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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Paid Links Are Spam?

Google’s Matt Cutts raised quite some controversy in his blog by telling people how to report paid links. (Use the spam report form and include the word “paidlinks”.) He disclaims that this is just an experiment to collect more data at this point, but it still leaves a bad taste among many of the commenters on Matt’s post. When Matt talks about reporting “paid links” as opposed to e.g. “spammy paid links,” it leaves us to think that paid links in general aren’t wanted by Google.

Paid links, you may ask? Aren’t those the things on Google search results, powered by AdWords? Do we have to report Google search results now, as Roger Browne comments?

No, Google is attacking specifically those links which are “real” links – the way the World Wide Web Consortium tells people to link. Links which aren’t using JavaScript, or rel="nofollow” attributes, or any other means that render them inaccessible (or put up a warning flag) with certain tools*. Links which, incidentally, are used by some of the AdWords competitors out there – like, for example.

The reasoning behind this is that Google suspects some of these linking schemes to be set up to game search engines, because “real” links happen to trigger Google’s algorithms to transfer PageRank from one site to another... and Google rightfully tends to ban stuff that games search engines. (Yes, paid text links which are real links may increase the chance your site’s in trouble in Google’s rankings.)

But are all webmasters who use paid links trying to spam search engines?

Let’s reiterate some of the history of this issue. Back in, say, 2004, when a webmaster wanted to sell ads on their site (and – gasp – they didn’t want to use Google!), they might have sold text links on their own, or through a third-party system. If the webmaster believed that the W3C defines the web standards, and they wanted to create the most accessible types of links, they used the “a” element. Now switch to 2005, when Google, MSN, Yahoo and others – but not the W3C – united to introduce a new attribute value, the “nofollow” (to battle comment spam, by the way, not link ads!). All of a sudden, those webmasters who only worked with W3C recommendations, specifically not writing their web pages for search engines, were somehow suspect – they were suddenly, if ever so slighty, marked as “spammer.” This wasn’t made explicit, but Matt’s latest post, for instance, does make it more explicit.

To repeat: without doing any single change on their site, the webmaster who didn’t keep up with search news in 2005 is now suspect. She might’ve had a text ad on her blog about sailing which was intended to be there for her human audience, a link reading “buy a sailing boat” leading to a site which the author even trusted. (A relevant link – this is more than I can say of many of the random sites AdSense display, which are often leading to very weird pages.)

The thing is: some paid links are intended to game the web and reap revenue without added value to end users. But you know what? Some AdSense too are intended to game the web and reap revenue without added value. There are tens of thousands to millions of AdSense-based spam farms out there which make it harder for search engines like Technorati to find good content. Please, Yahoo, MSN, Ask and Technorati: give me a spam report form where I can paste the keyword “adsense”. And make sure you post something on your respective company blogs, or unofficial employee blogs, that communicates to people, implicitly or explicitly, that using AdSense might get your search rankings in trouble.

Peter Dawson asks: why does Google care what my business with another company is? Indeed, Google, ideally, should behave as a passive by-stander. It shouldn’t tell people how to make websites. That is the responsibility of the webmaster, who can and should of course check the recommendations put forth by the web’s standards body, the W3C. I think that there are many groups which should get together to fight those paid text links which are only gaming search engines; to get together to fight AdSense-powered spam farms; to get together to battle undisclosed ads, too. The problem starts when the most visible group in this effort has a major conflict of interest as they’re competing in the paid links** business. Like Google.

(Disclosure: I too had paid text links on this blog in 2004, before the nofollow surprise came along***. Not poker ads, but hopefully related tech stuff... and I also advertised Text-Link-Ads itself – you may too, if you’re using Google AdSense. I know both Matt Cutts and Text-Link-Ads’ Patrick Gavin and think they’re both cool guys, on a personal level.)

I don’t have a problem with voluntarily helping search engines to discover any kind of spam, and that includes a site about sailing which has 20 undisclosed, non-nofollowed links to “poker bots” and “viagra shops” (and I’ll continue to list relevant case studies of such sites). I also don’t have a problem of nofollowing ads, in fact, I do (it’s my choice, but you may well decide that you don’t want to nofollow ads because you only accept trusted advertisers anyway, and this argument is valid, too). I do have a problem with search engines becoming too aggressive in dictating netiquette (and then not following netiquette themselves when it comes to cases like W3C recommendations – no one spending a week reading W3C-related material will use the misnomer “ALT tag," for instance – or, say, web censorship).

Google’s webmaster guidelines include an interesting test that may help us evaluate the issue. Google urges you to ask yourself:

“Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”

The answer is simple: nope. No one would use the “nofollow” attribute if search engines didn’t exist.

Paid links merely intended to game search engines are a problem. If I look at cases like Wikipedia nofollowing all outgoing links, or nofollwing those who provide tips, or beginning webmasters now potentially being scared of looking into alternatives to Google’s AdSense, I have to conclude though that increasingly, the search engines’ “nofollow” attribute is becoming the bigger problem.

*The Google webmaster guidelines admit as much: “If fancy features such as JavaScript ... keep you from seeing all of your site in a text browser, then search engine spiders may have trouble crawling your site.” So ads shouldn’t be visible in text browsers? Why not?

**Google’s paid links are not transferring PageRank from one site to another, but they’re still paid links.

***As opposed to how the W3C shapes recommendations, there was no public draft of the nofollow proposal before the search players released it as “final version.” For instance, somebody might have told them that verbs never make good HTML, because they’re leaving out semantics of what this thing is (which would’ve had the benefit of opening up several specific interpretations, interpretations which then can be improved over time as new problems become visible).

[Thanks Pd!]


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