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Friday, October 26, 2007

Paid Link Pain of Google's Iron Fist

Google has come down hard on paid links. Don't believe me? Just ask sites like washingtonpost.com, forbes.com, and many other high profile sites that have just had their page rank reduced by two to four points. Are you still considering hiring that SEO firm that offers "paid text links" or "paid ad buys" as part of their strategy? I hope not.

Google staff began talking about an upcoming shakedown on paid links several months ago. One of the reasons for the shakedown is that paid links are not true, natural links, and therefore shouldn't qualify as "voting" links for the purpose of transferring PageRank. Google prefers to have sites naturally linking to each other, as natural linking is the more reliable way to ascertain the relative importance of a site. In the past, Google has come down on FFA or "free for all" linking schemes, link exchange schemes, link farms, and appears to discount reciprocal linking (link trades or link swaps). Now their target is paid links.

Google is not against paid links per se. Conspiracy theorists aside (who believe Google is trying to end all advertising on the Internet except through their own AdWords service), Google is not stupid and they know that there are legitimate advertising reasons for purchasing links from quality sites that would be good sources of qualified traffic to your site. However, the problem is that people were (and still are) purchasing paid links not for advertising or traffic purposes, but rather to artificially inflate their link popularity.

Google came out this summer and said that all paid links should be identified as such or risk a penalty. Specifically, it has been suggested that paid links should utilize the nofollow attribute, which is an attribute in the linking code of a site which tells Google the link is not intended to transfer PageRank. Use of this attribute clearly identifies the link as "non-voting", and solves the problem.
However, many sites ignored Google's warning. Then, in the fourth week of October of 2007, Google slammed down its iron fist. Some very high profile sites, including many in the search engine optimization industry, were hit hard through reductions in PageRank of several points. These were sites such as washingtonpost.com, forbes.com, searchengineguide.com, suntimes.com, and seoroundtable.com. Additionally, many high profile blog sites were hit. The one thing that all of these sites have in common is that they sold text link ads, and did not employ the nofollow attribute.

This served a dual purpose - it served as disincentive for the site owners to continue selling paid links absent a nofollow attribute, as well as a disincentive for link buyers to buy links from these now low PageRank sites.

Rumors in the SEO industry are that the buyers of these paid links could be the next to be hit. So buyer beware. If you are shopping for SEO, avoid any firm or strategy which offers a "paid link buy", "text ad purchase", or anything similar. You do this for a few reasons: first, the links will likely be worth nothing (for SEO purposes), either through use of a nofollow attribute or low PageRank.

Additionally, you could be putting yourself at risk as the link buyer. Finally, any SEO firm offering this service obviously does not know anything about SEO, and as such any of their purported search engine optimization services are suspect.

How can you protect yourself? If you are a seller of links, use the nofollow attribute. If you are a buyer of links, don't do it for SEO purposes, or you will be sorely disappointed. If buying a link makes sense for your business (i.e. the link will be a good source of qualified traffic), then do it. If you expect it to improve your positioning in the engines, however, you are misguided in your efforts.

About the Author: Matt Foster is the President of ArteWorks SEO, a top 3 search engine optimization company in the world. For more information, please visit www.arteworks.com.

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