I, For One, Welcome Our New SEO Overlords

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.

48 thoughts on “I, For One, Welcome Our New SEO Overlords

  1. I’m hoping Google (well, actually it’s only Matt Cutts who has ever said this) will retract their statement about this whole nofollow thing being based on the FTC. It’s so unflattering to try and sell an obvious lie like that…

  2. Sam, my weaselly uncle used to say that it’s not a lie if you actually believe it… and they do have a point about disclosure. A great deal of web advertising is undisclosed and disguised as editorial content.

  3. I think we agree that Google can’t bring the ftc down on us for not disclosing links using nofollow, but there is no granularity and things are not as clear cut as you make out.

    I have never seen an independent review that states categorically that all forms of link buying result in poorer search results.

    You mention Kims report…
    What happens when instead of providing a private report, Kim offers the customer with a reduced price, in exchange for permission to publish the report on a blog.
    It is quite likely such a report would contain links to various pages on the clients site, but they are given in an editorial manner, and the content would I am sure be a valuable addition to the Google cache and her readers and would be extremely good linkbait.

    Would Kim have to stick nofollow on the links? She was paid

    I have seen SEOs use nofollow on links to their customers in blog posts, but they still maintain a client portfolio on site with live links.

    It is impossible to draw a line in the sand and say one person’s review is professional, and another is just webspam based upon it being paid for. The only realistic way is to work by relevance.

    Whether Google have the right or not is also slightly questionable. There seems to be a lot of favouritism for their larger commercial partners.

    If you are a big company you are allowed to spend millions buying whole websites to stick links on to your commercial sites, but for some reason buying single pages, or just parts of pages is looked on as having a negative impact.
    Even worse, those links are quite often less relevant.

    I doubt we are going to see Ebay suffer a penalty in link acquisition velocity when they finally link Stumbleupon to another site. 3,300,000 blogs on subdomains with no other external links is a lot of juice with so many people linking to their profiles.

    Large charitable donations garner links, but if you make a smaller donation to someone, and they decide to list the people who have donated money quite freely in the sidebar of their blog, those links can be discounted, because they would be detected as text links ads, no matter how relevant the links are, or how much traffic they send.

    To make matters worse, Google still haven’t cleared up disclosure concerns for their referral units, so they are hardly angels.

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  5. Andy,

    The kind of gray areas you mention are exactly the kind of thing that the FTC is going to have little interest in, and that Google continues to leave gray.

    They leave the gray areas in doubt, because they have to. Drawing any line would lead to all of us trying to figure out schemes that lie just on the other side of the line… and we’re damned good at that.

    But anyway… My point here is that you don’t need to construct elaborate “what if” scenarios to see how Google’s FTC argument fails.

    Which leaves them with no justification for nofollow plan except for the threat of “we reserve the right to remove your ability to pass link juice,” and the implicit (but unstated) threat that buying links can do you some sort of unspecified harm.

    I hope you aren’t saying that Google doesn’t have a clear legal right to determine their own search results, and decide by whatever means which links they wish to trust.

    Whether what they do in any particular case is “right or wrong” is a whole other question… and it’s a good one.

    “Hardly angels” is right…. but I don’t buy the implication that eBay gets some special SEO favors because they’re (or were) buying some excess inventory from Adwords. If the Paypal/Checkout dispute heats up again, will eBay be penalized in organic search? Come on.

    When you talk about “donations” are we talking about charitable donations to qualified tax-exempt non-profits, or paying $20 to an individual who ask for “donations” on their blog and just happens to give you a link in exchange?

    I’m not saying that it’s “right” (morally) to favor one over the other, but let’s not pretend that they are the same thing… or that we have any say in it.

  6. I think if PayPerPost or Mediawhiz was owned by either Microsoft or Yahoo the legal question would get a lot more interesting, and I have suggested in the past that would be highly disruptive.

    Small businesses buy links and reviews, corporations buy websites or leverage existing equity.

    Google is in a monopoly position, and its policies seem to favour large corporations.

    How many people who received a free laptop from Microsoft have since used nofollow on all their Microsoft links?
    How much money did Edelman charge to manage that PR campaign (which many say failed)

    When the money gets moved down the food chain such that it becomes viable for smaller players, it seems barriers and penalties come up.

    If Microsoft only had 5% of the operating system share, do you really think people would have been concerned about bundled applications whether they created them, or someone else?

    I do think Google have the right to do anything they want to improve the quality of their search results, but at the same time it should be universal.

    Fundamentally in my own mind there is no difference between buying a link, and buying a large website property, and that a paid review is in many ways whiter than either of them.

  7. Andy, I hope you don’t mind if I “disclose” that you sell posts on your blog via PayPerPost – with disclosure of course.

    I’d like to buy a review of SEO Fast Start. I noticed, from the PayPerPost order form, that I can order a positive, neutral, or negative review. How do I order an honest review?

    What does the disclosure look like on a negative review? “I was paid to trash this product.” Do you have to disclose who paid for that?

  8. No problem at all disclosing that, I am very open about it, and my only link in Wikipedia was actually added as a counter to all the negative opinions written about the service on Techcrunch.

    The again I have also been linked to by most of the detractors of PayPerPost at one time or another, including Techcrunch, Jason Calacanis and Mahalo.

    I actually have to decline the paid review on principle, I have already recommended it very strongly on my blog, and in Sherman Hu’s Facebook group, along with Michael Campbells Revenge of the Mininet and Leslie Rhode’s bonus on Dynamic Linking.

    It is the kind of free resource I love to refer to, because it saves me writing about the basic concepts of moving links around, and I would much prefer to refer to something useful .

    The PPP Direct order form isn’t the best thing in the world, but it does offer a form of escrow, and they have a marketplace.

    I have been pushing them to allow me to modify the form, or get rid of that annoying box, because I end up having to negotiate with any review I contemplate anyway.
    For every review I do write I insist on total neutrality to express my own views, and only editorial linking, and get that confirmed in the communication system, which isn’t perfect but it is at least an attempt.

    That being said, when I do link through to a client, I am “SEO Aware” – what is the point of linking to someone and giving them sucky anchor text for the page you link to, so quite often If someone orders a review, they might well get a link to a page they highlighted, with the anchor text they were looking for, or something similar (or better)

    As an example (obviously more for your readers), I linked through to you with “SEO ebook”, next time will probably be “free seo ebook” etc.

    At the end of the day, I am not going to write reviews that don’t leverage expertise in some way and require a lot of time in preparation – just like the “Kim” example.

    The reason I write the reviews isn’t for the money, but to highlight the “grey area” that exists.
    My future startup plans are heavily related, though probably would be regarded as whiter hat than paid reviews in most respects

  9. Andy, I assumed you didn’t need the $130 to write a post any more than I do… I was just curious about how it works.

    But it points out the absurdity of the whole thing quite nicely.

    If something just plain sucks, are you even going to take the job? No, but they have other places to buy links, and your reviews (yes, I’ve read a few) are lumped right in with the Daily Stanforder’s “cuban cigar” links.

  10. Google does not own the web channel. The domain name and IP system is the web channel. Google or any search engine claiming to be the Internet channel is like “paper boy claiming to be the publisher”.

    All google algorithms has failed they are doing hand ranking of the websites especially in competitive categories that is what Matt Cutts and his team is doing in the guise of spam fighting, a smaller player can easily beat them at hand ranking.

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  13. I for one will be interested to see how search engines will be forced to make changes to adapt to FTC rules, should those rules come into play.

    I’m sure there is a cut and dry answer that I just can’t think of (it’s still morning here), but is it a form of advertising to exchange links? For example, someone called me last week and asked if I would be willing to display a link to his website, and how much I would want in exchange. I decided instead to do some research into his site, and found that it would be an excellent place for my website link to appear. It’s still a form of us “paying” each other, though.

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  15. Enjoyable read, Dan, and only too true. Very glad, too, that Google’s finally meeting with some serious and sophisticated resistance they can’t simply shrug off by sticking their timeworn tinfoil badge on them.

  16. Something doesn’t seem right here. Why would Google put so much effort into supporting the FTC on this, and then turn around and fight the dickens out of the US Gov’t's threat to regulate the Internet? (ie. Net Neutrality)

    On the debate, when does link intent kick in? For communities that charge a fee to participate, there are links in their comments and discussion posts. Are they “paid” links just because someone paid to be in the house and happened to discuss something that is best illustrated by an example, accessed from a link?

    Who benefits from this whacked out logic of “no follow for paid links”? The end users aren’t looking at source code, so you know it’s not them.

    Let Google “nofollow” their own paid sponsored links and see how many advertisers they get.

    Btw, thanks for the (free) link, heh. My fee’s are much higher now :)

  17. Sorry, Kim – I thought you still had the “I can wait until Kim has time for a quick review” $300 option… you should raise your prices though.

    Long before they floated this nofollow thing, I asked “what is the algorithm for determining intent?”

    What happens if I put a block of links pointing to my (editorially selected) favorite unlicensed pharmacy, cuban cigar dealer, and armenian goji juice provider? Do they assume those links are paid for? What if I human-disclose that they aren’t – does Google believe me? What’s the opposite of nofollow?

  18. Are people getting paranoid or becoming “helicopter SEO’s?” (Hovering around too closely.)

    Someone complained to Cre8asiteforums about our method of scrambling outbound links. The person seemed to assume this also meant the forum posts weren’t crawled and accused us of lying that they are.

    There are reasons to not want engines to follow outbound links. Search engines created this fiasco when they came up with links as votes. To help remedy this mess, they came up with various ways to stop bots from following certain links.

    Now this assist has only made matters worse. It’s a bandaid for a bigger problem.

    Dan asks, “Will Google believe me”? Many SEO’s don’t sleep because of this fear of freaking out Google. This is so wrong. Why have the SEO/SEM given search engines this much power and when are they going to say “enough”!

    If you offer a paid links model, you offer a paid links model. If it feeds a child or pays for someone’s health insurance, just do it and who in the hell should be worried about the Google Gods?

    I like Google and love Matt Cutts, but the divide between marketers and sacred search engine ground is widening. Both need each other and Google acting deranged isn’t helping matters.

  19. Kim you are not the only community coming under fire over links currently

    http://sphinn.com/story/5310

    The interesting thing with Blogcatalog is they do have some paid links on their category pages, but not on individual listings.

    I now need to go see if I can find a search result that includes blogcatalog with the link command which is a major challenge with Google’s returns.

  20. Some quick hits…

    • I don’t like link rental as an SEO strategy.
    • I don’t sell text links.
    • I don’t buy them either.
    • I sure as heck ain’t gonna "rent" text links.
    • I buy relevant contextual advertising.
    • I buy ads for the traffic and presence.
    • I don’t cancel ads if they use nofollow.
    • I don’t cancel ads if they fail to use nofollow.
    • I do expect the ads to be labeled (disclosed).
    • I have canceled ads over a lack of disclosure.
    • I believe that marketing and advertising work.

    If you turn a profit with marketing and advertising, the links just happen. Once you figure that out, it makes renting anchor text kind of pointless.

  21. Pingback: The Silver Spike » Blog Archive » Google, Paid Links, The FTC and Deceptive Advertising

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  23. I’m not going to name and shame, but I saw a beautiful example today of the damage that link farms can do for SERPs.

    One of my customers was approached by a firm who offered cash for a paid link from his website to their eCommerce site and he asked me to check them out. My first impressions were just that the onsite SEO was very weak and had low-relevancy backlinks. On looking a bit further: 3 DMOZ listings, a link in from a partner site with PR7 and (ehem), 1.6 million inlinks. I dread to think what they paid to inflict this disaster on themselves. I couldn’t find them in the first 100 on any of their major search terms.

    Just out of interest, would they just have had their relevancy and importance downgraded if rel=nofollow had been used? I’m not sure that I can imagine it making much difference either way, nor can I imagine link farm sellers and other snake oil vendors and mountebanks going to the huge logistical trouble of adding rel=nofollow to all their links on all their legacy sites.

  24. There is one thing that muddies the water here, and that is the fact that a great number of the listings in Yahoo were free.

    You have never, ever, been able to pay for a listing in Yahoo. You pay to jump the queue in getting considered, rather than waiting for one of the very few, very over-worked editors to happen to stumble on to your site while building the category up by themselves.

    You may not get a written report of the editors review, but you know as well as I do that even if you pay, you do not have any guaranteed right to a listing, and will not recieve a refund if they do not consider your site to reach the right quality for inclusion.

    Yahoo is not paid advertising. It is far dirtier than that. It is free advertising where you have to bribe the guy that decides who gets the free listings. :o )

  25. When the legendary Ammon Johns pops by to contribute, one of two things has happened to our little community. It means we have either:

    1) Arrived
    or
    2) “Jumped the shark”

    Nice to see you Ammon, and you’re right on.

  26. Ammon wrote:

    “you know as well as I do that even if you pay, you do not have any guaranteed right to a listing…”

    EXACTLY!

    I deplored telling clients this, and trying to make them realize their $299 couldn’t be refunded if the site failed to be included. It’s why I stopped using Yahoo!, for search, for marketing, for everything.

    They showed their true colors long before Google started to.

  27. Interesting that on the Google Webmaster pages they recommend you check your site with http://lynx.browser.org/, in fact they mention the site on a number of occassions.

    Have you visited this site, aren’t those paid links at the top of the pages?

    How do we know if they are paid or not?

  28. Let’s look at what isn’t being mentioned by the “plex”, network links. These links are free advertising for any site in the network. Go to http://www.pcworld.com/, see the network links in the footer.

    Corporate networks have been using this form of free advertising for along time. Is anyone going to tell me the PR8 links on those sites don’t count.

    The playing field needs to be leveled before I see any need to use the “rel=nofollow” attribute.

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  30. Dan, we can link to any site when ever we want to for any reason.

    The “nofollow plan” isn’t about informing the public that a link is being paid for. The “… plan” is Google admitting they still rely heavily on links and pr to rank a page. “nofollow” is source code for a bot, not the public.

    Adsense recommends that we blend ads into the page.

    “We wanted to make clear . . . if you’re being paid, you should disclose that.” Disclose to the public, not a bot.

  31. OK… that makes more sense.

    If you own all the sites in your network (PCWorld) then it shouldn’t make any difference to the search engines whether they are on separate domains, subdomains, or directories on one domain. That’s a design & usbility decision. Search engines shouldn’t treat those network links as paid links, because they’re not, they’re internal links.

  32. …. staying with who has the right to know what is advertising

    No SE has the right to know how I get visitors or, what content I allow the visitors to view (this includes inbound and outbound links). If what I’m doing violates an FTC ruling. That is between me and the FTC.

    How an SE treats links is up to them. Search results are a product. If the product is flawed that is an internal problem of the SE.

    Networks are built for the end user not SEs. PCWORLD can buy, start or affiliate it’s self with a different subject matter(***). Dan would your position on network links change if one of those footer links was too ***.com?

  33. We all have a right, at least in the US, to know what is advertising. We can, in fact, sue publishers who don’t disclose, because undisclosed advertising is deceptive advertising.

    Google’s spider, OTOH, is going to have to figure out how to read the disclosures like the rest of us do.

    If they own all the sites, then IMO those are internal links. Which search engines can and do interpret as they see fit.

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  35. Dear Google,

    I understand that you want me to tell you that a link is paid for and shouldn’t pass any value by adding the nofollow tag to it. I would have thought a great big search engine like you would be better at determining how much value a link should pass but that’s just me. Just the same, I’d be pleased to help you out determining value.

    Since you appear to need my help in determining which links links should pass no value, you must need my help in determining how much value the other links should pass right? Would you like me to use rel=”pass50%” or would you prefer rel=”mongoimportant”?

    I could also help you determining where to rank my pages and their relevance if you like. Perhaps some new meta tags…

    meta name=”ranking” content=”This page should rank #1. Please see meta relevance tag to figure out for what.”

    meta name=”relevance” content=”This page is relevant for the follong phrases… phrase1,phrase2,etc. Please see meta ranking tag to figure out where to rank this page for these phrases.”

    Eagerly awaiting your reply.

    Dave

  36. LOL Dan. I have my moments. :)

    From Matt Cutts blog…

    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.

    Sorry, not my job. If your search engine is affected by “something”, and you don’t want it to be, fix it. If it’s not providing the kind of results you want it to, fix that too.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of, and wholeheartedly support, disclosure. Disclosure for whom pages are ultimately intended.

    A very good friend once told me…

    Make something idiot proof and the world builds a better idiot”

    Is it going to become “neccessary” to add nofollow to “View Cart” or “Home” links because the poor search engine can’t deliver “quality” results to the searcher if it ever becomes a popular query?

    Dave

  37. About the “visual thing” I doubt a little about it. Maybe the offer was not strong because almost always text outperforms graphics when talking about conversions.

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