This post is going to be a bit controversial, but I think it needs to be written. I want to talk about Google's policy of going after sites that offer "paid" links, and why it's a slippery slope to have that policy (even if their actions were hardly a surprise).
First, The Issue At Hand
You are probably already aware that Google has gone on the warpath against paid links. Their Webmaster Help Center has an entry entitled "Why should I report paid links to Google?". It discusses the reasons why Google feels you should report people who are buying or selling links to or from their websites.
Google's algorithm is unable to tell the difference between a paid link and one given "freely" (what they consider freely, anyway -- more on that in a bit). Why is it incapable? Because there's no technical difference between a link that's been purchased with cash and a link that has been made for some other reason. The HTML code is the same. The only way you can tell the difference is if the site selling the link puts "Sponsored" or "Advertisement" or something to that effect on the page, marking the link as paid.
Since Google is incapable of telling the difference between a paid link and a "natural" one, and because so many webmasters are aware of the impact of their site ranking in Google because of links, up until now it's been a natural business decision to purchase links that will help a site rank better. A wise business owner might reason, "It costs me $1,000 a month in links to rank in Google for keywords that earn me $5,000 a month in profits. That's a sound investment." And so they've buy, and rank, and earn.
Google isn't happy with this. From their perspective, this de facto process of purchasing rankings undermines the integrity of their algorithm. They want the best results possible to display in the top search results, and from their perspective buying your way to the top isn't "fair" (unless you buy your way in via AdWords, of course).
Google "Slaps" the Link Sellers
In an effort to stop this practice, Google manually reduced the PageRank of a number of high-profile link sellers last year, resulting in quite the panic among link brokers. PageRank is the currency of link sellers (even though it's a myth that high PageRank means good rankings), and so they naturally freaked. A PR4 link doesn't command near the price as a PR7 or PR8 link does.
I find it rather naive of Google to be so shocked that this process has been going on. Honestly, for as long as Google has been number one people have bought and sold links. Textlinkbrokers.com, Backlinks.com and Text-link-ads.com have been around since 2003, and they're hardly the first of their kind (just some of the first to allow buying and selling links in such an organized fashion).
Google is big business, and as long as top rankings mean more dollars for business owners, they will continue to see the dollars it takes to rank in Google in the light of what return they will see for their investment. Google's current attempts to manually "slap" sites that sell links by reducing their PageRank will not stop this practice. All it will do is cause the practice to go a bit further underground.
Make no mistake: what Google did last year was manual. Human reviewers made the decision to demote specific link selling web sites. I know this because there are huge volumes of sites that are still selling links without any negative impact from Google. The sites that continue to sell links without grave consequences are the sites that were rather smarter about the manner in which they go about selling those links (no "Sponsor" or "Advertisement" banner giving them away as link sellers, and no blatant solicitations for buying links on their sites).
Link Buyers Aren't Slapped
Google is not able to penalize sites which buy links from these sources, not without opening a huge can of worms. The minute Google starts counting any sort of external link against the linked-to site, there will be a flood of site owners running out and putting up links to their competitors with large red "SPONSORED" flags all over the pages, in an effort to get their competition "slapped".
They will go out on a link buying frenzy with their huge budgets to make sure they stick it to the competition before the competition sticks it to them. So Google is targeting the sites selling the links, not the sites buying them.
What Really is a "Paid" Link?
Okay, enough history. Let's get into the heart of the matter. What constitutes a "paid" link? From Google's actions last year, it seems that they consider a transaction of dollars between the link buyer and seller to be a "paid" link. They claim in the Webmaster Help Center article about reporting links (cited above) that Google "works hard to ensure that it fully discounts links intended to manipulate search engine results."
If Google was really interested in discounting all links "intended to manipulate search engine results", they would completely devalue all links from articles that get syndicated from places like EzineArticles.com. Those links drive traffic, which is "okay" from Google's perspective, but they are there at least as much for SEO manipulation purposes (both from the article sites themselves and from the sites which choose to publish the articles). I've yet to see an article publisher who uses the NOFOLLOW tag in the links within their articles, and I have yet to see Google deindex or penalize an article because they're not using NOFOLLOW.
Here's where the concept of a "paid" link starts to get fuzzy. If you wrote the article that you're syndicating yourself, perhaps it can be argued that the link was not "paid" for (though it certainly had a cost in terms of time). But if you paid a writer to produce the article for you, and you turn around and syndicate that article to get more links to your site, have you not, in fact, paid for those links?
Google says to "syndicate carefully" because of duplicate content issues, but they do not say not to syndicate. By the way they discuss syndication throughout their help text and their blog, it's clear that they see content syndication as an acceptable form of self-promotion -- which they should.
And really, when a site syndicates your content, are they doing so out of the goodness of their hearts? No, they're not. They're doing so because it earns them money, usually from advertising revenue. So even if you are not paying the site owner for that link on the page, the advertisers are. So somebody has paid for that link to be there, even if it wasn't you.
Let's take this even further. Let's say that you have an article written and posted to your web site. The article was very expensive, because it was very good, real "link bait" material as it's called in the SEO world. Because it's so good it generates hundreds of links back to it, which results in great rankings in Google. Did you not, in fact, pay for those links when you paid the author?
It's true that you didn't know precisely how many links you were getting, and that you didn't pay the sites any cash to put up the links, but you bought those links just the same. You bought them with great content, which cost you money. Google recommends creating great content in their Webmaster Guidelines -- again, rightly so.
Those same Webmaster Guidlines cause even more trouble for Google's rage against the purchased link. One of the things Google suggests you do to get your site noticed and ranked is to "submit your site to relevant directories such as the Open Directory Project and Yahoo!, as well as to other industry-specific expert sites."
Now, it doesn't cost you anything to get listed in ODP, so that's safe, but Yahoo! offers a $299 "expedited review" option. Would that count as a "paid" link if you opted for that?
And then Google recommends submitting to "other industry-specific expert sites." Many "industry specific" directories are not free. You have to pay to be listed in them. Doesn't that constitute a "paid" link? So why does Google recommend that you get listed at these sites?
Even the directories that don't require dollars to be listed usually require a link back. That's a transaction. One thing of value for another thing of value. It was bought, whether dollars changed hands or not.
Then you have sites that sell services which help you trade links with other webmasters. Is paying for those services the equivalent of "buying" links? Are the sites offering those services "selling" links, even if they're just a broker between two sites performing a transaction that neither is paying the other for (not in dollars anyway)?
And what about affiliate links? If I put an affiliate link in an article on my site to a product that I do not own, and somebody buys that product through my link, earning me and the product vendor money, did not the publisher pay for that link? He certainly gave me a monetary incentive to put the link up. Shouldn't Google be cracking down on the millions of affiliate links out there? After all, savvy vendors are using their affiliate programs to boost their rankings in Google.
I hope you're starting to see the very fuzzy line between what is and is not a "paid" link. I truly feel that Google's "slap" reaction is one of desperation, not well thought-out logical reasoning. Seriously, does Google think link buying and selling will stop because of a few site devaluations? Hardly. It'll just get even harder to detect as the sellers get smarter.
Google's actions only further confirmed what most SEO folks already knew: paid links work. If anything, Google's actions will embolden more site owners to buy links!
Google has already admitted that their algorithm cannot detect paid links. They admitted that when they started asking people to manually report paid links. If their algorithm could detect them, there'd be no reason to waste people's time reporting them, would there?
I don't fault Google for taking steps to try and preserve the integrity of their rankings. I don't want spam sites in the top results every time I use Google to search, either (and I only use Google when I search). They are the best, and I think that's great.
I just find it hypocritical that they are trying to prevent purchased links as part of those preservation efforts. Google is a multi-billion dollar corporation, not a non-profit. It is at the center of a very real online economy. Ranking well in Google means cash in the bank for businesses. As long as that is the case, there will be a market for getting ranked. As long as ranking in Google requires links, that market will be for links.
Honestly, when a government builds a new highway, do they fault the business owners who buy property alongside that highway? Do they fault the businesses for buying the biggest, most noticeable sign in order to attract the most customers? Of course not. That's business.
Again I say: Google is not a non-profit, they are a business. It seems hypocritical to me to try and instill fear into webmasters who dare view their ranking in Google the same way they view an ad they might put in a magazine: if it earns more than it costs, it's worth paying for.
That is, after all, what Google really boils down to for businesses: another source of customers.
Please leave your thoughts and comments below.