Living in the Google Biosphere: The dreaded paid link

A biosphere is a closed ecosystem, within which everything is interdependent. The Earth is probably the best example of a biosphere. An action in one part of the biosphere often creates completely unintended reactions.

The growth and development of the Internet makes a lot of sense when it is thought of as a biosphere. Sure it’s an atypical example of one, but it is rich in organic bio-material: raw, unfiltered humanity.

As its market share in search increases, Google is obtaining a more and more significant role in the biosphere. Their role has become so significant, it is almost as if they own it. More and more, they actually do.

Google has already transformed the Internet in astounding ways. Perhaps most significantly, they have enabled the mass commercialization of content by empowering small webmasters with the ability to buy and sell advertising in small chunks.

The result has been unbounded capitalism and the creation of a vibrant marketplace. Much of the rich content and resources would not exist on the Internet today if the masses were not able to participate monetarily.

Google has a problem with paid links

Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s web spam team has casually dropped a velvet threat:

As long as we’re talking about links, this seems like a pretty good opportunity to talk about a simple litmus test for paid links and how to tell if a paid link violates search engines’ quality guidelines. If you want to sell a link, you should at least provide machine-readable disclosure for paid links by making your link in a way that doesn’t affect search engines…. I’ve said as much many times before, but I wanted to give a heads-up because Google is going to be looking at paid links more closely in the future.

When Matt Cutts says that Google is going to be “looking at something closely” it isn’t idle chatter. Interestingly, as Graywolf astutely noted, a policy against paid links isn’t even in the Google Webmaster Guidelines. But it probably will be soon as Matt Cutts also wants you to report websites to Google that are selling links without annotating them as paid.

Why Google wants to turn us into link police

The magic of the Google algorithm that has laid so many golden eggs for them is that Google was the first search engine to find a way to incorporate significant social data. They interpret links as trustworthy. The theory goes that when someone links to something they are implicitly telling their visitors “I think this resource is relevant to you.”

Competing search engines, such as AltaVista relied mostly on “on-page” factors, such as the Meta Keyword tag. As these were easily manipulated, Google’s novel approach of using a crude social network disarmed the tactics of search engine spammers and leapfrogged them over the competition.

The problems with a reliance on links really began to show when Google launched their AdSense program. For the first time, anybody could create a page, get it ranked in the search engines and earn significant money from advertising to the traffic stream.

SEO went mainstream and tactics such as spamming blogs with comments to get backlinks took hold and began to impact Google’s search results.

It reminds me of an incident at Biosphere 2, an artificial ecosystem in Arizona where microbe-rich soil had been introduced to the biosphere to help grow plants but had the unintended consequence of the microbes consuming too much oxygen and near suffocating the inhabitants. Actions in the biosphere have reactions.

To prevent this, Google encouraged blog software manufactures and webmasters to encode comment links using “rel=nofollow” to indicate that these links are not from sources that the webmaster can vouch for:

“We encourage you to use the rel=”nofollow” attribute anywhere that users can add links by themselves, including within comments, trackbacks, and referrer lists.”

First they went after the spammers, now they’ve come for the advertisers…

Another threat has emerged to Google’s reliance on the trustworthiness of links – the dreaded paid link.

An important point to note is that paid links are often fundamentally different from links in comments, trackbacks and refer lists. In many cases, paid links are reviewed by the webmaster prior to inclusion. In other words, these are still trusted links in spite of a paid component.

Should Google in fact make it policy to imperil the rankings of websites that contain paid links, they risk misjudging the trustworthiness of the links and casting a lot of relevant content down into the bottom of the SERPs.

Is using links as a social metric flawed from the start?

There is no reliable way for search engines to reliably determine the extent to which a link is trustworthy. Google’s answer is to ask that webmasters encode them with rel=”nofollow”.

There are many problems with this but one significant one is that rel=”nofollow” has already been stigmatized to mean that the webmaster cannot stake his reputation on that link. This puts the webmaster in a lose/lose situation. He is asked to either brand links to trusted advertisers as untrusted or to risk losing significant traffic to his website.

Backroom link buying in Google’s Age of Prohibition

All this is really going to do is to drive link buying into virtual backroom speakeasies, as webmasters broker text links “off the grid” and away from Google’s prying spiders.

Does Google really want to play Big Brother here?

UPDATE: If you want to read more about this, check out the really great breakdown that Graywolf has put together here. Also, Scoble has a theory that this is targeted to take the wind out of PayPerPost. Colud be. Plus, Tony Hung essentially concurs and wonders if this is really Google’s Achilles Heel. Of course it is, and it will be until they can better integrate more telling social metrics into the algorithms and stick link analysis back a few rows where it belongs.


  1. smoMashup wrote:

    great post! I think slowly but surely the people involved in this realm of work are realizing the power that Google not only has, but it’s potential to control so much more. I think this is a beautiful precursor to your also relevant post on the DoubleClick buyout.

  2. mblair wrote:

    @smoMashup – thanks for the kind words! I think Google is taking a super stealthy approach to all of this for a couple reasons. First, it would really be a huge debacle if they do it wrong and probably the first thing that could really hurt them significantly as a company.

    Second, people are getting more and more nervous about Google’s influence on their Internet lives. If Google can move steadily in a series of baby steps, they have a better chance of getting where they are going without drawing as much attention.

  3. mlankton wrote:

    I’m with Google on this one. They made the better search engine. They made the yardstick for sites to measure themselves with. They have an interest in serps and pagerank meaning something, and paid links undermine that.
    To give you an idea of how slimy some advertisers are, I emailed a text link ad broker I was using to ask about potentially drawing Google’s ire for using their product. I asked them to either alleviate or confirm my concerns. The one sentence email response I got from them? I will quote them:
    “Google is a business just like ### is a business. I personally don’t let any company tell me what I can and can’t do.”
    Well, he basically just told me that he’s the devil, and that I should take his money regardless of how it may affect my site’s standing with Google.

    No thanks, Google is the Source, and they’re right.

  4. Barry J wrote:

    I completely agree with mlankton above. You cannot argue Google’s success. I am not fond of all the policies they implement, but this one I feel is right on. I think by and far, it allows the small business owner to compete with much larger companies that have HUGE marketing budgets. The way Google is doing it allows the content to speak for itself and does not push out those of us who cannot keep paying huge sums of cash to get ahead.

  5. Hunter Jackson wrote:

    Google is their own empire. They have the right to do whatever they want as long as it is in the bounds of the law.

    I dont personally pay for links.

  6. Linkvana wrote:

    Depends on the link I guess. Yahoo Directory… PAID LINK! Site-wide links are bogus and can cause more damage than good. Nothing new I guess, but one of my site’s was majorly penalized recently for participating in a text-link-ads site-wide program.

  7. HouseAbruzzo wrote:

    I have trust in the fact that everything changes. The Web is no exception. In time, this territory will find ways to reach a better balance in organizing the human knowledge and activities on-line.