Matt Cutts & Google have sure stirred up a lot of mayhem by insisting that webmasters label paid links with "rel=nofollow." Their stated purpose is to create a "machine readable disclosure" that the links represent advertising.
Cutts has also added to the controversy by referring to past U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rulings on ad disclosures as justification for Google’s "nofollow plan." Apparently, there are other countries in the world that aren’t yet subject to U.S. laws and regulatory agencies.
The issue is clouded, as debates always are, by semantic quibbling and disputes over definitions. The most courageous (or stupid) thing to do in any divisive debate is take the middle ground, but I have nothing to lose either way.
In this article, I’ll try to bring some clarity to the issue, by framing the discussion of what a paid link is, explaining why Google’s not going to win this one on nofollow, and wrap it up with some observations on what we can expect from the FTC if they do weigh in.
What Defines A Paid Link Anyway?
From the FTC’s perspective, defining a "paid link" isn’t going to be as important as defining "advertising." When you look at it that way, all that really matters is that some financial consideration is given for the link. It "helps" if the link is sold as advertising, and in each of these cases it is:
Pay-Per-Click (Adsense, YPN, etc.): This is clearly advertising, not even debatable.
Pay-Per-Action (affiliate links): Clearly advertising, not even debatable.
Advertorial (Paid reviews, "buzz" marketing): Clearly advertising, not even debatable.
Paid Placement On Page (text link ads): Clearly advertising, not even debatable.
Paid Editorial Review (Yahoo Directory): Clearly advertising, not even debatable.
In case you doubt that the Yahoo directory is advertising, riddle me this: why else would you pay them? To perform a site review? The last time I checked, I could get a much better site review from Kim Krause for only $1 more, and when she’s done she actually lets me see a written review.
If the site review were the product, then Yahoo would give you something – like a copy of the review. No folks… all paid directories are advertising. Yahoo has been selling their directory as an advertising opportunity. End of discussion.
Friends trading links, SEOs buying each other drinks, linking to your employer’s site from your blog, Chamber of Commerce membership and the like are just not going to get the FTC excited. End of discussion.
Stop trying to muddy the waters, everyone – we don’t need specious arguments about the definition of a paid link. The inconsistency in Google’s position is clear enough if you just accept the definitions above.
Because, if you noticed, Google seems to be perfectly OK with high-quality directories like Yahoo from a "paid link" perspective, but clearly these links are advertising.
By relying on past FTC statements (on advertising disclosure) Google further weakens their case. If advertising must be disclosed as such (this is why the FTC would weigh in), then Google’s nofollow plan won’t work, because nofollow does not (and can not) explicitly mean "this is an ad."
What Disclosure Will Mean To The FTC
For TLAs, plain text that says "Sponsored Links" above the links would probably be sufficient*.
That shade of gray apparently meets Google’s standards for disclosure, because it’s what they use to disclose the paid ads on their SERPs. Of course, if the paid ads are in a "top box" @ Google, the disclosure is way over on the right side, well outside of the searcher’s foveal vision, but let’s not digress into how "evil" all of the SE’s are in trying to "barely disclose" the ads that they sell.
I have no doubt that the FTC would frown on using "Sponsored Links" in an image (without equivalent alt text) because the disclosure would need to work with accessibility devices like screen readers. That’s about as far as Google’s going to get with the FTC on "machine readable disclosure."
After all, the FTC isn’t going to give a rat’s tail about the effect of paid links on Google’s organic results. Or at least, Google had better hope so, because if the FTC decided that organic listings are a form of advertising, that would put all of the search engines onto a very slippery slope.
I think we all understand why it’s important for Google to identify and filter paid links. I think we all understand that they have every right to filter the links from a site that doesn’t disclose in some form. But the nofollow plan is just plain bad.
If Google wants another bite at this apple, they better try to get it soon, and come up with a better plan… because one thing is for certain: there is no stopping them; the FTC will soon be here.
And I, for one, welcome our new hyperlink regulation overlords. I’d like to remind them that as a trusted blogger, I can be helpful in rounding up others who may have strayed from the true path… whatever that actually is.
* Disclaimer: I am not an attorney, this is not legal advice, it’s not even SEO advice, and I need a vacation… We’ll talk more soon.