Matt Cutts started a firestorm this last Saturday by inviting people to use Google’s spam report form to report paid links. Many are interpreting this as a sign that Google is having difficulty detecting which links are paid and which are not. Others see it as Google taking another step to dictate how we should run our web sites and even our businesses.
Although I can respect the fact that Google wants to protect its own search algorithm and ultimately their business model, I think they have gone a bit to far with this one.
Supposedly Google is already able to detect some paid links. They should be able to identify paid links when they come across html text on a web page that says something like “Sponsored Links,” “Text Link Ads” or something similar. No doubt they are able to recognize site-wide links or links to sites that are completely unrelated to site that is linking out.
I also wouldn’t be surprised if they were able to access inventories of sites selling links that brokers either display publicly or make available so long as you are some kind of member.
What they are looking to learn from humans (snitches) is to learn of sites that do not provide a machine readable way to determine if links are paid or not. For example, on a site where we place text ads, a graphic is used that informs users that they are sponsored links. However, because there is nothing to identify what the graphic such as the file name or alt attribute, a search engine would have a difficult time determining whether the links are paid or editorial. This site is a candidate to be snitched out.
Does this mean that every site that does not provide an easy way for Google to determine that they are selling links will now be reported as spam? Most likely not. There are just too many.
What I do see happening is people snitching out their competitors. Rather than waging battle against the competitor the good old fashion way by building a better site, obtaining quality links or both, they will simply report the sites buying and selling the links hoping Google will respond by discounting them. The problem with this is that even humans cannot know for sure if a site is selling a link or not. This may lead to unmerited reports and/or abuse.
Will this latest action by Google deliver a death blow to the paid links industry? I don’t think so. Rather I think it will eventually push the whole industry underground. Much of it is already.
There are a variety of ways that publishers can sell links and avoid detection by Google. They can use a graphic rather than html text to identify paid links, just like the example I provided above. They can also use CSS to position html text identifying paid links near the actual links on the page itself but far away from the links in the source code. More links will be sold within content as opposed to placing them in headers, footers, navigation, etc. More publishers will resort to cloaking, using IP delivery to display one page to users that discloses the links and another to Google that does not identify them as paid links.
The bottom line is that so long as Google’s algorithm relies heavily on links, people are going to find a way to buy and sell them while putting forth their best effort to keep under the Google radar. The only real way then for Google to win this war is to either discount all external links or change their algorithm so that it is not so heavily focused on links.