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A blog about digital & online

Don’t buy links if you value your Google ranking

Google rules the internet. It covers itself in happy mottos like “Don’t be evil” but really its a dictator with an iron grip on our online reality (unlike many other dictator-like rulers suddenly coming to grief – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Saudia Arabia and Bahrain – its in no danger of being usurped). You cross the mighty G at your peril, as a number of US brand powerhouses have recently discovered.

Dictator or not, Google is very keen on integrity. It likes to think that it is able to tell which sites are good and which are bad and which use good SEO practices and which veer into the dodgy. For the most part it does get it right. That’s one of the reasons why almost everyone uses it and why Google has become a verb.

VIL – Very Important Links

Links play an important role in SEO. The quest for good quality links to your website is a continuous one because inbound links from reputable sites are a big plus when Google analyses your site for quality and relevance. Google would like you to get those links naturally by way of outstanding content and value. But that takes time and effort and isn’t always feasible when you’re trying to make a living.

So people took to buying and selling links. It was a handy way to boost rankings and make a little money on the side. Google saw this as cheating and cracked down on the process.

It declared that as some nefarious beings bought and sold links without due consideration to the link quality or source, or the long-term impact this might have, it would consider the practice a violation of its Webmaster Guidelines. It added, however, that links bought for advertising purposes were ok, and part of the “normal economy of the web”. But there was a proviso:

Links purchased for advertising should be designated as such. This can be done in several ways, such as:

  • Adding a rel=”nofollow” attribute to the <a> tag.
  • Redirecting the links to an intermediate page that is blocked from search engines with a robots.txt file.

Sinners beware

About two weeks ago three companies that should have known better fell foul of these regulations with the result that their rankings dropped dramatically.

It started with J.C. Penny, which as you may or may not know is a huge US department store franchise. It sells everything from clothes to bedding and jewellery and, apparently, had a nasty habit of buying links from a link network.

Then Forbes, the major magazine that publishes important news such as the richest celebs, the most powerful business professionals and assorted business news, was penalised for a similar offence, for the second time.

Finally, Overstock.com, an online retailer which has a range that rivals Amazon, took a knock for its link buying and algorithm manipulation.

Forbes was somewhat proactive in its attempt to rectify the situation. It appealed to the web at large to help them find the pesky links as its experts were at a loss as to where they could be.

TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington found the problem and Forbes duly removed the offending pages (which were apparently old pages that had somehow found their way back onto the site after it was redesigned.

Sinner unrepentant

SE Roundtable’s Barry Schwartz was among the first people to break the Forbes story but in doing so he opened a little can of worms.

You see, SE Roundtable has paid links on its site and some people were quite happy to point out the duplicity in writing an article on the evils of paying links when one is guilty of the same crime. This upset Schwartz greatly, so much so that he felt compelled to write a rebuttal.

A large part of his dismay had to do with the fact the people obviously thought he was stupid; which he’s not. Schwartz is fully aware of the links, just as he is fully aware of the penalties they entail; he’s just not going to remove them.

This is why: he doesn’t like being dictated to.

Ok, so there’s a little more to it than that.

The links in question are from sponsors and have been there since he built the site, which was long before Google declared paid links a violation. And while Schwartz fully agrees with Google’s view on paid links, he also thinks that he has the right to build his site as he sees fit. His argument is that they are clearly labelled as paid links, so he’s not trying to deceive anyone. He knows his site suffers from Google’s penalty but he also knows that his site is justifiably reputable.

So, what it boils down to is that he doesn’t like being dictated to.

Lessons learnt

Google is king. There’s no getting around it. It doesn’t matter if you’re big or small if you defy their omnipotent Webmaster Guidelines they will take you down. If you have an enormous brand behind your site, like Forbes, you’ll survive the knock and make a come back. If you’ve got an excellent reputation like Barry Schwartz you’ll also be able to shrug it off. But if you’re still making your way online or you’re a small business owner fighting above your weight chances are that when Google puts you down you’ll stay there.

The best thing you can do is keep your SEO efforts as clean as possible. That way when the big G comes looking you have nothing to hide.

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