One of the most interesting SES SJ panels last week was definitely the panel “Are Paid Links Evil” with Matt Cutts (Google), Michael Gray (Graywolf), Todd Malicott (Stuntduble), Todd Friesen (Oilman), Greg Boser (Web Guirilla) and Andy Baio (Upcoming.com).
The panel started with a funny, but off-topic video by Matt Cutt’s and made it clear to me that I will probably not get any of the answers to my questions again. Matt started with his presentation and basically repeated what he already stated at his blog over the past few years.
Here are some quotes by Matt Cutts and Andy Baio that summarize well, what their positions are. Those are quotes from statements made in the past and not during this panel:
Google’s head of web spam team Matt Cutts
“If you want to sell a link, you should at least provide machine-readable disclosure for paid links by making your link in a way that doesn’t affect search engines.”
“The best links are not paid, or exchanged after out-of-the-blue emails–the best links are earned and given by choice”.
Waxy.org blogger Andy Baio – he’s also a Yahoo employee, and participant in The Deck ad system (which also includes text link broker promotions)
“Would the advertiser still pay for the link if it included a nofollow? If not, it’s crossed the line from traditional advertising to search engine gaming.”
Google Quality Guidelines (link)
“Make pages for users, not for search engines”
Sounds great, doesn’t it? I totally agree. I also agree on world piece and the abolishment of hunger, availability of health-care, shelter, clothing, education and a meaning in life, such as a job to anybody. Sounds also great, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t agree with that? If the world would be one democracy where people have a choice, virtually 100% would vote YES on those items. If everybody agrees on this, why isn’t it reality?
There is always at least one War in progress at any point in time on this world. We are part of one, so I don’t have to go further. Over 800 Million people, 13 percent of the world population do not have enough food each day to sustain a healthy life. 1 in 15 deaths are a direct result of malnutrition. Over 100 Million people are homeless. How can that be? Didn’t everybody agree on the fact that it is bad? This is called reality. This world is not as pretty as we would like it to be. I suggest to read the old book from a well known German, who explains most of the basic principles that control our society and make things, that most of us don’t want, happen anyway.
Questions that were raised back then, remained unanswered again. The panel became interesting after Matt’s presentation. Michael Gray took Google heads on with a great presentation. You can access his PowerPoint slides here.
There is nothing to add to those statements. Matt had to work hard to keep his smile up. Years of training seem to have paid off. Todd (Stuntdubl) added more valid points and Oilman and Webguerilla made right, but also cynical comments, like an executives from Heckler & Koch who has to comment on the question by the Chief of Staff: “Are Guns Evil?” (aehm).
Everybody who expected answers were disappointed. Not even the question what a paid link actually is was elaborated. The question, if affiliate links are considered paid links, remained unanswered too. Paid Link is ambiguous, hard to draw a line. Todd (Stuntdubl) pointed out, that every link has a value. This means that technically EVERY link is paid for, one way or another (extreme view). Google did not specify that a paid link in their eyes always has to be something like this:
Contract Party X payment Party Y for Link A on to Site B on Site C (other extreme). All you hear are vague, generalized statements and general qualifications and direct or implied suggestions (e.g. add “nofollow” to all affiliate links = affiliate link = paid link = not editorial = no authoritarian vote).
It is clear why Google wants to keep it vague and webmasters in the dark. If they would draw a clear border, they would have to enforce the rule and apply it to everybody the same way. The problem is that if two webmasters do the same thing, the consequences will not be the same. Something that would get a small site “torched” and “burned to the ground” in Google, does not cause any penalty to a large and well known brand. Google bans a big brand’s website from time to time for a few hours or even days (wow). This is a joke compared to the bans for months, years or forever of a normal site. Google can’t keep the brand out of their index, the expectations of their users force them to keep the brands in their index. People expect them to be there. People don’t know and frankly don’t care about the SEO game that is being played invisible to them in the background.
Okay, this does not help anybody. Lets take a step back and take a look how we got into this mess.
Here is what Google should do, to do their job right. If they would do it that way, this paid link debate would not exist. Google is obviously not able to do the job right at the moment. Today is a site either an authority for everything or for nothing. Not good. In a world where Google is not broken would it be like this:
Mat Cutts cat posts links voting power would be less, because he is not an authority for cats. His posts about Google and search on the other hand would have high voting power and relevant to his sites authority.
This makes sense, doesn’t it? It boils down to the question:
Who Links to What in Which Context?
- Authority in Subject X Links to Page (not simply domain) about Subject X from within Content related to Subject X = Link Authority High (Expert)
- Authority in Subject X Links to Page about Subject Y from within Content related to Subject Y = Some Link Authority (Amateur)
- Authority in Subject X Links to Page about Subject Y from within Content related to Subject X = No Link Authority whatsoever (Off Subject, by a Non-Authority)
This decision would have to be made for each link on the site individually. Google is unable to do that today.
That’s why link buying works!
Case 3) has the same effect for ranking as case 1) in many cases.
Links are purchased, links were purchased for years, even before Google. The reason for buying links was to get traffic to your site or for branding purposes. Then Google came along and added another value to links, PageRank, the algorithm where Google’s results for organic searches is based on. The results were highly relevant and Google blew the competition out of the water.
PageRank created a new value for links, beyond traffic and branding. Everything that has value will become a commodity and traded on a free market that is driven by supply and demand. Google did not see that, although its one of the most fundamental principles of capitalism. Google created a commodity that it does not control. How much of that commodity is “owned” by somebody is separate from the relevance and quality of the website commodity owned by the same person. They used to be the same thing, but with the commercialization and separation of the two, did Google get into trouble.