How to fix what is broken and not break what is not
A change in policy would only result in two things. One, the people that traded links for the wrong reasons are SEO and on top of it and find ways to do what they have to do and hide it from Google. Making selling of cannabis or making copies of copyrighted software illegal did neither stop people from buying dope or from making copies of copyrighted software. It happens much more in secret now, together with all the other seriously bad stuff that always happened in secret.
Two, because link buying and selling will continue out of the eyes from anybody, will Google have no other choice and increasingly make decisions based on assumption rather than knowing. This will increase the number of false positives[i] and hurt the wrong people. If it would not, Google would not have any reason to change its policy, because they already do a good job in detecting them.
Often forgotten and left out of the discussions is one group of webmasters, affiliates.
Affiliates played a big role in helping Google to become what it is now. They were the early adopters of Pay-Per-Click and promoted merchants that did little or nothing know about it.
Since search marketing become big and even the last advertiser realized that search is something he should care about, did Google did start treating affiliates differently. This by itself might be okay, but what is not okay is the fact that they get a different treatment from Google than other advertisers, penalized, for no transparent reason. It started with paid search[iii] and now continues with organic search.
Matt Cutts said once “The best links are not paid, or exchanged after out-of-the-blue emails–the best links are earned and given by choice”.
Affiliate links are in a sense paid links. Maybe “to be paid” links would be more accurate, because affiliate marketing is based on performance where the affiliate only gets paid either a bounty (CPA) or a share of the referred business (CPS), if the referred traffic converts or does what the advertisers want users to do on their website.
The statement “It is an affiliate link and it was given by choice” is an oxymoron in the eyes of Matt Cutts.
The problem is that in contradiction to paid non-affiliate links that are giving for SEO purposes must affiliate links in context be as highly relevant and targeted as possible in order for the affiliate to earn money from them.
An affiliate can simply not afford not to be relevant, because it would put itself out of business.
By enforcing the use of NOFOLLOW on affiliates would Google in effect deny affiliates the right to vote[iv] and while sustaining their business. The two choices “free and broke” and “oppressed, but maybe in business (with penalties)” do not sound very appealing.
No Discussion Is like a Statement
I asked Matt Cutts more than once directly about the role of affiliates in the paid links and use of NOFOLLOW discussions. I am an affiliate marketer and take things that seem to be an unjustified dislike of affiliates by Google a bit personal.
Expressing my position by comparing methods[v] used by Google to strong historical examples to demonstrate the possible but extreme consequences of using such methods might seem to be a bit harsh. I did cut down on that[vi] to avoid the discussion to take a different direction, but without thinking that they are incorrect or unwarranted.
To avoid addressing the issue is like a statement to me, a statement that makes me sad. It also makes me lose more of the respect and trust Google once had.
Apropos trust, may Google looks for answers in the wrong place. Trust might be something to work with and find a solution that will benefit webmasters, users and search engines alike.
Cumbrowski.com – Internet Marketing Resources
[i] Rae Hoffman (15. April 2007), “Why Google Shouldn’t Penalize Us for Their Incompetence“, Sugarrae.com (see post and comments)
[iii] Carsten Cumbrowski (14. April 2007), “If Two Marketers Do The Same Thing Is It Not The Same“, ReveNews.com
[iv] Carsten Cumbrowski (7. April 2007), “Are Affiliate Links Paid Links? Are They A Vote? Or Spam?”, ReveNews.com
[vi]Carsten Cumbrowski (7. March 2007), “Is Google Thinking That Affiliates Are Worthless”, SearchEngineJournal.com
[viii] Matt Cutts (1. September 2005), “Text links and PageRank”, MattCuts.com