SES 2007: Are Paid Links Evil?

Posted by jonathan at 8:25am EST on 08/29/2007

This session was the highlight of the conference for me. I believe there are valid points both ways; pro-paid links and anti-paid links.

As just about anyone knows, Matt Cutts represented Google and his stance is that paid links are evil. Why does he feel this way? Matt brings up points about Google that they can’t condone or encourage paid links — and in fact hates paid links — because it manipulates the search and doesn’t provide natural search results, such as what Google really wants.

He gave his normal arguments for his side, as he started the session.

  • Use javascript
  • Use rel=”nofollow”
  • Use iframes
  • Disclose paid links

I respect where Matt is coming from and completely understand why he feels why he does; it’s practically his job to feel the way he does on paid links.

The next few comments I’m about to make are my main points of this article and why I stand where I do.

What constitutes a “paid” link?
Web 2.0 is booming and taking the Internet by storm. Sponsorships are becoming more and more of a critical part of operations for businesses — even Search Engine Strategies. As part of those sponsorships, whatever industry you’re in, you are very likely to get a portion of the business’ website as the promotional sponsor. Let’s look at the Search Engine Strategies website real quickly to see what I mean.

Google is a major supporter of Search Engine Strategies. Google therefore gets a listing in the “sponsors and exhibitors” portion of the SES website. The Google details page, for the sponsorship, currently has a PageRank of 6. Sure, Google doesn’t need anymore PageRank or inbound links to be anymore popular than they are right now, but think about any other company that doesn’t already have over a million backlinks. There is a link pointing to Google.

Does Google consider SearchEngineStrategies.com as a site that sells links? Certainly not. But hold on a second there, didn’t Google pay additional money to SES to be allowed that spot on their site and for that link? They didn’t have the intention of sponsoring the event just for the backlink to google.com, but it ended up that way.

So looking at it from the larger view, what actually constitutes those “paid” links these days? How about I give you a free t-shirt if you link to me. Is that a paid link? How about I scratch your back or if I give you a free lunch just so you will link to my site. Are those paid links or what do those mean now? Google has no way, at all, to decipher what is a paid link or what is not a paid link — unless you tell them.

Google is a business, not the government.

This one comes from Michael of Wolf-howl.com. Michael is exactly right with this. Google is a business just like any other company out there. Just like when Google tried to sue Microsoft about using their own search engine as the default in Windows Vista, both Microsoft and Google are businesses. They both have the same goal at the end of the day, well, sort of. Google has their famous motto of “…organizing the world’s information in the most efficient way possible…” or something like that, but they’re really just out to make a buck these days.

The point being that Google should not and is not allowed to tell webmasters what to do. Google can cry all they want about “forcing” users to use nofollow or disclosing their paid links, but at the end of the day, Google just wants their lives to be easer because they have flaws in their algorithm.

Here’s a direct quote from Michael,

Google’s mission is not to tell you how to run your business.
Google’s mission is not to tell you what are paid links.
Google’s mission is not to tell you what to do or what not to do.

Google can certainly say and suggest things, but they have no right to tell anyone to do anything.

Thanks for the Corvette, I think I will link to you!

Next on the schedule up to bat was Todd Malicoat of Stuntdubl. What did Todd have to say about paid links? Exactly what the title of this section says. Paid links are relative. “If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”

What is a paid link these days? Google (or any search engine) has no possible way of ever knowing if a link is paid or not — ever. How does a robot know if someone either paid the site owner, gave the site owner a free car, or how about if that person just bought dinner for them instead? Who’s to know if Matt Cutts paid me to put his link right here? What if he actually just bought me a drink and I’m linking to him as thanks?

Paid links has turned into its own industry and there’s no way to effectively control it or even moderate it. Why does the paid links industry exist? The industry exists in the first place because it has to. The Internet is the new playground for businesses. Marketing and advertising are taking a huge hit and moving to the web because there’s where the world is going. Traditional advertising isn’t being nearly as cost effective as it once was 15 years ago.

I didn’t catch too much about what Greg Boser talked about as he mainly just recapped what Todd and Michael had already discussed. Andy also didn’t have that much to say, but was there as Matt’s supporter, I guess.

Matt had an interesting follow-up after the four panelists had finished with what they had to say. His response was this,

question asked in the audience: Can you define “excessive” amount of links on any given page?
response: automated, full duplex, tons of emails, you’re not interested in exchanging links for interest, but rather for revenue.

The ambiguous “excessive,” but of course no exact number was given.

I feel like Matt was unfairly slammed in the session only because he represented Google, but he did put up a good fight and defended his Google well.

Relevant Resources

As a small side note, I overheard an interview taping and I have to term this as the quote of the conference: “SEO is just a scam, it doesn’t really work.”

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