Yahoo's Jeremy Zawodny Caught In Link Selling Debate

Google Fights Paid Links & Yahoo Defends Paid Links from Barry over at Search Engine Roundtable does a great job of recapping the ironic situation of Yahoo blogvangelist Jeremy Zawodny selling links on his personal blog without using nofollow attributes while the most direct counterpart he has at Google, Matt Cutts, has been urging for months that nofollow should be used on paid links.

While Barry's done the recap, I still wanted to revisit things myself. First, there's the nofollow attribute, which was introduced earlier this year primarily as a way for blog owners to help combat trackback and comment spam. Slap a nofollow on links in these areas, and they don't pass credit for the search engines that support nofollow.

Todd Friesen dubbed nofollow to be a "link condom" (see Link Condom: The Nofollow Parody), a way to interact through links with other sites safely but not actually touching them, at least as Google, Yahoo and MSN will view it. But far from a joke, I later wrote a follow up on how the link condom parody site was a good jumping off point on how nofollow had many other uses, including as a means for those selling links to tell search engines that they meant no harm.

This was a point I made in my original write up on nofollow, Google, Yahoo, MSN Unite On Support For Nofollow Attribute For Links. Nevertheless, the issue of using nofollow in relation to paid links really exploded when O'Reilly was found to be selling links in August.

O'Reilly In Debate Over Link Selling covers that situation as well as the issue of selling links and influencing search engines by buying them in much greater depth. Nofollow was a solution, I explained, for any publisher not wanting to be accused of doing something wrong.

Soon after, in Text links And PageRank, Google's Matt Cutts urged the use of nofollow as a safe way for people to buy links, along with a warning that sites selling links without doing this might not pass along PageRank.

Not everyone agrees with Matt, as you can see in the comments below his post or in this discussion over at our Search Engine Watch Forums: Google's Matt Cutts On Link Selling: Sites Might Not Pass Reputation; Buyers Might Get Targeted More.

Now skip forward to last week. Zawodny Says No to Link Condoms from Greg Boser covers how he received an email telling him that he could now buy links on Jeremy's site (Dave Naylor got a similar email) and the irony that those links don't make use of link condom in the way that Google would prefer, as would likely Jeremy's employer Yahoo, as well. Or maybe not Yahoo, given that as some of the articles above detail, it has come under accusations that its $300 per year Yahoo Directory is nothing more than a giant link selling network.

I was actually going to drop a note to Jeremy and Matt to get both of their views on all of this before posting, but Sponsored Links from Jeremy over at his blog saves part of that work. In it, he explains his viewpoint on not using nofollow. To stress his main points:

  • I didn't hide the links. (Remember the WordPress fiasco?)
  • They're clearly labeled as sponsored links.
  • They're far less annoying than distracting graphical ads.
  • I've made it possible for anyone to comment on them. In public. Who else does that?
  • They don't show up in my RSS feed(s).
  • I rejected the on-line casino, drug sales, cheap hotels, and really offensive stuff--basically, anything the reminded me of blog comment spam I've bit hit with or that sends me to a sleazy feeling site. No need to encourage 'em.
  • The links aren't permanent. They go away after a month (see below).

Those are all fine points, but none of them except the last are likely to make Matt over at Google happy. I'll try to channel him as well as comments on paid link in relation to the impact on search relevancy:

  • The WordPress fiasco wasn't over hiding paid links. It was about having tons of doorways that were found through a hidden link. Different issue completely. WordPress Caught Spamming After Enlisting To Fight Spam covers it in more depth.
  • Sponsored links have been labeled at other places. That doesn't rob them of link juice. Someone's bought a link on Jeremy's blog with the link text "Local Coupons." That's going to contribute in some way to help it rank for those terms on search engines. The Sponsored Links label doesn't prevent that. Nofollow does.
  • Whether the links are distracting or not compared to graphical ones isn't why this has come up. The issue is whether the links are contributing to search results being degraded.
  • Commenting on them is nice, but it still doesn't pull away from the relevancy issue.
  • Doing some rejecting is fine, but I don't recall Yahoo or other search engines saying anything like, "Don't buy links, unless your company isn't in a sleazy, blog spamming industry."
  • Links going away is a positive, I suppose, at least to those who might feel Jeremy is messing with search results by selling links.

Further down, Jeremy talks about no one up in arms about the Google AdSense links he carries. Yep, and O'Reilly In Debate Over Link Selling has me covering exactly this same point, when it came up at one of our conferences. AdSense are sponsored links -- they're just "safe" sponsored links in terms of search relevancy that Google doesn't mind.

Need more from Matt directly? SES Chicago 2005 I think has some fresh comments from him below the post on link selling, as does ?Tell me about your backlinks?.

What's going to happen to Jeremy? As Greg notes, he's not going to be yanked from Google. His site is far too important for that. But Google might prevent it from passing along link juice to others. Apparently, I'm told by others (not Google itself) that Google's done the same to Search Engine Watch because of our SEW Marketplace ads that we sell.

If so, Google's just stupid. If it can't figure out that we carry the same sponsored links in the same area and filter out that part, really -- they're dumb. They're even dumber if they have to wipe out the ability of an entire site to help influence its results in a good way. We link to many excellent things -- including things Google wants people to know about. Our links don't carry weight because Google's not smart enough? And Jeremy's site might not carry weight as well? Please.

If you're interested, that O'Reilly In Debate Over Link Selling covers the former paid link program we had here and how ultimately, the SEW Marketplace ads might move to using nofollow down the line. But since none of these were ever sold as ways to help people rank, it's kind of a pain to have to retroactively make that type of move.

Want to comment or discuss? Visit our forum thread, Yahoo's Zawodny In Paid Links & Nofollow Debate.

Postscript: Matt adds his thoughts on the situation over in Text link follow-up which in summary says yes, he still thinks nofollow is the way to go, but Jeremy's free to do as he likes on his site, just as search engines will be free to decide what sites they want to trust based on linkage patterns. But it's more fun to read his actual post, especially because he plays a game of Six Degrees, getting from a paid link to a sex positions web site in two mouse clicks.