Monday, August 27, 2007

Buying Links to Succeed in Google

I've been reading quite a few SEO (search engine optimization) blogs this past month, to try to get some insight into what is presently involved in promoting a new or existing site. As I expected, there are no great disclosures. Somebody new to search engines will probably find a lot of good stuff, but somebody who has been even peripherally involved will likely find little new. That's the way it works - nobody wants to give away any secrets before everybody else already knows them.

But maybe it's not that simple. Maybe, at least in terms of "white hat" SEO, there really aren't any secrets. As I wrote some time ago, more than ever, it's all about the links. What's the one thing you can find on virtually any SEO website? Bitter complaints about how horrible Google is for its attempts to devalue "paid links" and perhaps even to punish sites who secretly buy or sell them.

Historically there was a lot of search engine optimization work to be done on any given webpage - and that remains true. There are some large sites which are horribly optimized for search engines. But most sites that are interested in the optimization tricks that used to help propel sites to the top no longer need a consultant to help them - it's pretty basic, by-the-numbers stuff, and most web design software does a pretty good job of prompting people to fill it in, as do the most popular CMS systems. At the same time, search engines have become much better at analyzing on-page content, and manipulation of various on-page tags and titles has much less impact than in the past. A search engine optimization service can recommend changes and improvements, but that's no longer likely to produce much of an improvement in a site's Google ranking.

So what do they do instead? They buy links. In the past this was pretty lazy, and you have probably seen examples of sites which include a set of wildly off-topic links in the page footer. Now it is done more stealthily, and the SEO's use tools to try to find on-topic pages which carry authority in Google, with few or no other paid links on the page. I don't mean to diminish the time it takes for SEO's to identify possible places to buy links, to negotiate prices, to structure links and anchor text to reduce the chance that Google will recognize the links as paid, etc., but Google is correct that this type of linking distorts the accuracy of its algorithms - that's its sole purpose. When Google's anti-spam guru, Matt Cutts, suggested that paid links include a "rel=nofollow" tag, an instruction to search engine robots not to follow the link, the uproar made plain that these links are not about generating natural traffic (people who find them and follow them), but are about boosting search engine performance. (You can get a pretty good overview here.)

Some of the criticism have been clever. One depicted how Google might want celebrity endorsements to appear in TV or print ads - with big red translucent boxes placed over the product, labeled "rel=nofollow". It misses the point, though, as anybody who has given celebrity endorsements any thought knows that the celebrity is paid for the endorsement. Also, the purpose of the ad is to directly generate interest in the product. A paid link is not meant to look like an ad, and isn't about the direct promotion of the linked website. Another complains that to tag paid links would violate Google's rules against cloaking, an objection which suggests that the speaker is either disingenuous or doesn't know what cloaking (presenting different content to different sets of people, or to search engine robots) is.

Another snipes at Google, stating that if they were any good at detecting paid links they wouldn't be making such a big deal about them - a critique that perhaps runs both ways. If this group of noisome SEO's were adept at more than buying links, they would shrug at Google's policy announcement and start emphasizing their other tools. Also, rather than saying "Ignore Google, because they can't tell", they would be advising their clients to plan for a future where Google will quickly identify and discount most or all paid links. Perhaps these SEO's are making big bucks promoting "flash in the pan" sites which don't need to look toward the future, but everybody else needs to be asking, "Where will this promotional technique lead me in a year, two years, five years, or longer?" If your goal is long-term growth and a tactic will potentially make your site suspect in Google's algorithms - and it's generally accepted that Google puts a lot of weight on a site's "trustworthiness" score - that's a big risk to be taking.

I do agree with some of the criticisms, including how difficult it is for new, quality sites to get noticed, how "link baiting" (producing content designed to generate high levels of natural linking) actually results in a lot of content of questionable quality, and a lot of time and money wasted on failed efforts (most attempts to "link bait" fail). Some of the directories deemed "quality" by Google, so as to justify their accepting paid links without differentiation from unpaid links, include very low-quality pay-for-inclusion links. (See., e.g., Yahoo.) I expect that the SEO's are correct, that a lot of smaller webmasters are more selective than Yahoo when they accept paid links for their sites.

The funny thing about some of these guys is that the thing they seem best at promoting is themselves and each other, or selling access to private forums or tools which will supposedly help the little guy get ahead. Some even comment at times about how no sensible SEO would work for anybody else, because they can make so much more money promoting their own sites. (And boy, some of them are absolute royalty when it comes to self-promotion.)

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