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The buying and selling of links is big business. JC Penney may have been on the receiving end of some pretty damning press recently, but the truth is that they’re only a very small part of a huge problem.
Some companies want rankings and will do anything to achieve them. Others want to find further ways to monetise their website. This creates an irrepressible supply and demand, with one constantly feeding the other. As a consequence, the search engines have a huge headache.
Yesterday it was announced that Forbes.com had been rumbled by Google for selling links. Forbes, as I’m sure most would agree, is something of a prestige media brand. That doesn’t mean that they should necessarily be whiter than white, but why would they want to get dragged into the seedy world of ‘sponsored links’?
Are Paid Links Seen as Essential for Monetising Sites?
It’s illogical. Theirs is a site littered with adverts already. They have a strong reputation within the business and finance sector. According to Alexa, it is the 502nd most visited in the world. Fundamentally, they’ve got an online setup that most would envy. So why therefore would they flagrantly flout the rules?
With the hundreds of thousands of people passing through the site each month, invariably somebody is going to spot your shenanigans. Heaven forbid that this should be a competitor, an eagle-eyed SEO blogger or indeed a search engine. Now, there’s even a suggestion that not only did people pay for links, but they did so through a – notorious – third party service (Conductor). If you’re going to leave a trail, don’t use huge billboards saying “paid links this way!”
What’s the end result for Forbes? A penalty from Google which has seen the site’s traffic slump (again, according to Alexa) to the lowest levels in over a year. On February 14th it was only the 1,350th most visited site, a full 800 positions below its reasonably constant ranking. This is a pretty dire consequence, especially if the slump isn’t temporary.
When traffic levels decrease, so too does the revenue from genuine sponsored ads. So it’s all well and good earning sizeable chunks of cash for months, maybe even years by breaking the rules, but getting caught out can be a painful pill to swallow.
This is particularly true if you are entirely clueless as to why it has happened and then advertise this ignorance on Google Webmasters Forum. A small embarrassing issue is now suddenly a very public shaming.
Google Showing their Mettle
The good news here, with regards to the earlier JC Penney fiasco, is that Google is uncovering these kinds of issues [see: Looking for a Black Hat? Good luck finding one at JC Penney]. Better still, they are prepared to punish participants regardless of their size.
The worrying part is that in both stories, the companies appear to be completely clueless as to what they’ve done wrong. It’s as baffling as it is worrying. Any SEO worth their salt working for JC Penney or Forbes would have been able to say that what they were doing was wrong and that it should be halted. Ignorance clearly isn’t an excuse that Google or Bing is prepared to swallow.
Worse though are the suggestions that JC Penney (at least hypothetically speaking) could have been the victim of a jealous competitor. If Google are going to kick people out for buying links, then why not bury rivals by purchasing thousands of dodgy links, pointing them at their site and then running off to Google? Such subterfuge isn’t beneath some and could bring huge rewards.
Of course this isn’t a sensible or ethical strategy, but all of this coverage can help sow the seeds in some minds.
Dodgy SEO Practices and Practitioners
However, the real lesson here is that you have to know what your SEO Company is doing. Whilst you can give them the boot when everything hits the fan, why should you let it get to that stage. If they’re making lofty guarantees or are secretive about any element of their activities, make sure you pry. Don’t let them hijack your domain to get a temporary benefit.
The search engines aren’t fond of being gamed and certainly won’t be happy about being made to look foolish when somebody else reveals something they should have found. There has been a lot of posturing from Google recently (as highlighted in Is Google Finally Getting Tough on Black Hat SEO?) and now some high profile takedowns. So could 2011 be the year that they finally start flushing out the blackhats?
Sorting the Black Hat from the Grey Areas
Evidently, algorithm changes (as well as harsh natural penalties) are kicking in and impacting suspect sites. But there will always be grey areas, such as those highlighted by Malcolm Coles and Sam Rutley from Pushon, suggesting that even the BBC may be involved in link buying (something vehemently rejected by Auntie Beeb within the comments).
Newspapers too have been notoriously shifty about links, with some techniques being more overt than others [see: Google’s Newspaper Clampdown Highlights Risk of Paid Links]. Advertorials have been cropping up on a number of respected sites, including the Independent. Now these are nothing more than a ropey article with a few anchor text links feeding to a single site. However, one would assume that this service isn’t free, so why isn’t this a paid link?
This is the big issue that the search engines really face. Not only do they have to show that they’re clamping down on paid links, but they also have to properly define them. There’s clearly confusion and gaming going on, probably in equal measure. Therefore clarification is needed as much as further public penalties – both of which I expect to happen in the coming months. Only through being harsh in penalising perpetrators and concise in their explanation of why it has occurred will they be able to finally clear this fog of confusion.
In the meantime, don’t buy links. It’s never been re commended, but it would be particularly foolish during a concerted crackdown.
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