Google’s Reasonable Surfer Model: A Scalable Solution to Paid Links?

SMS Text

Google recently released a patent based on the browsing tendencies of “reasonable surfers”. Within, it details that previously, Google had followed a “random surfer” model – that every link on a page was equally important, without process or thought on user tendency or where the most used links would lie.

This new development, the reasonable surfer model, means that Google now judges a link based on standard user behavior – or is in the course of perfecting said process – giving more weight to links that are more likely to be clicked on, and less to those buried away in the nether regions of a page.

This means that certain links, like footer and sidebar links in particular, are likely to be devalued. And it’s as they should, right? If a link is tucked away in the footer, the webmaster is stating that he doesn’t care much for it – or it has little value other than for extraneous pleas to the search engines.

When this was released, my initial thought was that this made sense, sure, CTR, rationale, important links, etc. But what I didn’t weigh was the thing that it most importantly impacted – paid links.

Spammy, nefarious paid links litter sidebars and footers all over the internet. In droves. So, then, was this implementation one that was meant to find the strongest links – or, otherwise, had the most reason to devalue the spammy ones?

Not so long ago, Matt Cutts came out as saying that Google takes action against Conductor’s paid link network – one known to purchase links on some of the biggest, most valuable sites on the internet.

Conductor paid network

Despite this, murmurs persisted – and rankings seemingly backed up – that these sites still had value being passed to them – and for sure, none of them had been de-indexed or heavily penalized. So, then, what did Matt Cutts mean when he said “we do take action in response (to Conductor’s paid link network)”?

Maybe – maybe – what he meant was that Google was actively applying the reasonable surfer model to devalue these links – just as they were on every other website on the internet.

Yes, that’s right. You can guess where these links – Conductor’s links – are located on the biggest sites on the internet — the deep, bottom right section of the sidebar.

A Scalable Solution

There’s been complaints about the state of webspam, particularly from one of the biggest voices in the industry. However, I think Google is doing a fine job – and they’re doing it in a way that makes sense for them. Scalability. It is my theory that one of the biggest reasons for this patent is that it offers a scalable solution to paid links – devaluing a large majority of links that were improperly skimping the index.

Hand picking at scale is just not a reality – and in many ways, becomes extremely unfair to some webmasters who get picked out – and lose their welfare – while others continue to thrive based on brand identity alone. Scalable, reductionist models like this are the scalable offerings that make sense for the future. Identify paid link signals, and devalue them. Don’t penalize or de-index (unless done en masse) – just find the common threads, and cut them down.

Oh, Wait — The Problem

Before we go, let me offer one point of error with this model – sometime users don’t matter. Think about most reasonable blogs on the internet. Do you think the body content is the part where links should be given the most credence? No. The links on a blog – a natural blog – that are the biggest indicator of a “vote” for a website are in the blogroll – something that frequently goes ignored by the user.

In this instance, user behavior should be ignored – because the blogroll is the spot where the webmaster is willing to put their neck on the line. They are willing to put their neck on the line for links that sit there. And are sitewide. These are the links they visit frequently – and if someone who runs a website with 50k backlinks says THIS site is worth having in their blogroll, the users shouldn’t mean a damn.

Of course, this leads to manipulation. And paid links show up there frequently. But the thing is, the blogroll should still be the spot where SERP positions are earned. Perhaps Google should uniquely identify this area (and maybe is?),  and completely ignore those links with commercial anchor text – thus removing any problem with manipulation. But it’s a difficult thing.

No matter, the reasonable surfer says the reasonable surfer generally ignores this area. But it’s the biggest damn vote on the internet. IT’S THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE OF THE INTERNET.

Google – the body content’s votes don’t matter – but the blogrolls do.

Frequently ignored links for President.

Ross Hudgens
Ross Hudgens is an SEO in the Seattle area. He frequently blogs about SEO on his blog and specializes in dynamic content creation for websites... Read Full Bio
Get the latest news from Search Engine Journal!
We value your privacy! See our policy here.
  • briancarter

    I like it. Very good point. Another way to look at it – for users, bloggers, and Google, is domain authority from blogroll links (typically to homepage) vs. deep content votes (links more likely in the body of the content).

  • Miles

    “In this instance, user behavior should be ignored – because the blogroll is the spot where the webmaster is willing to put their neck on the line.”

    Have to say I disagree with that – if those blogs really do deserve to be in the blogroll and are topically related to the blog, you would expect the blogs in question to be regularly linked to in the content of the blog.

    If not, why are they on there? I'm sorry but a blogroll is no different from any other set of external links – why couldn't blogroll links be paid and sold? And why shouldn't they be treated in the same way that a links page on a non-blog site would be?

    • Ross Hudgens

      I said that it could be manipulated in my post. So yes, it's not cut and dry but to me, it's the best possible place to speak for a link. And yes you have a good point that I SHOULD mention them in the body content, but not necessarily. What if I run I Can Has Chezburger and I want to link to other funny sites? I will NEVER link in the body content. And there are tons more blogs of this kind that do the exact same thing.

  • Dan

    Have to disagree on Google doing a good job with spam. I see it EVERYWHERE. Every client I have ever worked with has at least a few spammy results in the top ten on their competitive phrase. If Google were doing such a good job combating paid links, why are so many people still buying links? Google never has nor ever will be able to detect all paid links, plain and simple. So there will always be people selling as long as there are always people buying. I don't think there's a darn thing any search engine can or will do about it. They sure try, but I can do any search for any competitive phrase on the web and find a top ten result with paid back links.

    • Pacific Vacuum

      Out of billions and billions of web sites, do you think they can get them all? Their motto is “Don't be evil”, not “We are perfect”. Have you compared your results with Bing? Probably not. Try it out captain, and come back and let us know who is doing a better job controlling spam.

  • Thomas Griffin

    This is quite an interesting development. I wonder how it will affect me placing backlinks in the footer of websites that I have designed. You can't really place that type of link in the body content of a client website, but I don't believe it should be de-valued because of its position. That link signifies numerous hours of hard work.

    • Peculiar Domestic

      I was wondering this exact same thing. I don't think many clients will understand that I need to put my link near their navigation for it to count.

    • Peculiar Domestic

      I was wondering this exact same thing. I don't think many clients will understand that I need to put my link near their navigation for it to count.

    • Chris Boggs

      It is semantics but this really isn't as much of a “development” as it is a patent being granted. Google has likely incorporated a lot of this in already (the patent was applied for in 2004), and I don't see how you can connect it to suddenly being a tool to devalue paid links. if they are working for you now, they likely will continue to do so, in my opinion.

  • Steve Jobs

    I do think the new patent can never solve the problem of paid links. Even if Google scales down the value of the links on the footer and sidebar, it still has some value. Unless they totally ignore those links, in which they cannot, will be another case. If ever they solve the problem with paid links with this patent, a new kind of paid link will evolve in just a matter of a few months. Another problem to solve huh?

  • Andy Kuiper – SEO Vancouver

    Interesting article Ross 🙂 Someday we may have a better handle on where the juice is actually coming from. but your thoughts on the subject are better than most.
    Andy 🙂

  • CashOrPoints

    An astounding and interesting problem here. Thank you for posting this. I will look into this a lot. Google is just getting to much into adsense lately.

  • Richard Falconer

    Interesting article but falls down slightly due to the assumption that Google is taking all links in sidebar or footers and devaluing them based on that one fact. In reality, the reasonable surfer model describes something that is potentially far more complicated. Google is likely to be looking at a much larger range of factors including many other on page and user behavior features.

    • School Fundraisers

      I think you're right about that….over time perhaps they will just create heatmaps of your site based on which links are actually clicked and start devaluing the areas that get very little activity. As always, the problem is much deeper and more complicated than it first appears.

  • Dave

    Spam is rampant in the SERPs and it works so well its hard not to want to join the spammers. Google needs to rank sites higher with quality content, time on site, bounce rates, maybe even some non paid editors like WikiPedia would work. Surely the entire link algorithm where all SEOs do all day is dream up ways to get links is a collosal waste of human energy. Imagine if that energy where instead directed toward creating, and editing good content.

  • Mathewsimons

    Google Instant is a very clever move by Google but I don’t see it having a visible effect on most websites.The reason Google has done it is the same reason they implemented the automated search suggestions that appear when you are typing – so that they can direct you to more commercial & profitable search queries.

  • Alistair Lattimore

    I'm not a fan of the comment about a sidebar link being the highest vote, since they have been plundered online to hell and back already.

    However, if you were to combine different regions of a site with various other factors like page rank, trust rank and so forth – things get a little interesting.

    Imagine the scenario where Google counts or ignores links in a sidebar, based on the topical relevance of those links to your blog, combined with the fact that it is not in the body copy. Everything else they do is about context, so I don't see why that shouldn't as well. That would mean that they don't necessarily need to flatly ignore the sidebar, just weight it into the mix based on relevance.

  • Thomasr

    So it goes on and on…..

    BUT what about the wordpress theme developer with a link in the footer? Should his link for all the hard work he did be devalued?

    And I equate links to billboards sort of….its advertising in a way and Who does Google think they are…they do not own the internet…..seems GREEDY to me.

  • yuregininsesi

    An astounding and interesting problem here. Thank you for posting this. I will look into this a lot. Google is just getting to much into adsense lately.