The Paid Links Debate: Shades of Gray

The paid link debate continued at SES San Jose, and boy was it fun. Except it wasn’t really a debate. More rhetoric was thrown around in several sessions than any three Obama/Clinton CNN/YouTube debates. This is a complex subject – similar in my mind to understanding what constitutes fair marketing vs. anti-competitive practices in capitalist markets – and it requires thorough and thoughtful analysis and debate.

My goal with this series of articles is to outline the basic skeleton of the debate, in the hope that it will help propel a reasoned discussion forward. In this article, I try to tackle the foundation questions of definition and authority.

Defining Paid Links

It seems appropriate to begin by trying to understand exactly what a paid link is, since this seems to be the source of much angst and confusion. Many just want to know whether the marketing activities they’re contemplating will be considered verboten, and their sites thrown in the search engine slammer. Others are confused by the rhetoric, or the ambiguous definitions that have been given by the Search Engine Guys.

Clear cut, unambiguous examples of link buying abound: as link-libertarian Todd Malicoat pointed out, you can find text link brokers by searching Google, and paid links don’t come any more clearly marked than that. Alternatively, as many experienced darker hats advise, you can eschew the middle man, taking a lower profile and cutting a deal directly with a webmaster on a related site, though you’re still likely dabbling in what most (including Google) consider paid linking.

Right away, trying to glean a definition from these examples begins getting tricky, and we’re not really even close to sliding down what proves to be a very slippery slope. For example, in the case of the webmaster-to-webmaster negotiated deal, is it cash changing hands that defines a paid link? What about the case where articles, with embedded links, are swapped? Obviously one can sell content (or, equivalently, hire writers), so an article can be seen as having cash value. But article swapping seems to be a venerable link building strategy that hasn’t (yet) been called out by the Search Engine Guys.

We could delve into many more examples that are even harder to classify. Indeed examples abounded in the presentations and Q&A’s in San Jose, and we can quickly lose focus and drown in the details. OK, so getting a black-and-white definition of something with so many shades of gray probably isn’t going to happen. What’s the way out of this morass? It turns out that answering this question requires us to first tackle another sticky one: who makes the rules?

Who Makes the Rules?

If you ask Michael Gray, he’ll tell you that “Google is not the government.” I didn’t speak to Michael, who seems like a smart enough guy, but I took that statement, along with his comments about Google “overstepping its bounds,” to mean that Google doesn’t have the right to set the rules. I’m truly puzzled by this. Don’t get me wrong — I have no problem with Gray publicly proclaiming his disdain for Google’s policies. I don’t even begrudge him using his place on the panel to lobby Google’s customers to put pressure on Google to change.

But I really don’t see any legal or ethical basis, or regulatory precedent, for saying that Google should neither freely determine how it ranks web sites nor be able enact a policy that those who engage in practices that it finds damaging to its brand will be penalized. Clearly, it’s the search engines that offer the service, make the rules, and define the search world that we choose to live in. The SearchKing and Kinderstart cases clearly show that the Search Engines have the right to make the rules for how they rank sites.

Matt Cutts (who increasingly seems to act as a spokesperson for all search engines on this matter) continued to provide the standard party line we’ve heard coming out of Mountain View for several years now: purchasing links that pass Page Rank violates Google’s quality guidelines. This is certainly an imperfect definition. You don’t have to go far to find a lot of people that quibble with a lot of details about how Google publicizes its policies.

It’s easy to get hung up on the fact that Cutts points at Google’s Quality Guidelines, which really don’t spell out anything about paid links. Or to criticize his use of an FTC judgment as an analogy for Google’s policies. Or to disagree with his assertion that if paid links aren’t stamped out, we’ll be left with a web where only those with the deepest of pockets can win at search marketing. All of these distractions can make it easy to dismiss Google’s policies as vague, wrong-headed, and unsupportable.

Once our moral indignation is up, we can get angry, or revel in Google’s embarrassment, when it’s revealed that while the right hand is decrying the “noise” created by paid links, the left hand is earning record profits, in part by allowing text link brokers to take out paid ads. It’s also easy to sympathize with those who bought links “back in the day” when it wasn’t so controversial, and wonder if, when such links are discovered, Google will penalize seller, buyer, or both.

Personally, I agree with the social engineering tactic of “discouraging” users from purchasing links by pointing out the risk of falling afoul of the enforcers, much as car pool lane violators are discouraged by the threat of fines. However, I question Google’s wisdom in bringing up such analogies explicitly. To engage in public debate, however indirectly, about the social cost (“noise,” “pollution,” “fairness,” etc.) of paid links, and the appropriateness of using the threat of penalties as a way to discourage behavior, seems to me to be a losing proposition. As seen by the crowd reaction in San Jose, people are stirred by such ideas and tactics, and react viscerally and skeptically when their attention is called to any attempts to restrain their choices or influence their behavior.

Interpreting the Rules: Uncommon Sense?

Let’s try to put the emotion aside. In my opinion, Cutts and others have consistently surrounded the imperfect definition with enough context to make the meaning clear. It was very evident to me, from listening in on many Marriott hallway and Google Dance discussions, that smart people can and do understand the definition in a reasonably intuitive and consistent way.

While some might call for pages of detailed definitions, or wish for some sort of impartial panel capable of pre-evaluating and approving individual tactics, these alternatives aren’t practical. Like it or not, we live in a world dominated by shades of gray. Good judgment, embodied in the ability to see and evaluate these shades of gray and assess risk/reward tradeoffs, is always going to be rewarded. Following scripts and recipes, not so much.

What is practical is expecting people to use common sense and, when things get tricky, to rely on the wisdom born of experience – even if that sometimes means relying on other people (i.e., paying consulting fees). This can be codified as something we might think of as the “smell test.” If it smells like a paid link, designed primarily to garner Page Rank, especially to someone with a trained nose, then it is a paid link.

I’m convinced that this test provides clear enough guidelines in most cases, for most people, most of the time. Much like appellate law, the exceptions and corner cases can continue to be debated publicly, as we continue to refine our collective wisdom. And like the judicial system, the process is imperfect and innocents occasionally do get hurt. But at the macro level, it seems to work pretty well.

Is Google Blaming You for Problems It Created?

One last point I wish to make here. Lots of folks anguish over the fact that Google cares at all about paid vs. non-paid links, and argue that the algorithm is somehow flawed. Some even carry this argument to an emotional extreme, concluding that Google created the problem, so they should either fix it, or live with it.

Some SEMs have said that Google would be well served to somehow “fix” the algorithm to eliminate this problem. I have little doubt that Google would like to see this problem go away, but I’ve seen no evidence that we’re about to see such a fundamental change in how search engines work anytime soon.

If we combine these observations: 1. Google (and friends) get to make the rules, and 2. the current set of rules will prevail for the foreseeable future, it’s reasonable to conclude that it would be valuable for the search industry as a group to devote more energy to understanding the nature of what constitutes valid vs. deceptive linking practices. We can advance the “common good” by educating those who aren’t familiar with the rules, and by challenging Google and other search engines to continue to make the rules clearer, and more fairly enforced.

While there’s lots of noise and emotion surrounding this discussion, we can establish that Google have the right to “make the rules,” and all the public hand wringing about this amounts to a waste of breath and time. Webmasters have the right to demand clarity in these rules. But perhaps our most valuable contribution would be to acknowledge the current state of things, then move on and participate in an ongoing dialog that helps us to flesh out more details and build and share the collective wisdom.

As for Google (and the other guys), I would ask for more clarity, consistency, and focus. This issue is obviously extremely important to webmasters everywhere, so take great care to clean up the loose ends, listen to where there’s confusion, and contribute to an improved understanding by all parties.

And Google, if you’re listening: I’d also advise against any “greater social good” arguments and analogies, and any other moralizing, as it’s frankly condescending, and it’s just plain asking for trouble. And one more thing, Google: get cracking on those new algorithms!

John Biundo is Chief Search Analyst of Stone Temple Consulting, an SEO consultancy with offices in Boston and California.

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