Over the past six months, much has been made over the good and bad of link buying. Angry blog posts, posturing from Google, and near fights at search conferences made this one of the biggest issues in 2007. It's an epic struggle of good versus evil in which the credibility of the internet hangs in the balance -- or at least that's how it seems.
After months of talking, Google fired the first shot in the war on link buying: an algorithm update. The update dinged the PageRank of some top publishers and sellers involved in selling links.
The issue is extremely important because of how significantly link development can impact your Google traffic. Trust me. I have several clients in the healthcare space who haven't implemented a thing but have seen success through link development alone.
The link buying debate can be confusing for the uninitiated. If you're not in the SEO community, you may not be sure what the issue is or what's at stake. Of course, it doesn't help that SEOs discuss these matters in our typical, technical and somewhat geeky manner (nofollow tags, link juice, etc.). The language makes SEO seem secretive, confounding and angering marketers when their sites lose traffic or rankings.
From what I've seen, SEO matters such as link development are harder for marketers to explain to clients than on-site fixes, and a lack of understanding may be the reason they lose internal interest. In an effort to address this audience, I'm focusing my writing topics at those marketing managers tasked with "making SEO happen" and explaining it to C-level executives.
Let's start with a quick 101 on the importance of links.
Out of site: a link building primer
In order for a site to rank well for a topic or specific keyword, it needs to have quality links pointing to it from other quality sites, preferably using the targeted keyword in the link. The concept is very much at the center of how Google ranks pages and finds grounding in the educational principle of authoritative references.
If an author publishes a book on quantum physics and cites several other physics books, people in the field will likely believe the cited books are experts on the subject matter and worth reading. This concept was transferred to the web and evolved further as social media exploded.
I'm a TV junkie. So when asked about the latest celebrity dalliance, my opinion may count for more than someone else's who can't tell the difference between Mary-Kate and Ashley. This idea holds sway in the world of link building as well. If I told you that The Superficial is a great site for celebrity gossip you would trust that site because it came from me.
For a time, all was good in the kingdom of search as the world of link karma worked in a very "wiki" way. Sites that had content about Caribbean vacations would link to Starwood's Caribbean hotels because it was in the best interest of their users. Links were swapped, given away and even paid for because there was no harm. For the most part, users got links to good partners and sites received a boost in Google.
It stands to reason that as the Google team got wise to such Googlebombing, it recognized how easily the company could be manipulated through the use of links. People could buy enough links to gain high rankings as long as their site was somewhat on topic. The ripple effect on Google would be significant because the quality of its results would go down; users would visit less, and there would be less clicks on those paid listings.
With that as the backdrop, here's a look at both sides of the case.
The case for Google
Before I split my personality here, I'd like to state my opinion for the record. I don't see this as a pure black or white issue. Link buying is neither entirely good nor evil. Like all things in life, it's about moderation. If you've tried SEO but hit some internal road blocks, buying credible links may work. As long as it's relevant and not excessive, you probably aren't dabbling too deeply in the dark side. If you just go out buying tons of links all willy-nilly across off-topic sites, then you probably do deserve to get a little less Google love.
Google vs. the people
Country clubs, fraternities and condo boards all have requirements that allows them to decide who is in and who is out. Think of Google as Bushwood Country Club. It's Google's index and isn't it Google's right to determine who gets in based on its criteria? It's not like there aren't other indexes out there. Google is simply saying I may not let you in or may limit your access if you don't comply.
Additionally, Google has gone out of its way to explain bad practices -- probably more than necessary. The company could have kept its positioning even more enigmatic than it currently is, leaving webmasters to fend for themselves. Instead, it put up a big neon sign stating "Link Buying is Bad" and warned us to prepare.
But did we listen? Nope. Just like some of us overused email, pop-ups and targeting software, some did the same with link buying. Sure, we did it in the spirit of delivering the internet that users want: personalized and targeted. But in the end, I got spammed with ads for a lot of diseases I don't have, and my AllAdvantage checks never cleared.
I recently met with an established company whose principals told me they can get people to write about how great my client's products were, which would help establish quality links. At one point they said that while a blogger may not completely believe in the product, they would likely post something like, "The guys from COMPANY asked me to blog about this product using this KEYWORD." Seriously, does this seem right to you?
David Ogilvy has a great quote that we should keep in mind when we think of link buying: "You wouldn't tell lies to your own wife. Don't tell them to mine." If people buy a product based on a top listing in Google, but we achieved that listing through a bunch of fake paid endorsement links, aren't we lying?
There are loads of SEOs that use link buying properly. The problem is that for every good one there are 100 offshore bad guys. Similar to cloaking, why should Google have to decipher who is buying links properly and who isn't?
That's why Google should be allowed to kick out link buyers. Now let's shift gears and hear the people's side.
The people vs. Google
The first (and likely the easiest) way to end this debate would be to simply Google "link buying," so I can give Google money by clicking on a sponsored link to a vendor whom if I work with will get me blacklisted from Google… seems odd, right?
Have you ever listened to those commercials in which people earn in a month what they used to earn in a year, all within the comfort of their own home simply by placing tiny classified ads? You inevitably think, "If it works, why isn't everyone doing that?"
Well, that's the first problem with links: they work. Sites have seen strong lifts for competitive words through the use of link development. Since we have proof, our general marketing principles kick in: If it works, then use it. Once link development started working, it became an art form. Since it was just as fast as it was effective, it became hard to stop.
It's always easiest to blame the big guy isn't it? There are many who believe that Google started the whole mess, and now it wants us to fix it. Many people built sites as best they could and supplemented SEO deficiencies with link development. Now Google says that you have to change your CMS, your URLs and your servers in order to maintain your early success. And don't think about switching from a .net to a .com because then you'll really get lost: Just ask Topix.
You can't build the Shaft of Indexes with one set of rules and then change it. This argument gets a little more "grassy knoll" if you believe that the policy change is in Google's financial interest. After all, if you can't get good organic rankings you can always buy more paid listings to make up for lost traffic.
It's not link buying; it's product placement
Allow me to play devil's advocate here. So what if I pay a blogging mom with a high-ranking site to review my detergent, and she says it's the best? It's not disingenuous -- it's called product placement!
Imagine if NBC told the producers of "Heroes" that if Claire used an iPod instead of a Zune the network would move the show to 2 a.m. Sunday? That sounds simplistic, but it is in many ways what Google is telling you: If you pay for a product endorsement you may be moved to page 5.
Soliciting links is product placement, and some networks (bloggers) have higher standards than others. What is the difference between me being paid to blog about loving Slash's new book and a celebrity shown reading it on a television show? Public relations and marketing agencies are in business to make sure that a favorable image is associated with their products.
If extended into traditional marketing, let's look at a few people that Google would say violates the policy…
- Paris Hilton gets paid to show up at specific parties and drink a specific type of drink.
- Rachel Ray probably doesn't eat at Dunkin Donuts.
- Tiger Woods doesn't live in the Buick Clubhouse. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure he has never driven one.
- Derek Jeter doesn't wear his cologne or drive an Edge.
- And despite having very low market share, no large companies use Powerbooks like the folks on "24," "CSI" and "Gossip Girl" -- okay, maybe "Gossip Girl."
- The contestants on "Survivor" could care less about the brand of toilet paper they compete for, but we get to see a nice 10-second freeze frame of Charmin.
The debate will continue, and the sad reality is that if Google presses the matter sites will have to fall inline based on their market share. Where does this leave you as a marketer?
If you're working with an agency or SEO consultant you need to pay more attention to their linking strategy to make sure it is on the up and up. You also need to educate the higher ups on the value of links so that they understand it better. Lastly, you may want to consider targeting specific "ego" words as part of your linking strategy. This can help you rank for words important to the CEO while focusing more of your time worrying about traffic.