Google Goes to War on Paid Text Links

Google engineer Matt Cutts posted a series of blog posts on Saturday, attacking hidden links, links in Wordpress themes, and paid links. I'm sure his intention is noble: to remove irrelevant links from the serps. But has he gone too far? Judging by the firestorm of protest in the blogosphere, that may be the case.

There are certainly paid links that affect search result quality, and Google has every right to deal with those. But to say that human-reviewed, relevant paid links will be punished is another situation entirely. That makes it look like Google is flexing its muscles as the dominant search engine to take out competitors of its own text ad program.

The call for submissions of paid links is also fraught with problems, most obviously that of competitors sabotaging each other by buying ads for them and reporting them to Google, and secondly of just how Google expects to be able to detect paid links without access to a webmaster's bank account.

Many are irked by Cutts' framing of the paid links argument within the context of hidden, deceptive links to porn sites. His post segueways immediately from a description of such deceptive behavior, and then discusses the practice of paid links, a legitimate advertising model.

As long as we're talking about links, this seems like a pretty good opportunity to talk about a simple litmus test for paid links and how to tell if a paid link violates search engines' quality guidelines. If you want to sell a link, you should at least provide machine-readable disclosure for paid links by making your link in a way that doesn't affect search engines. There's a ton of ways to do that. For example, you could make a paid link go through a redirect where the redirect url is robot'ed out using robots.txt. You could also use the rel=nofollow attribute. I've said as much many times before, but I wanted to give a heads-up because Google is going to be looking at paid links more closely in the future.

The other best practice I'd advise is to provide human readable disclosure that a link/review/article is paid. You could put a badge on your site to disclose that some links, posts, or reviews are paid, but including the disclosure on a per-post level would better. Even something as simple as “This is a paid review” fulfills the human-readable aspect of disclosing a paid article...To make sure that you're in good shape, go with both human-readable disclosure and machine-readable disclosure, using any of the methods I mentioned above.

One of the major concerns with this is the basic idea of whether it's really Google's problem, for having an algorithm that relies on links for ranking. Should webmasters be forced to change the way they do business to adjust for a shortcoming in Google's relevance algorithm? Outside of Google's algo, there's nothing inherently evil about selling links as ads. Even within the algo, many people argue that people that go the the trouble to buy links are likely selling a relevant product related to that link, so it should count just as much to Google as an unpaid link would.

There are, of course, plenty of sites that sell irrelevant links, that perhaps are the ones Cutts is really targeting. But he is not saying that relevant paid links are OK either, and that is where Google is crossing a line, dictating that certain kinds of advertising (outside of its own paid text links) will lead to punishment of the publisher's site. Is it really fair for Google to say that an advertising program that reviews links for quality is bad?

Another issue entirely is Cutts solicitation of reports of sites using paid links.

Google may provide a special form for paid link reports at some point, but in the mean time, here's a couple of ways that anyone can use to report paid links:
- Sign in to Google's webmaster console and use the authenticated spam report form, then include the word “paidlink” (all one word) in the text area of the spam report. If you use the authenticated form, you'll need to sign in with a Google Account, but your report will carry more weight.
- Use the unauthenticated spam report form and make sure to include the word “paidlink” (all one word) in the text area of the spam report.

As far as the details, it can be pretty short. Something like “Example.com is selling links; here's a page on example.com that demonstrates that” or “www.shadyseo.com is buying links. You can see the paid links on www.example.com/path/page.html” is all you need to mention. That will be enough for Google to start testing out some new techniques we've got — thanks!

That seems like an accident waiting to happen. Already, several bloggers have joked that they've followed his advice, and to be helpful, have reported everyone above them in the serps. Others say they'll plan to buy ads for their competitors and report those. I doubt it's a joke, in many cases. And how is Google going to determine which links are paid or not? Will Google become judge, jury, and executioner, deciding that a link is paid without really knowing for sure, and punishing a site accordingly?

I'm hoping that Matt will clarify his position after reviewing some of the feedback, and reach a position that makes more sense and accomplishes the goal of improving search result quality, without making the reporting process easy to game, or making it look like Google is trying to crush its advertising competitors by punishing their customers in its search engine.

Here's a partial list of responses to Matt Cutts' posts:

I've also started a thread on the SEW Forums, Matt Cutts Goes After Paid Links. Please share your thoughts on this topic there.