WordPress attitude to paid links.
It would be interesting to look at how many WordPress developers, theme designers and plugin developers are heavily funded by the sale of text links.

Duncan also attacked Akismet, and he is quite right to do so. Spam Karma, with or without the addition of AKisment is actually equally or more effective at handling spam, and can be integrated with Akismet as an additional check.
It should also be noted that the Akismet “spam count” widget doesn’t use javascript, but is one of the widgets that produced a search engine followable link back to an Automattic owned domain.

As I mentioned recently, WordPress Sponsored themes still exist in large numbers on the theme database. In the comments on Techcrunch, Matt Mullenweg seems to be claiming that they have been all cleared out, but that is far from the case.

Duncan mentions the oft used phrase “people in glass houses” which does ring home my earlier article – A List Bloggers in Crystal Palaces Shouldn’t Throw Stones

Update 3

Michael Gray has now published his powerpoint presentation on Google Paid links.

I am not a user of Text Link Ads, but it seems emails have gone out about some code changes, and that they will now be using TinyURL for the links
TinyURL in itself is a 301 redirect, which could however then link to a further redirect or tracking script. I am not sure a chain of 301 redirects would be a good idea, and using TinyURL on its own is still passing juice.

Aaron Wall is also binging out the big guns, arguing why linkbaiting (which Google supports) is not suitable for all businesses.
Some of Aaron’s bullet points against linkbaiting include:-

  • it is expensive
  • it is time consuming
  • the results are hard to predict
  • it requires social connections
  • it provides off topic low value traffic
  • it typically creates content of limited commercial value (other than the ability to pull in links to rank other pages for stuff they did not have enough relevancy or authority to merit ranking for)

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  1. says

    I used the PPP acronym because that’s what Matt had on his slides. It sounded weird to me at the time, but it was Matt Cutts so I went with it. :)

  2. says

    I sure hope they do. As much as I like earning money on google ads if something isnt done google will own all the non-content on the internet and make up their own rules, probably becoming as powerful as many governments. Don’t see too many blogs out there anymore with this kind of original content either. Wondering if you could check my new blog and give me tips? http://www.offbeat-news.com thanks!

    • says

      Seth you need to write more original content as I am sure it trips the duplicate content filters with so little comment additional commentary.
      In addition your left sidebar loads first rather than the content – switch theme or modify it.

      The kind of blogging you are doing isn’t going to get links.

  3. says

    I don’t think that there is anything wrong with selling links. It is all just a part of advertising, I believe that Google needs to change not websites.

    • says

      I agree Michael!

      Google forgot where they came from. Now they are like IBM and Microsoft. We should ship all of them to communist china or North Korea, where they will fit in perfectly.

      Soo many contradictions, soo many vague guidelines which send us scrambling…

      Once again, I cant wait til they are overthrown.

      Maybe I will start referring to Matt Cutts as kim jung-il or Vlad Putin

    • says

      I agree with you Mike, I just read in a some forum that google will not penalize link sales. However, it will be treated something like “no follow”. Well, who know the truth…

  4. says

    Google almost did this to themselves. They have there algorithm and page rank factors setup to where more links = better traffic and page rank status. I personally can care less about PR, but the links on other sites generate traffic. Buying text links is like buying banner advertising 5 or 8 years ago. People did it for the traffic they were getting. Now people buy text links for the traffic and oh by the way it will help increase my SERP’s and PR goes up. Well if google did not weight so heavily on it then I bet not as many people would be buying links. I think google is starting to go overboard with the paid link debate.

  5. says

    Google: “Don’t be evil”
    PayPerPost Abbreviated: PPP
    PPP upside-down: 666

    Naturally, Google’s not a fan of PayPerPost…

    • says

      This is one of those confusing things

      You could also think of it as a reflection or alter-ego, which could possibly make PPP an angel

      PPP obviously is the opposite of being evil ;)

  6. says

    I’m a bit puzzled by Matt’s argument here:

    Matt 1: He adds that the FTC has said that word of mouth marketing is like any other kind of marketing, and if you’re being paid to say something you should disclose that.

    I Googled and read the FTC’s page. This is true.

    Matt 2: Adequate disclosure means it is understood by both people and the machines.

    First, says who? I haven’t seen the FTC write or heard them say this.

    Moreover, it’s not clear it follows. After all, who says a link is necessarily ‘marketing’? I can see how words surrounding the link, enticing your readers to click makes it marketing to those people. But the fact is, it’s Google’s founders who proposed a theory that links generally constitute “votes” for quality. Google has created a search engine based on this and they do very well. But before google, people linked both to things they disapproved of and things they approved of. They still do.

    I my opinion, the fact that Google makes money relying on a positive correlation between “links” and “quality” doesn’t mean we modify our practices to either maintain or increase the correlation for their sake!

    Links are links. If google wants to use them as “votes” fine. That doesn’t mean that’s what they “ARE”.

  7. says

    I don’t think the FTC is going to attack Matt Cutts for his lack of disclosure. If he worked for Microsoft it might be a different story…

    Pretty interesting look at the situation. I am always surprised by Google’s strong stance on paid links. People were buying links on the Internet before Google Page Rank and nofollow ever existed, but back then it was called “advertising”.

    Oh well…

  8. says

    Hi Andy

    Thanks for the mention and a very good post on the topic.

    The switch by TLA to using TinyURL (not keen as they have been abused by too many users and just look kind of spammy imho) is very sudden and for some people it’s probably going to involve a lot of work. I’m also concerned because I’m already using redirects on links like this, largely for nothing more ominous than tracking purposes, but as you say, this now means a redirect to another redirect….

    At least I only had to change one link as opposed to finding each one individually across various blogs.

    I still think the whole page rank fiasco is one thing Google got wrong (I’m not anti Google, they get a lot of things right) and now they want other people to grab a hold of it, muzzle it, and stop it biting them in the a**. Far as I can see, it’s their Pitbull and they should control it properly or face up to euthanasia – no matter how much they love their pet.

  9. says

    What about newspaper websites? They sell paid links in the form banner and display ads all the time. I am pretty ignorant on the subject so I’m asking the question. Does this count as a paid link? If so who gets the penalty?

  10. says

    Maurice… speaking of page rank. The toolbar pageranks aren’t showing on the pages I have open on various tabs right now. Either the google dance is well underway or Google is deciding to de-emphasize? (Or something is wrong with the site serving page rank info. :) )

  11. says

    Anyone who thinks that Big G’s hard line approach to paid links is because they want a pure search engine is deluded. It’s all about protecting their own cash cow – AdSense.

    The TLA move to TinyURL is for their own internal links only and not for advertisers links so it’s not being done to combat Big G.

  12. says

    Google does well not because they understand the Internet at all but because they understand what it was like ten years ago better than anyone else.

  13. says

    Google is the 800 pound gorilla and is pretty much going to get what it wants until there are legitimate competitors. Being the biggest and baddest has its advantages and allows Google to set its own parameters. It’s protecting its AdWords income stream and that’s all that matters. I am waiting for more competition eventually to temper and humble Google….doubt it will happen though….. :(
    -Raymond (MONEY BLUE BOOK)

  14. says

    And lets not forget that now WordPress is using Google Blog Search for their recent links bit on the dashboard. But still, the one sided link war is waged…