A Solution for Google and the Fight Against Paid Links

One of the biggest debates raging in the search marketing world right now is Google’s stance on paid links. Google went a step further than just talking about it for the past two years, and dropped PageRank values for many sites known to sell links specifically for the purpose of passing PageRank and thus, rankings, on to the buyer’s site. My solution to the paid link epidemic goes one step further; but first, here’s a brief synopsis of what has actually transpired.

Google feels it is a violation of organic search engine optimization practices to pay for incoming links… but only certain kinds of links. Some webmasters do a great deal of business by simply selling outbound links off their high PageRank web pages. But there’s a difference between that and say, paying for a business listing to the Yahoo! Directory. There is more value and legitimacy in a Yahoo! listing than buying a text link on a pharmaceutical site pointing to your gambling site with keyword stuffed anchor text. Yahoo! also does not accept all submissions, so there is an element of quality to their directory. There are differences in paid links.

Sounds like Google’s just stepping up their algorithmic intelligence once again and defining new black hat techniques, right? Perhaps, but not without controversy. News in September spread that the once very popular Aviva Directory, among others, had suffered drastic drops in Google rankings, which ultimately would lessen the quality of the outbound links they list. Aviva was one of the more SEO-friendly directories around, which led to its popularity for webmasters. PageRank was passed on several levels deep, and the $50 fee was very reasonable for a permanent PR3 or PR4 one-way link.

Many argue that Aviva has done nothing wrong. Their business provides a service to webmasters that is transparent as well as valuable for a fair cost. But the point I have isn’t to say who is right and who is wrong. It is instead to say that Google is walking a fine line with this one. There was speculation that their stance has something to do with a Federal Trade Commission staff opinion saying that, “companies engaging in word-of-mouth marketing, in which people are compensated to promote products to their peers, must disclose those relationships.” This would extend to web sites presenting commercial listings of other businesses for a fee without sufficiently noting that in each case. According to Google, there are several linking options that web sites should use in these cases, or else they risk suffering the consequences like Aviva did. They include using a meta robots tag to disallow the Google crawler, using JavaScript links, and the “nofollow” attribute among others.

Whether the FTC opinion and Google’s unhappiness with paid links are just a coincidence, I found it worth mentioning.

Keep in mind that Google also runs the most popular Pay Per Click advertising platform on the Internet. If webmasters are paying for links on the Internet, it is certain that Google would like to do everything it can to encourage the use of their AdWords and AdSense services over text link buying from private companies. This includes offering a paid link reporting page – http://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/paidlinks – which is the first of its kind in the search engine world.

The drop in PageRank of many high profile sites was indeed a wake up call. However, my solution is extremely simple, goes one step farther, and one I’m sure Google has already considered:

Stop making PageRank values public altogether.

Why? Well, for starters PageRank never really gave any accurate reading as to the value of a web page. One could get a single incoming link from an irrelevant PR7 page that would transfer a very respectable PR value to their site. Another web site could have hundreds of relevant PR1 links pointing to it and have a lower PageRank value than the first page. If I’m trying to determine the “worth” of a page, the second example could easily be more helpful to a user than the first. The value of a link doesn’t begin and end with the page’s PR value. There are other factors. Without knowledge of PageRank, link exchanges, article reprints, and other old school and still popular methods of link building could continue fairly unaffected. New-age methods such as social media promotion, press releases, and link baiting would also not be affected. Hiding PageRank would not turn the world of webmasters and SEO upside down.

But what’s more important is that PageRank plays such a massive factor in why people buy and sell links. The higher the PR, the more expensive a link is generally. Take away that value system and all of a sudden paid link participants need to re-evaluate their strategies. Sure, existing links would likely not change. Even though PR is hidden, you can bet most existing pages will hold their value for the time being. But all future link purchasing would have to be based upon a brand new system.

PageRank is a window to Google’s algorithm. It’s only natural that some people will try to manipulate rankings by using that data. But what purpose does PageRank serve anymore? To the casual web surfer (the vast majority of Internet users) the little green bar in their browser’s toolbar (if they even bothered to install the Google Toolbar) probably evokes the same reaction that a Windows “stack dump” error would: A scratch of the head. A shrug of the shoulders. A bewildered, “huh?”

As an SEO myself, I find it pretty annoying that my competition pays for incoming links to rank their clients well. It doesn’t put me out of business, as I’m a creative and resourceful online marketer. But the sheer ease of buying links for clients definitely leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. So I, for one, welcome Google’s crackdown on paid links and will be an active user of their paid link reporting form. Hopefully they get rid of PageRank altogether. Its day has certainly passed.