Recap of Paid Links Debate – SES San Jose 2007

MIHMORANDUM NO. 29 | August 24th, 2007Reader Comments (0)

In what was easily the most exciting session of the conference, Google’s Matt Cutts squared off against Michael Gray, Todd Malicoat, Todd Friesen, and Greg Boser on the topic of paid links, with‘s Andy Baio providing a seemingly objective third-party view on the topic. The paid link proponents CLEARLY won the debate, in my opinion, judging by the rationale of their arguments as well as the audience reaction.

The session began with Jeffrey Rohrs, the moderator, showing a this video which ostensibly leaked out of the conference. It’s Dave Dugdale of Rentvine’s humorous take on the entire debate. Why am I using nofollow to link to this video? Because I completely agree with Greg Boser that offtopic linkbait is actually polluting the web (and polluting Google’s index) far more than relevant paid links do (see the recap of Greg’s argument below).

Matt begun by re-framing the title of the session (‘Are Paid Links Evil?’) to (‘Do Paid Links that Pass PageRank Violate Google’s Guidelines’)…to which the answer was obviously yes. He then cited an FTC finding (later revealed as an OPINION by Michael Gray) that the government considers word-of-mouth marketing which doesn’t disclose that it is indeed marketing, illegal. Matt argues that Google has a similar right to penalize companies buying links that are not disclosed as paid, for which Google’s requirement for disclosure is a ‘nofollow’ condom, javascript, or some other coding technique that ensures the link will not pass PageRank. He concluded his argument by stating that paid links make the web ‘noisier,’ showing an example of a website with numerous paid text advertisements, for casinos, porn, and prescription drugs.

Michael was next with an impassioned, well-reasoned attack on Big G’s stance on paid links, starting with the explosive line: Google is NOT the government. He argues that Google is trying to create Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) of corporate propaganda around the topic in the hopes that this strategy will prevent everyday SEOs from purchasing links, and everyday sites from selling them.

In Michael’s view, which I tend to share, it is Google’s OWN algorithm which has created the problem of links that create noise. Were Google to change its algorithm to find an alternative method to links as the most important factor in ranking well, or simply fine-tune its algorithm to discover paid links better, the debate would be moot. The simple fact remains, though, that unless Google is one of the two people involved in the link-buying transaction (which it is–thanks to Todd for bringing this up during his presentation), there’s no way for it to know on a direct purchase. By trying to shut down a product that competes with AdSense, Google ensures its own profitability. Michael concluded his argument with yet another powerful but true statement: Google’s self-defined mission is to organize the world’s information, NOT to tell you how to run your business.

Todd Malicoat, ‘Link Libertarian,’ was up next. Michael was an extremely tough act to follow, but Todd did an admirable job. The crux of Todd’s argument centered around the fact that if paid links all of a sudden didn’t work, they’d lose their economic value. By doing so he placed the onus squarely on Google’s own algorithm to come up with a better solution, as did Michael. When Google introduced the concept of PageRank, it provided a mechanism to benchmark the relative importance of a link.

Todd also championed small business (yeah!), decrying the double standard that Google has shown time-and-again with respect to large brands that break the rules. Size matters, he argues, calling a big brand’s strategy a “strategic media purchase” but a small company’s strategy “buying links.” It is the sellers of these offensive PPP links (Pills, Porn, and Poker) that should be penalized, not the buyers. As SEOs, it’s our job to get our clients to rank better, and as long as paid links help with that goal, it’s not our duty to fix Google’s algorithm with transparency surrounding the links we purchase.

Todd Friesen gave a quick commentary, echoing the sentiments of the two previous link buying proponents, saying that paid links should be viewed as a media placement, and that it’s important to buy links to compete in the SERPs–a situation that Google’s algorithm itself has created. Todd also provided one particularly insightful comment: if Google really WERE to go about removing link buyers from the index, a dangerous method of link sabotage would be established, whereby competitors could purchase links to your site, turn you in with a snitch report, and remove your pages from the index.

Greg Boser compared link buying to driving in the carpool lane as a solo driver–if you’re late for an important meeting (or you need to rank immediately), it’s worth the risk. What really pollutes the web is the “Digg effect” that irrelevant, off-topic posts can have on the rankings of a website. In a kind-hearted knock on a fellow SEO Rockstar, Greg followed up with something to the effect of “Instead of paying money to people like Neil Patel to spam Digg, we’re paying that money directly to site owners and publishers.” (In all seriousness, Neil is probably THE expert at social media optimization and promotion & if you’re looking for a shot in the arm with respect to your rankings, you can’t find a better guy to give it to you.)

Greg completely shot down Google’s argument that paid links are not editorial by pointing out the hypocrisy of their own recommendation of the Yahoo directory, which is filled with spammy sites that have been “editorially reviewed” for the low, low price of just $299. Site owners with respectable followings would not put any link on their site, paid or not, that they didn’t think users would appreciate. In Greg’s opinion (and mine), those links should help the advertisers rank better in the SERPs.

Andy Baio’s third-party view boiled down to ethics–are you making the web better or worse by buying links? (He thinks worse, I think better.) His complaint is that an industry of middlemen is looking to make a quick buck while they can; in my experience, these are the kind of networks to avoid, because they place you on less-relevant, potentially spammy websites.

Andy thinks that companies who are buying links simply aren’t as good as their competitors and that they should be able to rank in the Top 10 on their own–a ridiculous argument when one considers how important a site’s age is to ranking well. Greg pointed out in the follow-up Q&A that many times it’s critical to buy links to break INTO the Top 10 so that your site can begin attracting the kind of natural links that Google likes to see. If a new site doesn’t get ANY bump, how are people supposed to find out about it? And how about the number of sites who have simply figured out Social Media Marketing better than their competitors…does that mean they’re more relevant to a particular search?

And true to the form of Dave Dugdale’s video, Rand Fishkin was the first to go in Q&A, leading with not one but TWO questions! :) His leading question to Greg re: the Digg Effect was that off-topic advertising like sponsorships often helps a company build its brand in the offline world…why not online, too? He also tried to goad Matt into admitting that Google’s algorithm shouldn’t need the nofollow tag, but Matt came back nicely, saying that nofollow helps publishers avoid being spam targets, too.

Where I Stand on Paid Links
Let’s get something straight. Paid links may be polluting SERPs, but they’re not polluting the web.

Compare offline pollution to online pollution. When someone pollutes a river or a lake, for example, it hurts the whole environment because the trash can end up not just the lake, but water systems that are downstream. Lakes can’t easily be replaced, and they’re not private enterprises built for profit–they’re public goods for everyone to use and enjoy.

Google, Yahoo, and the rest of the search engines, on the other hand, are huge corporations built to make profits. If a particular search engine becomes “polluted,” the effect doesn’t trickle over to the rest of the web. It just means that people will switch to using a different search engine if they consistently get crap results. It should be the goal of that search engine to clean up its own index via a better algorithm to keep its user levels high. Meanwhile, sites that sell too many garbage PPP-type links are not going to maintain a high user base if their own pages become polluted either.

As Todd Malicoat pointed out so eloquently during the session, this is the economic market regulating itself. If Site X sells too many links to the point it turns off visitors, Site X loses traffic. Its advertisers are not willing to pay as much for links on Site X, and Site X loses money in the long run.

Relevant, high-quality links, paid OR unpaid, actually improve the experience of the web for most users. After all, that’s what Google’s own AdSense model is based on. Pollution of SERPs is a question of a particular engine being able to filter non-relevant links, not non-paid ones. And that’s my .02.

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