There’s recently been a small debate about Google’s stance on paid links in the comments section of one of my posts, and whether or not you run the risk of being penalized if you buy or sell links. Mitch helpfully pointed us to an article by Matt Cutts on the subject. In case you don’t know, Matt is a Google policy maker who had a big hand in drafting the original quality guidelines.
I spent an enjoyable afternoon reading that and a few other related articles (and their comments) on Matt’s site and the official Google guidelines to try and clarify exactly what Google’s position is. Needless to say some of the comment exchanges are fairly heated, with a lot of emotion on both sides. This is my understanding of the issues:
Google’s point of view
- Google’s stated aim is to provide users with the most relevent results possible, with content represented in the SERPs on merit alone
- paid links muddy the water
- taken to the extreme, allowing paid links essentially opens the way for sites with the biggest budgets to dominate the SERPs
The Webmaster point of view
- Google is not the web and has no right to dictate other sites’ policies
- Google itself makes billions of dollars via sponsored links, so it would seem hypocritical of them to restrict other sites from doing so.
Google’s stance on paid links
Without taking sides, I want to summarise Google’s stance as I understand it.
Sites that sell links can lose their trust in search engines.
(from Matt Cutts’s blog)
Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.
(from Google’s Webmaster site)
In order to stay within Google’s quality guidelines, paid links should be disclosed through a rel=”nofollow” or other techniques…
(from the official Google Webmaster blog).
So it would appear that you’re free to buy and selll links without fear of falling out of favour with Google, as long as these links are marked with the nofollow attribute.
Penalties for paid links
Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank … as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links…
(from the Google quality guidelines).
Matt Cutts says on his blog that
link-selling sites can lose their ability to give reputation (e.g. PageRank and anchortext).
But in the same sentence he also says
Reputable sites that sell links won’t have their search engine rankings or PageRank penalized
Presumably this last bit is referring to sites that use the nofollow attribute for their paid links.
There are plenty of examples of sites that have been penalized, for example check out:
- John Chow – John’s been in trouble with Google numerous times (a good reason why his site’s currently only PR3), but is big enough with enough diverse traffic sources to have survived, or even thrived in spite of it.
- David Airey has posted in detail about why he got penalized, and what he did to rectify the situation.
- GoCompare, a car insurance comparison site, also recently got penalized and reportedly lost almost 90% of their traffic as a result.
As I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of resentment around the web about what appears to be Google’s arrogance in dictating how website owners should run their sites. Well, of course each one of us needs to choose how to respond to this: either give Google the finger (and face the consequences), or toe the line. Which option you choose probably depends a lot on how much you rely on organic search traffic. Most sites, I suspect (including this one), would be hard-hit by losing favour with Google, so it’s in our best interest to stick to their guidelines, whether you agree with them or not.