Will Yandex Penalizing Paid Links Affect Other Search Engines’ Ranking Factors?

When a year ago Yandex announced that links would be removed as a ranking factor, they hoped that black-hat SEOs would be discouraged from promoting websites with paid links. Paid links made up more than 70 percent of all links for the most popular commercial queries. These spam sites that buy links do not allocate time or resources for design, functionality of the site, or content and therefore do not provide the site visitor with a good experience.

Yandex is now reporting that since then, the number of paid links has only dropped by 16 percent and at the current rate, it would take an additional five years to see paid links become completely obsolete. Yandex does not believe their prior decision to remove links completely as a ranking factor to be in vain, but rather a step in the right direction.

On April 15, Yandex’s head of search Alexander Sadovsky announced that starting May 15 links will be brought back as a linking factor, but paid links will become a negative factor. Yandex’s machine-learning based algorithm is able to identify the paid versus the organic external links. The update will first affect spam sites that have a long history of buying massive quantities of links. The Russian search engine strongly advises the removal of paid links before the May 15 date to avoid penalization.

This new update is designed to encourage websites to improve the design, content, and functionality, and overall UI (user interface). The Russian search engine also looks at user behavior.

According to Yandex, the acceptable links can be “partner links” that contain more than just one URL but also a relevant description of the website. Yandex also approves of links used by online media to cite your website that contains valuable information. Link catalogs like Yandex.Catalog and dmoz can improve site rankings. An appropriate site catalog must be moderated, convenient to navigate for visitors, be organized thematically with links to reputable sites, advertisement-free, and grammatically correct with no spelling mistakes. Note that it is the catalog sites that must be free of advertisements – not the site’s link that is provided on the catalog site. Yandex also warns of spam comments containing links that may be published on your site. Similar to Google SEO ranking guidelines, comments should be screened and moderated prior to being posted.

Will Yandex’s decision affect other search engines’ ranking factors? Keep in mind that links are essential to search algorithms and to implement the new ranking factors will definitely require much work. Though Google states that links that are designed to manipulate search rankings will negatively impact a site’s rankings, it does not expressly prohibit paid links. Paid advertisements that pass PageRank, on the other hand, violate Google guidelines.

Baidu is on the other end of the spectrum, with many sites listing “friendly” links in the footer to increase the site’s rankings. One of China’s top online travel markets, Qunar, has a footer with these paid links. Though Baidu does not approve of paid links, its algorithm fails to detect this manipulation of search rankings. Qunar was penalized by being required to post a public apology on their website for 24 hours after a court ruling. Yandex’s new announcement will likely not affect Baidu’s current rankings, as it seems that the first step in solving the paid linking issue is developing algorithms that will actually spot the practice.

Naver’s policy on paid links is even harder to understand. The site portal requires that websites wishing to be ranked by the website must first sign up and create an account. The SERPs are listed much differently from those of Google, with paid listings being on top. Naver SEO rankings don’t seem to be based on links but rather on content. Therefore, the Yandex announcement will also likely not have any effect on Naver’s ranking factors.

The Yandex move in my opinion is a smart one, rewarding great links and penalizing others that appear to be paid. However, the definition between what exactly is paid and what exactly is not, remains to be a bit grey area. For example, if you hire a PR agency to write a press release and they pay a press release service to distribute that content, is it considered paid if you are paying the PR agency to write it and paying the press release service to distribute it? What if someone pays a blogger for their time to write an informative article and posts it on their well-known and relevant website? How is it enforced to capture and punish writers and publishers for making a living with their content?

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