Archived posts from the 'Risky Linkage' Category

How to fuck up click tracking with the JavaScript onclick trigger

Fuck up click trackingThere’s a somewhat heated debate over at Sphinn and many other places as well where folks call each other guppy and dumbass try to figure out whether a particular directory’s click tracking sinks PageRank distribution or not. Besides interesting replies from Matt Cutts, an essential result of this debate is that Sphinn will implement a dumbass button.

Usually I wouldn’t write about desperate PageRank junkies going cold turkey, not even as a TGIF post, but the reason why this blog directory most probably doesn’t pass PageRank is interesting, because it has nothing to do with onclick myths. Of course the existence of an intrinsic event handler (aka onclick trigger) in an A element alone has nothing to do with Google’s take on the link’s intention, hence an onclick event itself doesn’t pull a link’s ability to pass Google-juice.

To fuck up your click tracking you really need to forget everything you’ve ever read in Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Unfortunately, Web developers usually don’t bother reading dull stuff like that and code the desired functionality in a way that Google as well as other search engines puke on the generated code. However, ignorance is no excuse when Google talks best practices.

Lets look at the code. Code reveals everything and not every piece of code is poetry. That’s crap:
.html: <a href="http://sebastians-pamphlets.com"
id="1234"
onclick="return o('sebastians-blog');">
http://sebastians-pamphlets.com</a>

.js: function o(lnk){ window.open('/out/'+lnk+'.html'); return false; }

The script /out/sebastians-blog.html counts the click and then performs a redirect to the HREF’s value.

Why can and most probably will Google consider the hapless code above deceptive? A human visitor using a JavaScript enabled user agent clicking the link will land exactly where expected. The same goes for humans using a browser that doesn’t understand JS, and users surfing with JS turned off. A search engine crawler ignoring JS code will follow the HREF’s value pointing to the same location. All final destinations are equal. Nothing wrong with that. Really?

Nope. The problem is that Google’s spam filters can analyze client sided scripting, but don’t execute JavaScript. Google’s algos don’t ignore JavaScript code, they parse it to figure out the intent of links (and other stuff as well). So what does the algo do, see, and how does it judge eventually?

It understands the URL in HREF as definitive and ultimate destination. Then it reads the onclick trigger and fetches the external JS files to lookup the o() function. It will notice that the function returns an unconditional FALSE. The algo knows that the return value FALSE will not allow all user agents to load the URL provided in HREF. Even if o() would do nothing else, a human visitor with a JS enabled browser will not land at the HREF’s URL when clicking the link. Not good.

Next the window.open statement loads http://this-blog-directory.com/out/sebastians-blog.html, not http://sebastians-pamphlets.com (truncating the trailing slash is a BS practice as well, but that’s not the issue here). The URLs put in HREF and built in the JS code aren’t identical. That’s a full stop for the algo. Probably it does not request the redirect script http://this-blog-directory.com/out/sebastians-blog.html to analyze its header which sends a Location: http://sebastians-pamphlets.com line. (Actually, this request would tell Google that there’s no deceiptful intent, just plain hapless and overcomplicated coding, what might result in a judgement like “unreliable construct, ignore this link” or so, depending on other signals available).

From the algo’s perspective the JavaScript code performs a more or less sneaky redirect. It flags the link as shady and moves on. Guess what happens in Google’s indexing process with pages that carry tons of shady links … those links not passing PageRank sounds like a secondary problem. Perhaps Google is smart enough not to penalize legit sites for, well, hapless coding, but that’s sheer speculation.

However, shit happens, so every once in a while such a link will slip thru and may even appear in reverse citation results like link: searches or Google Webmaster Central link reports. That’s enough to fool even experts like Andy Beard (maybe Google even shows bogus link data to mislead SEO researches of any kind? Never mind).

Ok, now that we know how not to implement onclick click tracking, here’s an example of a bullet-proof method to track user clicks with the onclick event:
<a href="http://sebastians-pamphlets.com/"
id="link-1234"
onclick="return trackclick(this.href, this.name);">
Sebastian's Pamphlets</a>
trackclick() is a function that calls a server sided script to store the click and returns TRUE without doing a redirect or opening a new window.

Here is more information on search engine friendly click tracking using the onlick event. The article is from 2005, but not outdated. Of course you can add onclick triggers to all links with a few lines of JS code. That’s good practice because it avoids clutter in the A elements and makes sure that every (external) link is trackable. For this more elegant way to track clicks the warnings above apply too: don’t return false and don’t manipulate the HREF’s URL.



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Google says you must manage your affiliate links in order to get indexed

Screwing affiliates recommended by Google ;=)I’ve worked hard to overtake the SERP positions of a couple merchants allowing me to link to them with an affiliate ID, and now the allmighty Google tells the sponsors they must screw me with internal 301 redirects to rescue their rankings. Bugger. Since I read the shocking news on Google’s official Webmaster blog this morning I worked on a counter strategy, with success. Affiliate programs will not screw me, not even with Google’s help. They’ll be hoist by their own petard. I’ll strike back with nofollow and I’ll take no prisoners.

Seriously, the story reads a little different and is not breaking news at all. Maile Ohye from Google just endorsed best practices I’ve recommended for ages. Here is my recap.

The problem

Actually, there are problems on both sides of an affiliate link. The affiliate needs to hide these links from Google to avoid a so called “thin affiliate site penalty”, and the affiliate program suffers from duplicate content issues, link juice dilution, and often even URL hijacking by affiliate links.

Diligent affiliates gathering tons of PageRank on their pages can “unintentionally” overtake URLs on the SERPs by fooling the canonicalization algos. When Google discovers lots of links from strong pages on different hosts pointing to http://sponsor.com/?affid=me and this page adds ?affid=me to its internal links, my URL on the sponsor’s site can “outrank” the official home page, or landing page, http://sponsor.com/. When I choose the right anchor text, Google will feed my affiliate page with free traffic, whilst the affiliate program’s very own pages don’t exist on the SERPs.

Managing incoming affiliate links (merchants)

The best procedure is capturing all incoming traffic before a single byte of content is sent to the user agent, extracting the affiliate ID from the URL, storing it in a cookie, then 301-redirecting the user agent to the canonical version of the landing page, that is a page without affiliate or user specific parameters in the URL. That goes for all user agents (humans accepting the cookie and Web robots which don’t accept cookies and start a new session with every request).

Users not accepting cookies are redirected to a version of the landing page blocked by robots.txt, the affiliate ID sticks with the URLs in this case. Search engine crawlers, identified by their user agent name or whatever, are treated as users and shall never see (internal) links to URLs with tracking parameters in the query string.

This 301 redirect passes all the link juice, that is PageRank & Co. as well as anchor text, to the canonical URL. Search engines can no longer index page versions owned by affiliates. (This procedure doesn’t prevent you from 302 hijacking where your content gets indexed under the affiliate’s URL.)

Putting safe affiliate links (online marketers)

Honestly, there’s no such thing as a safe affiliate link, at least not safe with regard to picky search engines. Masking complex URLs with redirect services like tinyurl.com or so doesn’t help, because the crawlers get the real URL from the redirect header and will leave a note in the record of the original link on the page carrying the affiliate link. Anyways, the tiny URL will fool most visitors, and if you own the redirect service it makes managing affiliate links easier.

Of course you can cloak the hell out of your thin affiliate pages by showing the engines links to authority pages whilst humans get the ads, but then better forget the Google traffic (I know, I know … cloaking still works if you can handle it properly, but not everybody can handle the risks so better leave that to the experts).

There’s only one official approach to make a page plastered with affiliate links safe with search engines: replace it with a content rich page, of course Google wants unique and compelling content and checks its uniqueness, then sensibly work in the commercial links. Best link within the content to the merchants, apply rel-nofollow to all affiliate links, and avoid banner farms in the sidebars and above the fold.

Update: I’ve sanitized the title, “Google says you must screw your affiliates in order to get indexed” was not one of my best title baits.



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Google manifested the axe on reciprocal link exchanges

Yesterday Fantomaster via Threadwatcher pointed me to this page of Google’s Webmaster help system. The cache was a few days old and didn’t show a difference, I don’t archive each and every change of the guidelines, so I asked and a friendly and helpful Googler told me that this item was around for a while now. Today this page made it on Sphinn and probably a few other Webmaster hangouts too.

So what the heck is the scandal all about? When you ask Google for help on “link exchange“, the help machine rattles for a second, sighs, coughs, clears its throat and then yells out the answer in bold letters: “Link schemes“, bah!

Ok, we already knew what Google thinks about artificial linkage: “Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank”. Honestly, what is the intent when I suggest that you link to me and concurrently I link to you? Yup, it means I boost your PageRank and you boost mine, also we chose some nice anchor text and that makes the link deal perfect. In the eyes of Google even such a tiny deal is a link scheme, because both links weren’t put up for users but for search engines.

Pre-Google this kind of link deal was business as usual and considered natural, but frankly back then the links were exchanged for traffic and not for search engine love. We can rant and argue as much as we want, that will not revert the changed character of link swaps nor Google’s take on manipulative links.

Consequently Google has devalued artificial reciprocal links for ages. Pretty much simplified these links nullify each other in Google’s search index. That goes for tiny sins. Folks raising the concept onto larger link networks got caught too but penalized or even banned for link farming.

Obviously all kinds of link swaps are easy to detect algorithmically, even triangular link deals, three way link exchanges and whatnot. I called that plain vanilla link ’swindles’, but only just recently Google has caught up with a scalable solution and seems to detect and penalize most if not all variants covering the whole search index, thanks to the search quality folks in Dublin and Zurich even overseas in whatever languages.

The knowledge that the days of free link trading are numbered was out for years before the exodus. Artificial reciprocal links as well as other linkage considered link spam by Google was and is a pet peeve of Matt’s team. Google sent lots of warnings, and many sane SEOs and Webmasters heard their traffic master’s voice and acted accordingly. Successful link trading just went underground leaving the great unwashed alone with their obsession about exchanging reciprocal links in the public.

Also old news is, that Google does not penalize reciprocal links in general. Google almost never penalizes a pattern or a technique. Instead they try to figure out the Webmaster’s intent and judge case by case based on their findings. And yes, that’s doable with algos, perhaps sometimes with a little help from humans to compile the seed, but we don’t know how perfect the algo is when it comes to evaluations of intent. Natural reciprocal links are perfectly fine with Google. That applies to well maintained blogrolls too, despite the often reciprocal character of these links. Reading the link schemes page completely should make that clear.

Google defines link scheme as “[…] Link exchange and reciprocal links schemes (’Link to me and I’ll link to you.’) […]”. The “I link to you and vice versa” part literally addresses link trading of any kind, not a situation where I link to your compelling contents because I like a particular page, and you return the favour later on because you find my stuff somewhat useful. As Perkiset puts it “linking is now supposed to be like that well known sex act, ‘68? - or, you do me and I’ll owe you one’” and there is truth in this analogy. Sometimes a favor will not be returned. That’s the way the cookie crumbles when you’re keen on Google traffic.

The fact that Google openly said that link exchange schemes designed “exclusively for the sake of cross-linking” of any kind violate their guidelines indicates that first they were sure to have invented the catchall algo, and second that they felt safe to launch it without too much collateral damage. Not everybody agrees, I quote Fantomaster’s critique not only because I like his inimitably parlance:

This is essentially a theological debate: Attempting to determine any given action’s (and by inference: actor’s) “intention” (as in “sinning”) is always bound to open a can of worms or two.

It will always have to work by conjecture, however plausible, which makes it a fundamentally tacky, unreliable and arbitrary process.

The delusion that such a task, error prone as it is even when you set the most intelligent and well informed human experts to it (vide e.g. criminal law where “intention” can make all the difference between an indictment for second or first degree murder…) can be handled definitively by mechanistic computer algorithms is arguably the most scary aspect of this inane orgy of technological hubris and naivety the likes of Google are pressing onto us.

I’ve seen some collateral damage already, but pragmatic Webmasters will find –respectively have found long ago– their way to build inbound links under Google’s regime.

And here is the context of Google’s definition link exchanges = link schemes which makes clear that not each and every reciprocal link is evil:

[…] However, some webmasters engage in link exchange schemes and build partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. This is in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact your site’s ranking in search results. Examples of link schemes can include:

• Links intended to manipulate PageRank
• Links to web spammers or bad neighborhoods on the web
• Link exchange and reciprocal links schemes (’Link to me and I’ll link to you.’)
• Buying or selling links […]

Again, please read the whole page.

Bear in mind that all this is Internet history, it just boiled up yesterday as the help page was discovered.

Related article: Eric Ward on reciprocal links, why they do good, and where they do bad.



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Google to kill the power of links

Well, a few types of links will survive and don’t do evil in Google’s search index ;)    I’ve updated my first take on Google’s updated guidelines stating paid links and reciprocal links are evil. Well, regardless whether one likes or dislikes this policy, it’s already factored in - case closed by Google. There are so many ways to generate natural links …

The official call for paid-link reports is pretty much disliked across the boards:
Google is Now The Morality Police on the Internet
Google’s Ideal Webmaster: Snitch, Rake It In And Don’t Deliver
Other sites can hurt your ranking
Google’s Updated Webmaster Guidelines Addresses Linking Practices
Google clarifies its stance on links

More information, and discussion of paid/exchanged links in my pamphlets:
Matt Cutts and Adam Lasnik define “paid link”
Where is the precise definition of a paid link?
Full disclosure of paid links
Revise your linkage
Link monkey business is not worth a whoop
Is buying and selling links risky? (02/2006)



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Google enhances the quality guidelines

Maybe todays update of Google’s quality guidelines is the first phase of the Webmaster help system revamp project. I know there’s more to come, Google has great plans for the help center. So don’t miss out on the opportunity to tell Google’s Webmaster Central team what you’d like to have added or changed. Only 14 replies to this call for input is an evidence of incapacity, shame on the Webmasters community.

I haven’t had the time to write a full-blown review of the updates, so here are just a few remarks from a Webmaster’s perspective. Scroll down to Quality guidelines - specific guidelines to view the updates, that means click the links to the new (sometimes overlapping) detail pages.

As always, the guidelines outline best practices of Web development, refer to common sense, and don’t encourage over-interpretations (not that those are avoidable, nor utterly useless). Now providing Webmasters with more explanatory directives, detailed definitions and even examples in the “Don’ts” section is very much appreciated. Look at the over five years old first version of this document before you bitch ;)

Avoid hidden text or hidden links
The new help page on hidden text and links is descriptive and comes with examples, well done. What I miss is a hint with regard to CSS menus and other content which is hidden until the user performs a particular action. Google states “Text (such as excessive keywords) can be hidden in several ways, including […] Using CSS to hide text”. The same goes for links by the way. I wish they would add something in the lines of “… Using CSS to hide text in a way that a user can’t visualize it by a common action like moving the mouse over a pointer to a hidden element, or clicking a text link or descriptive widget or icon”. The hint at the bottom “If you do find hidden text or links on your site, either remove them or, if they are relevant for your site’s visitors, make them easily viewable” comes close to this but lacks an example.

Susan Moskwa from Google clarifies what one can hide with CSS, and what sorts of CSS hidden stuff is considered a violation of the guidelines, in the Google forum on June/11/2007:

If your intent in hiding text is to deceive the search engines, we frown on that; if your intent is purely to improve the visual user experience (e.g. by replacing some text with a fancier image of that same text), you don’t need to worry. Of course, as with many techniques, there are shades of gray between “this is clearly deceptive and wrong” and “this is perfectly acceptable”. Matt [Cutts] did say that hiding text moves you a step further towards the gray area. But if you’re running a perfectly legitimate site, you don’t need to worry about it. If, on the other hand, your site already exhibits a bunch of other semi-shady techniques, hidden text starts to look like one more item on that list. […] As the Guidelines say, focus on intent. If you’re using CSS techniques purely to improve your users’ experience and/or accessibility, you shouldn’t need to worry. One good way to keep it on the up-and-up (if you’re replacing text w/ images) is to make sure the text you’re hiding is being replaced by an image with the exact same text.

Don’t use cloaking or sneaky redirects
This sentence in bold red blinking uppercase letters should be pinned 5 pixels below the heading: “When examining […] your site to ensure your site adheres to our guidelines, consider the intent” (emphasis mine). There are so many perfectly legit ways to do the content presentation, that it is impossible to assign particular techniques to good versus bad intent, nor vice versa.

I think this page leads to misinterpretations. The major point of confusion is, that Google argues completely from a search engine’s perspective and dosn’t write for the targeted audience, that is Webmasters and Web developers. Instead of all the talk about users vs. search engines, it should distinguish plain user agents (crawlers, text browsers, JavaScript disabled …) from enhanced user agents (JS/AJAX enabled, installed and activated plug-ins …). Don’t get me wrong, this page gives the right advice, but the good advice is somewhat obfuscated in phrases like “Rather, you should consider visitors to your site who are unable to view these elements as well”.

For example “Serving a page of HTML text to search engines, while showing a page of images or Flash to users [is considered deceptive cloaking]” puts down a gazillion of legit sites which serve the same contents in different formats (and often under different URLs) depending on the ability of the current user agent to render particular stuff like Flash, and a bazillion of perfectly legit AJAX driven sites which provide crawlers and text browsers with a somewhat static structure of HTML pages, too.

“Serving different content to search engines than to users [is considered deceptive cloaking]” puts it better, because in reverse that reads “Feel free to serve identical contents under different URLs and in different formats to users and search engines. Just make sure that you accurately detect the capabilities of the user agent before you decide to alter a requested plain HTML page into a fancy conglomerate of flashing widgets with sound and other good vibrations, respectively vice versa”.

Don’t send automated queries to Google
This page doesn’t provide much more information than the paragraph on the main page, but there’s not that much to explain: don’t use WebPosition Gold™. Period.

Don’t load pages with irrelevant keywords
Tells why keyword stuffing is not a bright idea, nothing to note.

Don’t create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content
This detail page is a must read. It starts with a to the point definition “Duplicate content generally refers to substantive blocks of content within or across domains that either completely match other content or are appreciably similar”, followed by a ton of good tips and valuable information. And fortunately it expresses that there’s no such thing as a general duplicate content penalty.

Don’t create pages that install viruses, trojans, or other badware
Describes Google’s service in partnership with StopBADware.org, highlighting the quickest procedure to get Google’s malware warning removed.

Avoid “doorway” pages created just for search engines, or other “cookie cutter” approaches such as affiliate programs with little or no original content
The info on doorway pages is just a paragraph on the “cloaking and sneaky redirect” page. I miss a few tips on how one can identify unintentional doorway pages created by just bad design, without any deceptive intent. Also, I think a few sentences on thin SERP-like pages would be helpful in this context.

“Little or no original content” targets thin affiliate sites, again doorway pages, auto-generated content, and scraped content. It becomes clear that Google does not love MFA sites.

If your site participates in an affiliate program, make sure that your site adds value. Provide unique and relevant content that gives users a reason to visit your site first
The link points to the “Little or no original content” page mentioned above.


“Buying links in order to improve a site’s ranking is in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results. […] Google works hard to ensure that it fully discounts links intended to manipulate search engine results, such link exchanges and purchased links.”

Basically that means: if you purchase a link, then make dead sure it’s castrated or Google will take away the ability to pass link love from the page (or even site) linking out for green. Or don’t get caught respectively denunciated by competitors (I doubt that’s a surefire tactic for the average Webmaster).

Note that in the second sentence quoted above Google states officially that link exchanges for the sole purpose of manipulating search engines are a waste of time and resources. That means reciprocal links of particular types nullify each other, and site links might have lost their power too. <speculation>Google may find it funny to increase the toolbar PageRank of pages involved in all sorts of link swap campaigns, but the real PageRank will remain untouched.</speculation>

There’s much confusion with regard to “paid link penalties”. To the best of my knowledge the link’s destination will not be penalized, but the paid link(s) will not (or no longer) increase its reputation, so that in case the link’s intention got reported or discovered ex-post its rankings may suffer. Penalizing the link buyer would not make much sense, and Googlers are known as pragmatic folks, hence I doubt there is such a penalty. <speculation>Possibly Google has a flag applied to known link purchasers (sites as well as webmasters), which –if it exists– might result in more scrupulous judgements of other optimization techniques.</speculation>

What I really like is that the Googlers in charge honestly tried to write for their audience, that is Webmasters and Web developers, not (only) search geeks. Hence the news is that Google really cares. Since the revamp is a funded project, I guess the few paragraphs where the guidelines are still mysterious (for the great unwashed), or even potentially misleading, will get an update soon. I can’t wait for the next phase of this project.

Vanessa Fox creates buzz at SMX today, so I’ll update this post when (if?) she blogs about the updates later on (update: Vanessa’s post). Perhaps Matt Cutts will comment the updated quality guidelines at the SMX conference today, look for Barry’s writeup at Search Engine Land, and SEO Roundtable as well as the Bruce Clay blog for coverage of the SMX Penalty Box Summit. Marketing Pilgrim covered this session too. This post at Search Engine Journal provides related info, and more quotes from Matt. Just one SMX tidbit: according to Matt they’re going to change the name of the re-inclusion request to something like a reconsideration request.



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Google hunts paid links and reciprocal linkage

Matt Cutts and Adam Lasnik have clarified Google’s take on paid links and overdone reciprocal linkage. Some of their statements are old news, but it surely helps to have a comprehensive round-up in the context of the current debate on paid links.

So what –in short– does Google consider linkspam:
Artificial link schemes, paid links and uncondomized affiliate links, overdone reciprocal linkage and interlinking.

All sorts of link schemes designed to increase a site’s ranking or PageRank. Link scheme means for example mass exchange of links pages, repeated chunks of links per site, fishy footer links, triangular PageRank boosting, 27-way-linkage where in the end only the initiator earns a few inbounds because the participants are confused, and “genial” stuff like that. Google’s pretty good at identifying link farming, and bans or penalizes accordingly. That’s old news, but such techniques are still used, widely.

Advice: don’t participate, Google will catch you eventually.

Paid links, if detected or reported, get devalued. That is, they don’t help the link destination’s search engine rankings, and in some cases the source will lose its ability to pass reputation via links. Google does this more or less silently since 2003 at least, probably longer, but until today there was no precise definition of risky paid links.

That’s going to change. Adam Lasnik, commenting Eric Enge’s “It seems to me that one of the more challenging aspects of all of this is that people have gotten really good at buying a link that show no indication that they are purchased.”

Yes and no, actually. One of the things I think Matt has commented about in his blog; it’s what we joking refer to as famous last words, which is “well, I have come up with a way to buy links that is completely undetectable”.

As people have pointed out, Google buys advertising, and a lot of other great sites engage in both the buying and selling of advertising. There is no problem with that whatsoever. The problem is that we’ve seen quite a bit of buying and selling for the very clear purpose of transferring PageRank. Some times we see people out there saying “hey, I’ve got a PR8 site” and, “this will give you some great Google boost, and I am selling it for just three hundred a month”. Well, that’s blunt, and that’s clearly in violation of the “do not engage in linking schemes that are not permitted within the webmaster guidelines”.

Two, taking a step back, our goal is not to catch one hundred percent of paid links [emphasis mine]. It’s to try to address the egregious behavior of buying and selling the links that focus on the passing of PageRank. That type of behavior is a lot more readily identifiable then I think people give us credit for.

So it seems Google’s just after PageRank selling. Adam’s following comments on the use and abuse of rel-nofollow emphasizes this interpretation:

I understand there has been some confusion on that, both in terms of how it [rel=nofollow] works or why it should be used. We want links to be treated and used primarily as votes for a site, or to say I think this is an interesting site, and good site. The buying and selling of links without the use of Nofollow, or JavaScript links, or redirects has unfortunately harmed that goal. We realize we cannot turn the web back to when it was completely noncommercial and we don’t want to do that [emphasis mine]. Because, obviously as Google, we firmly believe that commerce has an important role on the Internet. But, we want to bring a bit of authenticity back to the linking structure of the web. […] our interest isn’t in finding and taking care of a hundred percent of links that may or may not pass PageRank. But, as you point out relevance is definitely important and useful, and if you previously bought or sold a link without Nofollow, this is not the end of the world. We are looking for larger and more significant patterns [emphasis mine].

Don’t miss out on Eric Enge’s complete interview with Adam Lasnik, it’s really worth bookmarking for future references!

Matt Cutts has updated (May 12th, 2007) an older and well linked post on paid links. It also covers thoughts on the value of directory links. Here are a few quotes, but don’t miss out on Matt’s post:

… we’re open to semi-automatic approaches to ignore paid links, which could include the best of algorithmic and manual approaches.

Q: Now when you say “paid links”, what exactly do you mean by that? Do you view all paid links as potential violations of Google’s quality guidelines?
A: Good question. As someone working on quality and relevance at Google, my bottom-line concern is clean and relevant search results on Google. As such, I care about paid links that flow PageRank and attempt to game Google’s rankings. I’m not worried about links that are paid but don’t affect search engines. So when I say “paid links” it’s pretty safe to add in your head “paid links that flow PageRank and attempt to game Google’s rankings.”

Q: This is all well and fine, but I decide what to do on my site. I can do anything I want on it, including selling links.
A: You’re 100% right; you can do absolutely anything you want on your site. But in the same way, I believe Google has the right to do whatever we think is best (in our index, algorithms, or scoring) to return relevant results.

Q: Hey, as long as we’re talking about directories, can you talk about the role of directories, some of whom charge for a reviewer to evaluate them?
A: I’ll try to give a few rules of thumb to think about when looking at a directory. When considering submitting to a directory, I’d ask questions like:
- Does the directory reject URLs? If every URL passes a review, the directory gets closer to just a list of links or a free-for-all link site.
- What is the quality of urls in the directory? Suppose a site rejects 25% of submissions, but the urls that are accepted/listed are still quite low-quality or spammy. That doesn’t speak well to the quality of the directory.
- If there is a fee, what’s the purpose of the fee? For a high-quality directory, the fee is primarily for the time/effort for someone to do a genuine evaluation of a url or site.
Those are a few factors I’d consider. If you put on your user hat and ask “Does this seem like a high-quality directory to me?” you can usually get a pretty good sense as well, or ask a few friends for their take on a particular directory.

To get a better idea on how Google’s search quality team chases paid links, read Brian White’s post Paid Link Schemes Inside Original Content.

Advice: either nofollow paid links, or don’t get caught. If you buy links, pay only for the traffic, because with or without link condom there’s no search engine love involved.

Affiliate links are seen as kinda subset of paid links. Google can identify most (unmasked) affiliate links. Frankly, there’s no advantage in passing link love to sponsors.

Advice: nofollow.

Reciprocal links without much doubt nullify each other. Overdone reciprocal linkage may even cause penalties, that is the reciprocal links area of a site gets qualified as link farm, for possible consequences scroll up a bit. Reciprocal links are natural links, and Google honors them if the link profile of a site or network does not consist of a unnnatural high number of reciprocal or triangular link exchanges. It may be that natural reciprocal links pass (at least a portion of) PageRank, but no (or less than one-way links) revelancy via anchor text and trust or other link reputation.

Matt Cutts discussing “Google Hell”:

Reciprocal links by themselves aren’t automatically bad, but we’ve communicated before that there is such a thing as excessive reciprocal linking. […] As Google changes algorithms over time, excessive reciprocal links will probably carry less weight. That could also account for a site having more pages in supplemental results if excessive reciprocal links (or other link-building techniques) begin to be counted less. As I said in January: “The approach I’d recommend in that case is to use solid white-hat SEO to get high-quality links (e.g. editorially given by other sites on the basis of merit).”

Advice: It’s safe to consider reciprocal links somewhat helpful, but don’t actively chase for reciprocal links.

Interlinking all sites in a network can be counterproductive, but selfish cross-linking is not penalized in general. There’s no “interlinking penalty” when these links make sound business sense, even when the interlinked sites aren’t topically related. Interlinking sites handling each and every yellow page category on the other hand may be considered overdone. In some industries like adult entertainment, where it’s hard to gain natural links, many webmasters try to boost their rankings with links from other (unrelated) sites they own or control. Operating hundreds or thousands of interlinked travel sites spread on many domains and subdomains is risky too. In the best case such linking patterns may be just ignored by Google, that is they’ve no or very low impact on rankings at all, but it’s easy to convert a honest network into a link farm by mistake.

Advice: Carefully interlink your own sites in smaller networks, but partition these links by theme or branch in huge clusters. Consider consolidating closely related sites.

So what does all that mean for Webmasters?

Some might argue “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, in other words “why should I revamp my linkage when I rank fine?”. Well, rules like “any attempt to improve on a system that already works is pointless and may even be detrimental” are pointless and detrimental in a context where everything changes daily. Especially, when the tiny link-systems designed to fool another system, passively interact with that huge system (the search engine polls linkage data for all kinds of analyses). In that case the large system can change the laws of the game at any time to outsmart all the tiny cheats. So just because Google didn’t discover all link schemes or shabby reciprocal link cycles out there, that does not mean the participants are safe forever. Nothing’s set in stone, not even rankings, so better revise your ancient sins.

Bear in mind that Google maintains a database containing all links in the known universe back to 1998 or so, and that a current penalty may be the result of a historical analysis of a site’s link attitude. So when a site is squeaky clean today but doesn’t rank adequately, consider a reinclusion request if you’ve cheated in the past.

Before you think of penalties as the cause of downranked or even vanished pages, analyze your inbound links that might have started counting for less. Pull all your inbound links from Site Explorer or Webmaster Central, then remove questionable sources from the list:

  • Paid links and affiliate links where you 301-redirect all landing pages with affiliate IDs in the query string to a canonical landing page,
  • Links from fishy directories, links lists, FFAs, top rank lists, DMOZ-clones and stuff like that,
  • Links from URLs which may be considered search results,
  • Links from sites you control or which live off your contents,
  • Links from sites engaged in reciprocal link swaps with your sites,
  • Links from sites which link out to too many questionable pages in link directories or where users can insert links without editorial control,
  • Links from shabby sites regardless their toolbar PageRank,
  • Links from links pages which don’t provide editorial contents,
  • Links from blog comments, forum signatures, guestbooks and other places where you can easily drop URLs,
  • Nofollow’ed links and links routed via uncrawlable redirect scripts,

Judge by content quality, traffic figures if available, and user friendliness, not by toolbar PageRank. Just because a link appears in reverse citation results, that does not mean it carries any weight.

Look at the shrinked list of inbound links and ask yourself where on the SERPs a search engine should rank your stuff based on these remaining votes. Frustrated? Learn the fine art of link building from an expert in the field.



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Where is the precise definition of a paid link?

Good questions:

How many consultants provide links through to the companies they work for?
I do.

How many software firms provide links through to their major corporate clients?
Not my company. Never going to happen.

If you make a donation to someone, and they decide to give you a link back, is that a paid link?
Nope.

If you are a consultant, and are paid to analyse a company, but to make the findings known publicly, are you supposed to stick nofollow on all the links?
Nope.

If you are a VC or Angel investor, should you have to use NoFollow linking through to companies in your investment portfolio?
Nope.

Are developers working on an open-source project allowed a link back to their sites (cough Wordpress) Yep, and then use that link equity to dominate search engines on whatever topic they please?
Hmmmm, if it really works that way, why not?

If you are a blog network, or large internet content producer, is it gaming Google to have links to your sister sites, whether there is a direct financial connection or not?
Makes business sense, so why should those links get condomized? Probably a question of quantity. No visitor would follow a gazillion of links to blogs handling all sorts of topis the yellow pages have categories for.

Should a not for profit organisation link through to their paid members with a live link?
Sure, perfectly discloses relationships and their character.

A large number of Wordpress developers have paid links on their personal sites, as do theme and plugin developers.
What’s wrong with that? Maybe questionable (in the sense of useless) on every page, but perfectly valid on home page, about page and so on if disclosed. As for ads, that sort of paid links is valid on every page - nofollow’ing ads just avoids misunderstandings.

If you write a blog post, thanking your sponsors, should you use nofollow?
Yep.

Some people give away prizes for links, or offer some kind of reciprocation.
If the awards are honest and truly editorial, linking back is just good practice.

If you are an expert in a particular field, and someone asks you to write a review of their site, and the type of review you write means that writing that content might take 10 hours of your time to do due diligence, is it wrong to accept some kind of monetary contribution? Just time and material?
In such a situation, why would you be forced to use nofollow on all links to the site being reviewed?
Disclosing the received expense allowance there’s nothing wrong with uncondomized links.

Imagine someone created a commercial Wikipedia, and paid $5 for every link made to it.
Don’t link. The link would be worth more than five bucks and the risks involved can cost way more than five bucks.

Where is the precise definition of a paid link?
Now that’s the best question at all!

Disclaimer: Yes/No answers are kinda worthless without a precisely defined context. Thus please read the comments.

Related thoughts: Should Paid Links Influence Organic Rankings? by Mark Jackson at SEW
Paid Link Schemes Inside Original Content by Brian White, also read Matt’s updated post on paid links.

Update: Google’s definition of paid links and other disliked linkage considered “linkspam”



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Revise your linkage now

Google’s take on paid links obviously is there to stay, and frankly, old news were heating the minds last weekend. There’s no sign at the horizon that Google revises the policy, quite the opposite is true. Google has new algos in development which are supposed to detect all sorts of paid linkage better than before. For many that’s bad news, however I guess that rants are a waste of valuable time needed to revise actual and previous link attitudes.

I don’t think that Googlebot has learned to read text like “Buy a totally undetectable PR8 link now for as low as 2,000$ and get four PR6 links for free!” on images. Sites operating that obvious link selling businesses leave other –detectable– footprints, and their operators are aware of the risks involved. Buyers are rather save, they just waste a lot of money because purchased links most probably don’t carry link love and nofollow’ed links may be way cheaper.

I often stumble upon cases where old and forgotten links create issues over time. Things that have worked perfectly in the past can bury a site on todays SERPs. The crucial message is be careful who you link out to! Compile a list of all your outbound links and check them carefully before Google’s newest link analysis goes life. Especially look at the ancient stuff.

Update: I’ve just spotted Eric Wards article on forensic inbound link analysis, you should read that and his comments on outgoing links too.

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Link monkey business is not worth a whoop

Old news, pros move on educating the great unlinked.

A tremendous amount of businesses maintaining a Web site still swap links in masses with every dog and his fleas. Serious sites join link exchange scams to gain links from every gambling spammer out there. Unscrupulous Web designers and low-life advisors put gazillions of businesses at risk. Eventually the site owners pop up in Google’s help forum wondering why the heck they lost their rankings despite their emboldening toolbar PageRank. Told to dump all their links pages and to file a reinclusion request they may do so, but cutting one’s loss short term is not the way the cookie crumbles with Google. Consequences of listening to bad SEO advice are often layoffs or even bust.

In this context a thread titled “Do the companies need to hire a SEO to get in top position?” asks the somewhat right question but may irritate site owners even more. Their amateurish Web designer offering SEO services obviously got their site banned or at least heavily penalized by Google. Asking for help in forums they get contradictory SEO advice. Google’s take on SEO firms is more or less a plain warning. Too many scams sailing under the SEO flag and it seems there’s no such thing as reliable SEO advice for free on the net.

However, the answer to the question is truly “yes“. It’s better to see a SEO before the rankings crash out. Unfortunately, SEO is not a yellow pages category, and every clown can offer crappy SEO services. Places like SEO Consultants and honest recommendations get you the top notch SEOs, but usually the small business owner can’t afford their services. Asking fellow online businesses for their SEO partner may lead to a scammer who is still beloved because Google has not yet spotted and delisted his work. Kinda dilemma, huh?

Possible loophole: once you’ve got a recommendation for a SEO skilled Webmaster or SEO expert from somebody attending a meeting at the local chamber of commerce, post that fellow’s site to the forums and ask for signs of destructive SEO work. Should give you an indication of trustworthiness.

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Hapless Structures and Weak Linkage

Michael Martinez over at SEO-Theory (moved!) has a nice write-up on how to get crawled and indexed. The post titled “Search engine love: now they crawl me, now they don’t” discusses the importance of internal linkage, PageRank distribution, and Google’s recent architectural changes — topics which are “hot” in Google’s Webmaster Help Center, where I hang out every now and then. I thought I blog Michael’s nice essay as sort of multi-link-bookmark making link drops easier, so here is some of my stuff related to crawling and indexing:

About Google’s Toolbar-PageRank
High PageRank leads to frequent crawling, but nonetheless ignore green pixels.

The Top-5 Methods to Attract Search Engine Spiders
Get deep links to great content.

Supporting search engine crawling
The syntax of a search engine friendly Web site.

Web Site Structuring
Do’s and don’ts on information architectures.

Optimizing Web Site Navigation
Tweak your UI for users to make it crawler friendly.

Linking is All About Popularity and Authority
LOL: Link out loud.

Related information

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