About a year ago, we wrote about a New York search-engine-optimization company called LinkExperts (now called Conductor) that helps companies improve their positioning in Google’s search results in part by selling paid links on sites with high Google rankings.
In this arrangement, Conductor buys space from publishers like Forbes.com and then embeds links to client sites on the publishers’ sites. When Google crawls the publishers’ sites, it treats the links not as advertisements (which its algorithm recognises), but as evidence of “authority” (e.g., Forbes.com chose to link to this content, so it must be important). This improves the client sites’ PageRank in Google’s search results, and, in turn, drives more traffic to their sites. The publishers and Conductor then share the SEO fees.
After we wrote about Conductor, Matt Cutts of Google weighed in to say that this practice was a clear violation of Google’s Terms of Service quality guidelines. This led to an intense exchange about paid links and the broader world of search engine optimization, which is now a multi-billion dollar business.
A year later, Conductor has broadened its business to include a more general SEO technology product, but it still provides the “link building” service described above. Conductor draws a distinction between good paid links and “search spam,” but this distinction appears to depend heavily on subjective judgments, and neutral observers could be forgiven for not seeing the difference. (The core of both practices is to pay a publisher for links to improve one’s authority and Google ranking).
Conductor’s co-founder and CEO, Seth Besmertnik joined us yesterday to talk about the company’s new product and provide a broad overview of link building and SEO (watch video below). At Seth’s request, we did not get into the details of various link-building practices, but this is obviously an important topic for the entire industry.
Google has now become so powerful that the success of thousands of businesses depends where they appear in its search rankings (organic, not paid). Given that every reputable company would like to do whatever it can to appear higher in organic search results without violating Google and Microsoft guidelines–and given that every reputable publisher would like to do whatever it can to help its clients achieve their marketing goals–it’s time the search engines developed clear guidelines about what is and isn’t acceptable.
It is also time the search engines started enforcing these SEO rules in a public and transparent manner. Too many people now depend on these decisions for them to be made in a secret or haphazard way.
Here are a few questions to start:
- Is the practice described above still a violation of Google’s terms of service? If not, we and hundreds of other reputable publishers would no doubt be interested in making space on our sites available to high-quality clients who want to improve their link authority. For obvious reasons, this could be an extraordinarily potent form of advertising (and quite lucrative for us).
- If the practice described above IS a violation of Googles terms of service, will Google ever do anything about it? Publishers who sell space in this manner are presumably making some nice money, and reputable companies like Walmart are presumably benefitting considerably by hiring firms like Conductor to implement this form of link-building. So if the practice is a “violation” with no consequences, plenty of publishers and companies would presumably like to know that.
- Should publishers and advertisers EVEN CARE what Google’s rules are? Millions of dollars are at stake here. Who gave Google the authority to decide what is and isn’t an acceptable marketing practice in a free-market economy? Enough with this dictatorship!
- Where in the continuum of “link building” that Seth describes below does Google draw the line? Press releases that try to prompt a story and link on a news site are presumably OK. Dedicated pages filled with paid links presumably aren’t. So what about the practices in the middle?
- How does Google enforce its terms of service violations? Is there anyone to appeal to? When will Google start to reveal all this information publicly?
- Who is held responsible for “link-building” violations? If Google does decide to “punish” violations, whose PageRank gets hit? The SEO client? The publisher? The SEO firm? All of the above?
The bottom line is that Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have grown so powerful in this new link economy that their decisions with respect to quality guidelines, SEO, and enforcement affect millions of people. It’s time these decisions were made in a clear, public, and transparent manner, so the thousands of businesses that depend on them can structure their practices accordingly.