Stephen Logan

Does Google’s Ambiguity Encourage Poor Practices?

28th Mar 2012 News, Industry News 4 minutes to read

In the last week or so there has been a lot of fuss over the penalising of certain blog networks by Google. Now, for as long as PageRank has existed and links have impacted rankings, people have always found ways of gaming the system. Link farms, networks, and other paid sources have flourished, offering a quick solution to pseudo-SEOers.

However, now, in 2012, Google finally appears to be taking a real interest in giving the more notorious networks a kicking. But what took them so long?

After all, Google has been saying that buying links is against their code of conduct, and is therefore punishable with a ranking penalty, for years now. Yet despite this warning, paid links remain just as popular, prevalent and, arguably, effective today as they were a decade ago. So what’s going on?

It’s something of a worn example, but the biggest talking point came last year when JC Penney were kicked to the curb for buying links. A major media hoo-ha erupted and the SEO industry was scandalised. However, this wasn’t a win for intelligent algorithms nor was it a massive surprise. The fact is, the Wall Street Times talked to a whistle blower (with or without a vested interest) and they informed Google, who then applied a manual penalty.

The same has now happened with BuildMyRank, just without the media intervention. It’s a highly popular blog network that actively promotes buying links. Needless to say, plenty of people will have used their services and have been benefiting from the links they’ve achieved.

Now when it comes to paid links, Google aren’t particularly ambiguous.

“Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.”

Although, the addition of “can” is certainly telling. Essentially, you’re not allowed to do it and if you are caught, you could be punished. However, this is far from being a definitive answer. First of all, Google have to catch you. They didn’t spot JC Penney and it took them 2 years to take down BuildMyRank. This creates a gulf between what they claim and the reality of the situation.

Now search engines could quash any such misinterpretations or doubts simply by finding and removing paid links at source. If they didn’t work, nobody would ever use them. But we all know that this would be next to impossible, considering the billions of pages that they need to index and the multiple methods for creating paid links. This is why human testing is needed and used, enabling them to weed out potential sources and penalise them appropriately.

If they could replace the word “can” with “will” in the above statement, the problem would be solved. However, as things stand, this simply wouldn’t be true.

Google do provide a lot of information to the SEO industry; however, as James pointed out in a recent blog post, even these helpful messages can sometimes be open to interpretation. For instance, in the aforementioned post, the search engine announced that it would be changing how it evaluates certain links. That’s it. Nothing more, just that something that once worked is now worthless. This could be minor, it could be major, we simply don’t know.

Blog networks still exist, newspapers still offer advertorials, and link farms still work. The net might be tightening, but there are clearly loopholes to be found.

Now whether or not an open admission of what algorithm changes are being made or how paid links were being sniffed out would help is anybody’s guess; however, the combination of information, misinformation and investigations is surely only serving to encourage poor practices. After all, Google says that links are good, with plenty of evidence to support this theory. But they also say that you ‘can’ be punished for buying them, with just a few high profile cases to support this (albeit there are plenty of others if you dig around). If you’re a gambling person, you will probably like those odds. Sure there’s a major risk, but the reward is potentially bigger.

Matt Cutts is a busy man, having to answer what I can only imagine is a significant pile of SEO-related questions on a weekly basis. Every time there’s an update or somebody gets clubbed for wrongdoing, there’s an outcry. Whilst his (and other Googlers) videos, blog posts and forum contributions provide some useful information, they rarely go as far as entirely confirming or denying. This generally creates ambiguity and only encourages further questions or misunderstandings.

You can go back in time and look at plenty of examples, PageRank sculpting, canonicalization and duplicate content representing just a few of these. Wherever clarity is sought, the message that returns is still often open to interpretation, which can then lead to the spreading of misinformation. With the recent punishment of blog networks and JC Penney, Overstock and others last year, the message being relayed is mixed. Firstly, buying links is bad and you will be punished. Secondly, it’s taken a long time and, in some cases, outside intervention, to provoke a reaction from Google. So whilst you might think twice about signing up to a blog network now, other (supposedly) underhanded techniques and poor practices may well still appeal.

Google can’t give the answers to their inner-workings, this would leave them open to criticism and hijacking. However, the ambiguity that exists and the mixed messages they encourage are surely detrimental to their efforts to clean up search. It’s great that they’re taking action on those abusing the system, but this has to happen more regularly and to businesses of all sizes. So whether it’s a small start-up or a global brand, nobody should be exempt from damage. Rules are rules after all.

If you’ve got anything to add to the subject or if you disagree with my post entirely, please leave your comments below.

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