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The Morality of Paid Links and Google's 'Intent Algorithm'

By Bill Platt (c) 2006-2007 Links And Traffíc

It is Google’s fault actually. No one can be blamed for this matter more than Google itself.
Google came up with a brilliant plan for determining the best web pages to show in their search engine results. And then without telling us the intimate details of their plan, they told us about part of their algorithm by explaining the importance of inbound links — the Google PageRank (PR) system — in their calculations.

Google itself planted the seeds of its own future headaches. Nobody did it to them; they did it themselves.

I am sure the fault really lies in Google’s marketing department. They wanted to tell the world what made their search engine algorithms more powerful than the competition. It probably was an innocent mistake on their part. But once the genie is out of the bottle, it is impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

So, now the whole world knows that if you want to get good search rankings in Google, you must have links pointing to your website from other websites on the internet. Everyone also knows that if you want better search rankings in Google, then you should strive to create even more links with the appropriate keywords in the anchor text of those links.

Building Links

There is always more than one way to skin a cat. There are many methods that people can employ to build links to their websites.

1. Register frëe websites so that you can create inbound links back to your own site.

2. Register new domains where you can place other links back to your website.

3. Leave comments on blogs.

4. Link Exchanges.

5. Getting your own listing in any of the directories that are available (dmoz.org, yahoo.com, etc.).

6. Signature File – getting involved in discussion forums and actually adding value to the discussions.

7. Submit product and service testimonials to those product distributors and service providers.

8. Social Networking – bookmark web pages through social bookmarking sites.

9. Link Baiting – creating a resource that people will want to link to for the benefit of their website visitors.

10. Article Marketing – writing an article and giving webmasters the opportuníty to use your content on their website, IF they agree to post your link on the page with the article that they are using.

11. Press Releases – writing and distributing press releases online.

12. Buy advertising on a website.

13. Buy Link Placements on a website.

Good Links Versus Bad Links

I have always focused my attention on practicing White Hat Search Engine Optimization (SEO) techniques, instead of Black Hat SEO techniques.

Most of you know what I am talking about, but I have been surprised a number of times when people did not understand what was meant by “white hat” and “black hat.” So, for those of you who do not know what I am talking about, here is a brief description. “White hat” and “black hat” are references to the old serial cowboy westerns. The good guys always wore “white hats,” and the bad guys always wore “black hats.”

By far, the link building techniques I employ most often are article marketing, press releases, and link baiting. I still frequently participate in forums and buy advertisements on other websites, but I do those for public exposure and not for search marketing.

A Black-and-White Issue

I have always been extremely concerned with White Hat techniques for building links to my websites and from my websites.

“Providing good quality content as the foundation for my linking activities” has always been my golden rule. And, it still is that main driving force behind everything that I do.

I like a black-and-white world where everything makes sense, and I had no reservations about my thoughts on this topic.

The Morality of Paid Links

A couple weeks ago, I was reading Matt Cutt’s thoughts about paid links on his blog. Most folks in internet marketing know who Matt Cutt’s is, but if you don’t, he is a software engineer that works behind the scenes with Google in their quality department.

Generally, if Matt Cutts says anything at all about improving your rankings in Google, you can take his words to the bank.

Now, Matt has made it more than clear that we do not want to buy “paid links” to our websites as part of our link building campaigns. Paid links are a big no-no according to Matt. That is his advice, and I have always trusted it at face value.

That is why I have focused my entire link building activities towards “content-driven linking.”

I was reading a discussion of paid links in Matt Cutts’ blog and after I read Matt’s thoughts, I continued reading the comments on the page. Many good points were made and responded to by Matt. It was an interesting read.

And then, my black-and-white world was turned upside-down when I read the comments presented by Dan Thies of SEO Research Labs.

Here is what Dan said:

Search engines are frëe to develop their algorithms as they see fit. They’re frëe to decide which links they want to trust. Maybe I’m the heretic here, but I don’t see anything wrong with Google identifying sites that are selling text links, and dealing with that however they like.

I just hope Matt and his co-workers aren’t expecting this to solve their problem. He’s already seen that people are looking for better ways to game the system. I hope Matt and his co-workers don’t seriously expect the entire web to start labeling paid links for them.

The Google ideal may be that “the best links are earned and given by choice,” but what does that mean?

If I add text links to my favorite florist, favorite online casino, favorite unlicensed pharmacy, favorite travel site, etc. will Google decide that my site isn’t worthy to participate in developing their “democratic” search results? If I “vote” for George Bush or Michael Moore as a miserable failure, am I no longer qualified to vote?

What’s the algorithm for determining intent, Matt?

Intent Is Abstract and Important At The Same Time

There is the rub. How can Google know the heart of the webmaster? They can’t, unless the webmaster pointedly describes their intent.

If the webmaster calls those links “paid links” or “sponsored links,” then Google can know that webmaster accepted monëy to provide those links.

If I buy advertising on a website, to attract potential buyers to my website, how does Google know my intent? Did I do it to get traffíc from that website, or did I do it to game the Google results? They cannot know my heart.

Even if the webmaster does not call the shown links “paid links” or “sponsored links,” does the suspicion of the pay-for-placement model label the webmaster as a “bad egg?” How does Google really know if Dan is linking to a site because he wants to, or whether he has accepted payment for that link? They cannot know.

And the final example on this topic comes from a poster named Shelley who participated in the discussion at: http://weblog.philringnalda.com/2005/08/19/.

Shelley stated that she allowed two “paid links” on her well-respected blog, because she had a car payment to make. She traded on her brand name to get enough cäsh to make the car payment in tight times. Will she be penalized for selling “link space” to advertisers on her website?

In Conclusion…

Based on the comments that I have read from Matt, Shelley should not be worried about her acceptance of “paid links” on her website. If I have interpreted his comments correctly, her site will not be hurt by her outbound links.

However, we are meant to believe that if you and I were to buy links on her page, then we should be concerned about our future in connection to the Google search results.

So these questíons remain for the search companies to figure out…

Webmaster’s Intent:

1. Which links are paid links, and which links are freely given links?

2. Who is selling links to pass on their PageRank value, and who is providing a useful or valuable link for their visitors?

Link Buyer’s Intent:

1. Who is trying to game the Google results, and who is trying to attract buyers to their website?

2. Who should be treated as a spammer, and who should be treated as an honest performer?

This last question is the tricky one. We all know a spammer’s website when we see a spammer’s website. But, how can the search engines deal with the spammers, without damaging the innocent in their quest for search results perfection?

Yes, that is their problem, not mine. But, if Google’s paid links policy hurts my own placement in the search engines, then the paid links equation becomes my problem too.

More Questíons Than Answers…

Yes, it is true. I have posed more questíons than I have presented answers. But sometimes, the questíons are more important than the answers. This is one such case.

About The Author
Bill Platt owns and operates the “Links And Traffíc” Link Building program. Bill’s team utilizes content-driven link building processes to develop links to his client’s websites. People like this system and methodology, so much so that Bill has doubled his staff in the last eight weeks. If you would like to learn more about Bill’s Links And Traffíc program, feel frëe to visit his website at LinksAndTraffic.com or give him a call at his new office at 405-780-7745. Bill can be reached between 9am-6pm CST, Monday through Friday.

 

Camilla Todd
Camilla Todd is Head of Digital Marketing at WNW Digital and manages Search Engine Optimisation, PPC, Social Media campaigns and Brand Awareness for WNW Digital SEO clients. You can follow her on Twitter @camilla_wnw, email her at camilla@wnwdigital.co.uk or phone on 01392 349580