This week the Official Google Webmaster Central Blog announced an addition to Google’s spam reporting form for people to report sites that appear to be buying paid links in order to influence search engine rankings. This addition ties in with Matt Cutt’s none-too-subtle warning at a recent SMX Advanced interview with Danny Sullivan. Matt essentially reinforced to the audience that buying links is against Google’s guidelines and that those who are buying links may feel the heat soon as Google tries to patch this chink in its armor (see the video below).

Does this Mean Buying Links Has Become Too Dangerous?
I expect Google will follow through on its threats to take a more forceful approach against buying links but at the same time I am betting that buying links won’t be gone anytime soon. After all, buying links is not JUST used by companies to garner link popularity. The fact is that some buy paid links for the clickthrough traffic and Google must be careful not to penalize anyone for that. Google’s point of view on legitimate link buying is that such links should have a nofollow attribute on them or the landing page should be blocked from robots.

What Might Google Do?
I am no mind reader but I see two approaches that Google can take here:

  1. Shock the Community – The Strong Arm Approach: Google could tweak its algorithm to penalize any website with purchased links that clearly don’t conform to guidelines (i.e. no ‘nofollow’ tag). In this scenario Google would have to find some way to identify paid links as accurately as possible before checking them for guideline conformity. One manner would be to look for links found alone within tables or cells that specify “Sponsored Links” (or other phrases with the same connotation). The resulting Internet-wide impact would shake up the community enough that paid links would get some seriously negative press and many who profit from this field would feel the hit. The end result of this action would be an immense Floridian backlash on Google – but the Google Guidelines for paid links would be more likely to get some respect in the short term.
  2. Be SMART and Just Negate Links: If Google wanted to soft-slap paid link abusers they would simply negate the benefit of the links. For example, they could start by identifying the most obvious paid links and literally ignore their weight. The resulting drop in rankings for sites that have depended entirely on paid links would be practically equivalent to removing them from the index; their rankings would plummet.

All in all I can only hope that Google chooses #2 but knowing the ego that is Google they will combine the two approaches and make an example out of a few companies. Sad yes, but it rings true to me. I would certainly not want to be investing in any link brokerage company startups any time soon.

How to Minimize Paid Link Risk
If you have to buy links then be sure that your links are not all using the exact same link and descriptive text. In fact, I highly recommend working with your paid link vendor to implement a rotation script that switches the content of your paid link(s) on every page reload. In addition it would be best if the link vendor did not blatantly identify your link as paid by placing it in a “Sponsored” table or cell within the layout.

If you want to be completely safe then I recommend requesting a nofollow tag be added to your backlinks ASAP. After all, following Google’s guidelines is always the safest approach. On the bright side, if paid links become devalued then many people will be pushed toward making better content that naturally generates backlinks which is never a bad thing.

by Ross Dunn, CEO, StepForth SEO Services
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