Barry again had the scoop on a hot story over the weekend which has spawned a discussion in the WebmasterWorld Forums. On Friday, there was a post from Stephanie from the Dublin Google Search Quality team at the Google Blog (en Francais aussi - si chouette!) regarding "Building link based popularity." As mentioned, the topic has started a heated discussion at WMW, but the post really isn't stating anything completely new, in the opinion of some.
The Google Blog post provides essentially the same rhetoric that has been being fed through Matt Cutts' blog and the Google blog, as well as at conferences, to SEOs and webmasters alike over the past year by Google: don't buy links or participate in link schemes. It seems as if Google is hinting that they are now officially incorporating within their algorithm something which seeks out reciprocal links as well as link networks. Again, this isn't really new news, and savvy SEO's are either incorporating this possibility into their strategy or ignoring it – assuming that this is possibly a Google smoke screen used to try and minimize the SPAM found in their results from people that are experts at clandestinely leveraging links for rankings.
The focus on this post seems to be on the subject of reciprocal links, however. In the WMW thread, many posters bring up the idea that reciprocal links have been around far longer than Google itself, and that it is impossible for Google to judge the intent of every reciprocal relationship. If Google wants webmasters to link to relevant sites, there are many cases, especially in the SEO industry for example, where reciprocal links may occur purely for the purpose of giving the user more relevant content. Site owners should probably not be penalized for willing to exchange links in this relevant and helpful manner.
Google will likely respond that is that is the case, people should use the “no follow” attribute to ensure that the search engine doesn't assume that the link was obtained for the purpose of trying to improve PageRank and potentially actual results pages rankings. This is however not a realistic expectation. SEO's, as with any other industry, would probably prefer that any link may have the dual purpose of both helping with traffic as well as with rankings. Would Google be willing to give as much credence in their algorithm for on topic links that are attributed by “nofollow?” If not, then asking webmasters to employ them unilaterally is probably unfair.
Again, this is just an opinion, but for Google to not be clear about exactly what types of link exchanges and schemes they consider to be against the rules isn't really helping SEOs and webmasters. They have had an excellent year in helping marketers, especially with the improvement of the Sitemaps system and release of the Webmaster Tools portal, but these constant smoke screens about linking seem to indicate more of a problem in dealing with identifying valuable links than they may care to admit.