I wrote back in April about how the sale of off-topic links to advertisers looking for search ranking boosts had become well seated within university newspapers, with the Stanford Daily paper as a classic example. My longer piece for Search Engine Watch members went further in depth, examining how links like these even showed up at places like the Washington Post.
Now respected publisher O'Reilly has come under fire for selling off topic links. It's not something new that they've been doing. Nevertheless, the attention and belated realization that they might be helping people to "game" search engines is causing O'Reilly chief Tim O'Reilly to do some hard thinking. It also raises the broader question of when is it "fair" or "ethical" to sell links.
Let's first talk about what this was not. This was not a cause of O'Reilly carrying hidden links, as happened with the Financial Times in June. These links were perfectly visible to anyone and present on various O'Reilly sites for at least two years.
Blogger Phil Ringnalda seems to have just discovered them this week, resulting in his O'Reilly Joins The Search Engine Spam Parade post. In it, he talks about the type of links you can see on the O'Reilly OnLamp.com site or XML.com. The screenshot below shows an example from XML.com:
Look on the left-hand side. See the two boxes? The links have little to do with XML. Why would someone buy them on this site? One leading reason is that they may be hoping the anchor text will help them rank well for the terms they've bought -- especially in that they are getting links from a fairly "trusted" site like XML.com.
Perhaps this is helping. A search for canada hotels on Google brings up the canadianhotelguide.com home page, which is exactly what the "Canada Hotels" link on the O'Reilly site leads to. Moreover, a backlink look up clearly shows that links from XML.com are being credited to the Canadian hotel site from Google.
Tim O'Reilly himself admits all this, after having been alerted to the situation now and examined it to some degree. In his Search Engine Spam? post, he writes:
That being said, it's become clear to me on investigation that these folks are indeed paying us for our Google rank, and not just for clickthroughs. We just aren't targeted enough for their ads to be justified on a click-through basis. What's more, using Google's link: keyword to check for top links to these particular advertisers shows that the O'Reilly sites they advertise on are among their chief link sources. They aren't getting independent links from users. In short, these advertisers are using O'Reilly and other highly ranked sites who accept their advertising to improve their chances of being discovered via search engines, rather than in quest of direct click throughs (although those may also provide some value for their ad buy.)
His problem now is what to do. Many in the comments to his post, including Google's spam fighting chief Matt Cutts, have suggested that he add nofollow attributes to these ads if they are going to continue to run, as a way to prove he's not inadvertently messing with the relevancy of search results.
From a public relations standpoint, it's an easy fix. Slap a nofollow on those links, and no one can accuse you of doing anything wrong. From an "ethical" standpoint, it's not so clear cut. Who's to say that you were doing anything wrong in the first place?
People have bought and sold links before search engines made much use of them for ranking purposes. Just having a link on a page can send traffic, even if it's an "off-topic" link. Heck, just imagine the number of "off-topic" ads you've seen on or offline in various situations.
Links also generate revenue. The search engines helped create an economy that revolves around links. If a site realizes it has valuable real estate, is it unethical to stay in business by selling some of that value, the reputation it can pass to another site? Does it make a difference whether the link you sell is "on topic" or to another "reputable" site.
Google Recommendation: Buy Yahoo Links
To further muddy the waters, let me take an example of what was asked at our recent Search Engine Strategies conference, in a session on buying and selling links. If buying links is supposedly so bad, then why does Google have no problem telling people to buy them from Yahoo?
What? Google says buy links? Sure, indirectly right on its webmaster guidelines page:
Submit your site to relevant directories such as the Open Directory Project and Yahoo!, as well as to other industry-specific expert sites.
The Yahoo Directory charges for listings, if you want to be in a commercial category. It's $300 per year to be included. Not just evaluated, included. If you don't pay year after year, you don't stay in. And despite using redirection, last time I looked, these links still get counted by Google for link credit.
So it's OK for Yahoo to sell links but not O'Reilly? Therein lies part of the debate. Perhaps it's OK at Yahoo since it's well regarded as classifying web sites by category. By no means are O'Reilly's links mean to be any type of directory-style system.
Then again, just being a directory might not be a safe harbor. There's been an explosion in the number of directories springing up. As webmasters have gone on a quest to gain links, new directories have emerged to satisfy that need. But the Did Google Just Target Directories? thread in our forums looks at whether Google in particular has worked to remove the value of some of these places.
What's A Link Scheme?
Let's go back to those Google guidelines to see what at least one search engine has to say on buying links:
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.
It's not actually saying specifically not to buy links, as you can see. It is a warning not to be involved with "schemes" that are designed -- in my view -- solely to boost rankings. If O'Reilly feels there's no value other than link boosting to its program, then I suppose that might be a scheme.
In contrast, let me turn the magnifying glass back to Search Engine Watch. Since we've had our forums, the occasional person has had great fun with the notion of not selling links, pointing at the "internet.commerce" links we used to carry.
Used to carry? Yep. I got them removed about a week ago. As many of you know, Search Engine Watch has a new owner. This ad program wasn't one we had to continue to carry, so I asked to have those links removed from our site. If you still see them around on pages here or there, that's just something we haven't caught. They'll also come out of the SearchDay newsletter when that's redesigned in about three or four weeks. But they looked similar to this:
That's off the Internet.com home page. As you can see, the links have little to do with internet issues. Spam city!
Retroactively, You're Bad!
Well, not exactly. As I said, the issue had been raised on our forums. Back in December 2004, I explained a bit more about this particular program. In particular, it predated Google, running since around 1998, I believe. It also isn't sold as a rank boosting system.
Now I don't handle the ads on the site. Nevertheless, I still get stuck being as a spokesperson for things that aren't in my control from time to time. Shortly before nofollow came along, I talked about these ads and how I wished I had an "ignore" tag that could go around them, to ease the PR headache side of things.
My wish was granted. Nofollow arrived. In addition, soon after nofollow came out, someone who had participated in the internet.commerce program had a ranking drop. Her concern was that somehow, because she suddenly gained a ton of links through it, Google had given her a penalty.
As it turned out, that wasn't the case. She'd also done a number of other things to her site that were responsible. But I put both issues on the table to Jupiter. Surround those links with nofollow! They remove the PR headache, and more important, they protect you from having some other site owner think you've some how created a link "scheme" that Google or another search engine wants to penalize.
To me, I got a dragging their feet response. I was told there were some issues with implementing this in the ad system. I also got some resentment that the company was supposed to be changing a program it had always operated just because years later, Google in particular thought selling links was a bad thing.
And naturally, no one would buy those links with nofollow on them, right -- so the ad department wouldn't want nofollow to go? Check out our The New Nofollow Link Attribute on the SEW Forums, and you can see someone speculating how the links wouldn't sell, if that were the case.
Value Beyond Ranking
My response was if so, too bad. For one thing, I said my assumption was that any decent search engine was already smart enough to see the same link with the same text on every page and not give more credit than deserved. They weren't sold as a rank boosting thing and should have value beyond that. I also said that the links should have value beyond just a ranking boost. And you know what? Apparently they do.
That link selling session I mentioned at our show two weeks ago? The issue of the internet.commerce links came up. A number of people had bought them who were in attendance. Going out on a limb, I asked if they'd been pitched by sales people as having rank boosting purposes. Nope, they hadn't, a hands-up type of response verified. Phew! In addition, a number of people found that even though they were supposedly "off-topic" links, the still generated quality traffic independent of search engines. You can read the account of the session over here at Search Engine Roundtable.
That session also burst into applause when I pointed out that the issue of buying links isn't raised if you're talking about Google AdSense. Don't buy links? Please. That's all AdSense is, a program where people can buy and sell links from across the web -- nor are they always on topic to the page, despite the contextual targeting.
The issue, of course, is buying links purely for search ranking gains. The reality is that some publishers are going to have to resort to using nofollow or some type of redirection as a means of "proving" they mean no harm to the search engines. It might also be wise to ensure that some advertiser who takes part in the program doesn't come back with an accusation that they unknowingly were taking part in some bad link "scheme."
Other publishers pressed for money might decide to push back. They might deem selling links and part of their reputation as fair game, especially in an ad downturn. Google and gang don't like it? Let them sort it out.
As for me, I'm glad to be rid of the internet.commerce box. We still have our SEW Marketplace ads, of course. Those are certainly on target for our site, with ads from search engines and search marketers. But I suppose the next issue for us is, for those ads that don't have redirection, should we be adding nofollow to their links? Probably, because again it solves a potential PR problem.Postscript: See also Google's Matt Cutts On Link Selling: Sites Might Not Pass Reputation; Buyers Might Get Targeted More