The Stanford Daily Selling Links thread at our Search Engine Watch Forums (and see also this from Feb) looks at the ironic situation of the student newspaper at Stanford University -- the birthplace of Google, Yahoo and owner of the PageRank patent -- selling off-topic links to advertisers who almost certainly are trying to get better rankings on search engines.
Visit the Stanford Daily site, and the links are painfully obvious. At the bottom of each page are groups of links such as shown below:
OK, I suppose some readers of the paper may be interested in things like online bingo or MBA programs, but "UK Wholesalers & Dropshippers?" or "Private Krankenversicherung." C'mon.
Buying Links To Boost Rankings
Those purchasing these links are almost certainly not expect any readers at the Stanford Daily site to click through and check out their products. Instead, they're hoping that having links on a high ranking page combined with the terms they want to be found for in the links will get them better rankings on the search engines.
High ranking page? The Stanford Daily is rated 8 out of 10 using the Google PageRank meter -- a PR8 page -- which is very good indeed. But just getting a link from an important page isn't enough. Ideally, the link should contain the terms you want to rank well for to increase the odds of showing up for those terms (my Link Building & Link Analysis article for Search Engine Watch members explains this more). At Stanford, those buying links are getting both.
In addition, they're getting links from within an .edu domain. Why does that matter? Back during the infamous Florida update of November & December 2003, it was widely felt that Google was trying to weight its results to be more non-commercial in nature. One way of doing that seemed to be perhaps counting pages within .edu and other non-commercial domains a bit more -- and also perhaps giving more weight to links coming out of these domains.
Why would do this? Buying links from a university web site isn't easy. They aren't really set up to sell them. But student newspapers are a big loophole. Indeed, I've heard that student papers have grown to be one of the best ways for those seeking links from .edu pages to gain them through purchase. Our forum thread has comments from others on this, as well.
It's Not Just Stanford
To gather up other examples, I did a search for site:.edu newspaper phentermine online poker on Google, to see if I could find pages containing all of those words on .edu sites. Those coming up were likely to be student papers selling links.
Over at the Daily Egyptian, which appears to be the student paper of Southern Illinois University, I found paid links (marked as Paid Advertisements) that covered such topics as:
- Women's Slippers
- Paris Hilton Photos
- Ciara Pictures
It was actually difficult to find more, because many of the results that came back were from blogs and forums on university web sites that had been flooded with comment or trackback spam. So even if links weren't being sold, university sites remain fodder for off-topic links.
Since searching didn't work that well, I fell back to just visiting some university newspaper web sites that I know about. Finding paid links wasn't hard at all.
Over at UCLA's Daily Bruin, the bottom of the home page treated me to off-topic links about things like "Fish Oil" and "Love Spell," as shown below:
How about the Harvard Crimson, the student paper at Harvard? Apparently, many at Harvard are interested in North Cyprus Estate Agents, since that's one of the links listed here:
Yahoo roots with not only Stanford but also cross-town/valley rival UC Berkeley. Inktomi (which Yahoo purchased) came out of Berkeley. So how's the student paper there, the Daily California, doing on the paid links front? Pretty well. Links for things like "diamonds" and "african safari" run alongside its left-hand margin, in a "Sponsored Resources" area.
How about my alma mater, UC Irvine, where I was editor of the New University student paper there (too) many years ago. Yep, text-links for whatever you want cost only $25 per month, making them attractive to those pitching "Tin Ceiling Tiles" and "Exterior Shutters" among others, in a paid advertisements box at the bottom of the paper's home page.
Is It Wrong?
It is wrong for these newspapers to be selling links? It depends on your viewpoint. The papers can do whatever they want. There's a demand for links, and they're responding to that market. What's wrong with that? Google itself puts links on pages across the web and earns money. Why shouldn't others.
The issue, of course, is that these "ads" in many cases aren't really meant to be viewed by humans. They're links solely purchased to influence search engine rankings. That's why they stand out so glaringly. Many have no real value to readers of these sites. The "wrongness," if someone wants to assign that, is that the links may be helping sites that aren't relevant to rank well in search results.
In other words, the newspapers might be viewed as participating to some degree in link spam. Specifically with Google, it warns:
Don't participate in link schemes designed to increase your site's ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web spammers or "bad neighborhoods" on the web as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links.
These paid ads very much could be considered link schemes, given that people are almost certainly buying them just to increase rankings. And potentially, that could come back to haunt those selling the links, in the same way that Google took action against the SearchKing site back in 2002. Then again, sites like the Stanford Daily might be deemed important enough to escape any penalty. Certainly WordPress found itself back in good graces with Google less than a day after its home page was penalized recently.
Should the newspapers and others stop selling links? That's up to each publisher. Not everyone will agree that selling the links is link spam, much less even harming search relevancy. If the papers agree with this view, they might not feel there's a problem. Even if they do decide they are contributing to search spam, they might feel that others are doing it, so why shouldn't they?
Everyone's Selling Links
Indeed, if anything, this new publicity over university newspapers selling links only shows how much buying and selling links has become a fact of life across the web, for those seeking better rankings.
Heck, I noted earlier this year how over at the Washington Post (a Yahoo partner), the "Featured Advertiser Links" box in the bottom right of the page includes a direct link about "Celebrex/Vioxx Warnings" leading to a law firm. Perhaps some people are clicking directly on that link and it wasn't purchased for influencing search rankings. On the other hand, the page it leads to is ranked number eight on Google for vioxx warnings, so it's likely to be having a helpful search engine impact.
Over on CBS News, an "Advertiser Links" section at the bottom of the page lists things such as:
real estate listings
movie web sites
These aren't really "on topic" to the focus of the CBS News web site, which to me is about breaking and current news. But the key difference with these links (provided by Yahoo, through its contextual program), is that because they redirect, they aren't providing any search engine credit.
Traffic From Links Vs. Traffic From Search Engines
In other words, the "wrongness" some will assign to paid links is primarily whether they are bought to influence search engines or not. If links carry redirection, they probably won't have a search engine impact. Someone has purchased them almost certainly because they expect to get traffic from the link itself.
If they are direct links -- you click and go straight to the page being pointed at -- then the links may impact search rankings. In these cases, someone has very likely purchased them in order to influence search results. They aren't paying for traffic from the link itself. They are probably paying for the link in hopes it will generate traffic via search engines.
Nofollow As Way To Stem Bad Public Relations
In the end, as said already, the decision ultimately remains with publishers about selling links. However, if they are fearful of bad PR (of the public relations-type) from selling links, they'll employ redirection or implement the nofollow attribute on links. As I noted in a forum discussion on this:
All nofollow does for those selling links to people who really want them for other than search ranking purposes is to have a way to say to the search engines, "Don't shoot! I'm really not trying to harm your index" or to those who might accuse them of trying to spam the search engines to say, "Look, I'm really not."
That forum comment, by the way, also covers the fact that Jupitermedia -- publisher of Search Engine Watch -- sells links itself. That links program predates search engines making heavy use of link analysis, as I've explained before. In other words, it wasn't designed as a way for people to boost search rankings.
Nevertheless, some are probably using it for that reason. That's why in another forum comment, I said I'd hoped Jupitermedia would use nofollow on its links. Doing so will solve a PR problem for the company -- just as doing so would solve it for other companies that might come under fire for link selling, as well.
For the record, I did pass the suggestion up the line to Jupitermedia right after the nofollow attribute came out and was told it was something they'd consider. I'll be sending this article up the line as well, as further reason why they might want to do it, to solve a possible source of bad PR. At the very least, I'll be pushing that these tags be used at least for links carried on the Search Engine Watch site itself.
By the way, those buying links for the purpose of influencing search results obviously need to look for redirection or the use of nofollow. If these are in place, you probably aren't getting the search engine influence you were hoping for.
Stanford Daily: Unaware
Back to the Stanford Daily, it may be that the new publicity about the links it's carrying may cause it to reconsider selling them. Until now, the newspaper was apparently unaware that selling the links might be an issue with some.
I'd emailed the paper asking if there were any concerns that selling links was harming the Stanford Daily's reputation. Eric Rosser Eldon, vice president and CFO of the Stanford Daily Publishing Corporation emailed back:
We're not sure what you're talking about here. We're a student-run newspaper and we don't have an advanced understanding of PageRank -- but we would like to know more about the issue. To our knowledge, we do not have any "web spammers" or "bad neighborhoods'" on the site. If you think otherwise, please let us know. Again, our knowledge is pretty fuzzy here.
He also added at the end of the email:
Your attention has helped us think about this aspect of our web site more clearly.
The impression is that the Stanford Daily doesn't know why exactly people want links from its pages, but since there was an interest for whatever reason, it was happy to sell.
FYI, Eldon also emailed that the links are sold to advertisers directly, though some of those advertisers are almost certainly paid link companies that broker links for others. As for any concerns that the paid links might distort search rankings, Eldon responded:
Distorting search results is not and has never been our intention. Our intention has been to make up needed income from classified, subscription and display ad sales lost to the internet through a new, legitimate method of advertising.
Finally, when I looked yesterday, the links at the bottom of the pages of the Stanford Daily weren't labeled as ads. Eldon said this was an oversight caused to the URL of a graphic with this disclaimer having been changed. The problem has since been fixed. Having seen the original page before the fix, I can confirm that the URL was indeed broken.