Remember, in January 2007 Google’s head of web spam team Matt Cutts made Google’s stance on paid reviews quasi-official by writing:
It should be clear from Google’s stance on paid text links, but if you are blogging and being paid by services like Pay Per Post, ReviewMe, or SponsoredReviews, links in those paid-for posts should be made in a way that doesn’t affect search engines. The rel="nofollow” attribute is one way, but there are numerous other ways to do paid links that won’t affect search engines, e.g. doing an internal redirect through a url that is forbidden from crawling by robots.txt.
Ted Murphy, playing devil’s advocate, also alleges that TechCrunch themselves use non-nofollowed paid links, which is against the Google guidelines. Ted may be technically right: sometimes (usually monthly, as TechCrunch’s Duncan Riley says) TechCrunch is posting a “thank you” note to sponsors. In these posts, TechCrunch is linking to the sponsors without using nofollow. Assuming this thank you note is not part of the official contract with advertisers (I don’t know) then it’s a matter of judgment if you consider them an implied part of the ad deal anyway, in which case these would be paid links. Remember, Google is against paid links whether or not they have a disclosure headline or footer (like TechCrunch has)... what Google requires is what Matt Cutts calls a “machine readable” disclosure, e.g. a nofollow attribute.
Then again, we might be able to expand nofollow to even more places of “paid links,” which goes to show how witch-huntish this issue tends to become if applied broadly and strictly. For instance, what if a blogger decides to add linked disclosures when they are reporting on a company which advertised with them before – is that disclosure, as it’s linked, now an indirectly paid link? And what happens if in my blog I review a book, including a normal link to the author’s homepage, when the book has been sent to me as review copy... I may disclose that fact in my post, but isn’t this now a link paid by goods (the book)? What happens if I have a blog archive going back to, say, 2002, when there was no nofollow attribute around, and I linked to my sponsors below posts... is my blog now getting penalized for having done so because I don’t change my existing 50 posts from 2002-2004, even if my HTML used was state of the art back then? What if I’m being paid to blog and one of the blogging guidelines is to link to other parts of the blog network – are those links paid links now?
In related news, at least one paid links service seems to be implementing counter-measurements to the recent paid links penalizing by Google (if that was what it was indeed – we can’t really look into the Google black box). In a mail sent out to users of Text-Link-Ads.com which was forwarded to us, recipients were asked to update their ad code [disclosure: I consulted Text-Link-Ads.com’s Patrick Gavin on projects like SketchCast.com]. Users were also urged to remove any link back to Text-Link-Ads.com, as well as avoid adding ad disclosures such as “Sponsored Links” or “Advertisements” (or as Plan B at least using images of such disclosures) – I would think that’s because this could otherwise be a give-away for Google to trigger automated ranking penalties.
So it looks like some text link advertising systems are not giving up yet faced with Google’s moves, but rather adjusting their methodologies. Whether any of this will help, time will tell, though removing any disclosure at all (while perhaps helping against bot-downranking) seems to be deceptive to the human readers of a blog.
What’s important to note in the continuing “expanding” of nofollow uses – if you look back to the original nofollow introduction by Google in 2005, it was not meant to be applied to e.g. hand-picked ads, but only to stuff like blog spam where you didn’t see the link before (“anywhere that users can add links by themselves, including within comments, trackbacks, and referrer lists”) – is that Google has a conflict of interest here... because they sell their AdSense system to people. I can’t tell if this conflict of interest actually clouds Google’s judgment, but it seems to be clear that those bloggers which decided paid reviews or paid links are becoming too risky may now decide to switch to competitor AdSense as one option, making more money for Google.
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