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Google’s Newspaper Clampdown Highlights Risk of Paid Links

Lucy Griffiths

by Lucy Griffiths on 28th May 2010

A paid link by any other name…Google finally get tough on UK newspapers profiting from advertorials after the Express Group’s ill-advised promotional email campaign.

It appears that UK national newspapers aren’t exempt from Google’s rules on paid links. Earlier in the week the Express Group was snared for their brazen campaign to sell links in advertorials and archived pages.

We received the very same message that many other SEOs throughout the country encountered. Addressed from the Express Group, it very kindly offered space on its site for a small fee. Unsurprisingly that was soon consigned to the junk folder.

It wasn’t the first and probably won’t be the last time such an offer is made. In fact, it helped to inspire our post on how you define ethical link building in SEO. After all, this is a major UK printed press company. Their overtures were so brazen that you had to wonder how long Google would allow it to continue and whether anybody could possibly be lured into this flawed scheme.

In the past week or so we have got our answer. As reported by a number of commentators including Malcolm Coles (Google nails Express sites over paid links email), Google have not taken kindly to this profiteering.

Google Versus Paid Links

Google hate paid links. The search giant has made this abundantly clear time and time again. They make a mockery out of their PageRank system and taint rankings. This is why most paid link deals tend to take steps to appear under the radar. You don’t want to incur the wrath of Google after all.

We know that newspapers are still trying to find their way online. It’s a new environment for them and finding ways of monetising their content is often a challenge. Just look at News International’s paywall gamble [see: The Times' Paywall to Challenge Free Online Content]. Unfortunately the Express appears to have scored a major own goal with their efforts.

Their main mistake wasn’t necessarily selling space for links – they ‘probably’ aren’t alone in that – but for being foolish enough to tell the world. Google aren’t stupid. They have their fingers in many pies, so even the slightest sniff of wrongdoing will cause them to investigate, identify and punish. Goodbye PageRank. Au revoir link authority. Auf weidersehen link buyers.

Gambling with Paid Links

This has always been the gamble of link buying though. Say you fork out £1,000 on an advertorial in a newspaper or any other site for that matter, the site then gets rumbled. You lose your link, your money and could be blacklisted by the search engine for your part in the process. Where is the benefit in that?

Paid links are like a game of roulette. All the odds are in Google’s favour, but people still manage to win – therein lies the lure. Every time you put your money down, you stand the chance of winning big or weakening your stack a little more. However, the desire for an easy PageRank windfall is too much for some. It is SEO gambling.

I say SEO, but in truth it has very little to do with the practice. Without taking a holier than thou stance, no respectable SEO professional would recommend buying links to aid long-term benefits. Particularly where the seller has decided to email every SEO company in the country to advertise their paid link programme.

Staying with the casino analogy, what the Express did would be like using a notepad and paper to count cards at the blackjack table. You can’t cheat the system and be so obvious about it. Theoretically it works, in practice you get the boot.

Newspaper Links to be Removed?

Unfortunately, it has probably made life a little tougher for their newspaper cohorts too. As suggested on David Naylor’s blog yesterday (Did newspapers just destroy SEO?), links could be wiped off of a number of legitimate press releases and archived news stories to stamp out this practice.

This of course could have a large knock on effect. Anybody earning authority from one or more of these links could have it wiped from their profile. With newspapers generally commanding a PageRank of between 4 (Express – after penalty) and 9 (Guardian), this could have a significant impact on rankings.

Unfortunately legitimate SEO and promotion is tarred with the same brush as those paying for links. However, the more SEO shortcuts that are removed, the more even the playing field will be for all sites.

Anybody can stump up the cash to feature in an archived article and then feed off the link strength indefinitely. With that option removed, a site becomes wholly reliant on its ethical optimisation. Good content, naturally acquired links. If it can’t deliver on these, then it will fail – deservedly so too.

It is unfortunate that many people will have lost money in this little scheme and that numerous honestly earned links might be removed as a consequence; but the brazen offering of links in exchange for cash by some online media outlets would be enough to make even Sarah Ferguson blush. It couldn’t continue, and so it proved. Google have acted, sites have been punished, links wiped out. Another lesson in why you should steer clear of paid links.

Lucy Griffiths

Lucy Griffiths

Lucy is an Internet Search Specialist focusing and working with clients on Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Pay-Per-Click (PPC) strategies.

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