It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to. I’ve been reading a lot of ranting lately on Sphinn and the blogs, which got me into a ranting mood. Let the games begin.
Even though Google has a ton of official blogs, discussion groups, webmaster guidelines, and press releases available they decide they would be best served to send Deep Throat down to the parking ramp with Danny Sullivan doing his best Carl Bernstein impression to break the news that penalties are now given to link sellers. I can only guess they’d choose this chicken-shit cowardly approach because it has some plausible deniability if it really hit the fan. Beyond their poor choice of using unnamed sources I have a couple other issues bugging me.
As soon as one is assimilated into the collective the first thing they teach the new drones is the gospel of “Don’t Worry About PageRank“. You’ll see is spewed from every orifice of any Googler giving a speech, writing a blog, answering a question in a forum, or just plain pontificating from on high. It’s the canned response for any and all questions regarding the green bar; its effect, its acquisition, its retention, its loss, its very existence. They are all told to say things like, “worry less about PageRank and more about creating unique and compelling content [and tools].” So if this PageRank is nothing to worry about, then why would docking some college newspaper’s PageRank be a suitable punishment? If PageRank is no big deal and not to be worried about as much as content, why would they choose this as their punitive reaction? Maybe one should worry about PageRank just a little bit. You can’t have it both ways, either it’s not worth worrying about or it is worth worrying about and something we should all fear loosing. This leads me to another thought on the matter, that it’s not punishment but rather an adjustment, more on that later.
It’s clear that to battle the evil doers that sell and purchase links some sort of punishment must be doled out. They can’t have an outright ban on all site that sell a link, as Google would soon become a joke. If someone is searching for Stanford’s Newspaper they’d better find it. If not, then Google looses it’s relevancy. Sure it wouldn’t matter much if they just destroyed some nice lady in Colorado who’s buying baby food with the money she makes from her site, but there would be plenty of high profile cases that would just make them look silly. We as webmasters, marketers, SEO’s or just plain anyone who has any idea how the inner workings of search work have to step back from the scene for a moment. The VAST majority of Google’s users, customers, and shareholders don’t give lick about paid links, hidden text, or cloaking. They just know that when they search for something they expect to see it. If Google banned Stanford for selling links and someone who wasn’t in the know was told that was the reason, the response would be a great big, “So what? The point is that while selling links goes against Google’s webmaster guidelines, not listing the site selling the links goes against Google core principles of returning the most relevant results.
That principle has it’s limits. In the case of a site known for fascilitating the selling of links, it’s so well known that when you use the Google tool bar to search for its name you’ll get it listed as a suggestion as soon as you type [text-l] in the field. If you continue the query and fill the whole [text-link-ads] you will not find the site listed. In this case, Google has decided that returning the most relevant results are not quite worth as much as punishing the offender. So I am quite confused when that distinction is made. Is it just academic institutions that get this exemption? Or if Matt Drudge started selling links would he too get to be listed for his name and his site? I find it utterly priceless that Google is taking the moral high ground on this text-link-ad selling problem by not returning the site for its own name, but they are more than happy to take their money to show their ads in the results. In this case the most relevant result is required to pay for their position. This reminds me of a little story I read on the Stanford web site, ” For example, we noticed a major search engine would not return a large airline’s homepage when the airline’s name was given as a query. It so happened that the airline had placed an expensive ad, linked to the query that was its name. A better search engine would not have required this ad, and possibly resulted in the loss of the revenue from the airline to the search engine. In general, it could be argued from the consumer point of view that the better the search engine is, the fewer advertisements will be needed for the consumer to find what they want. This of course erodes the advertising supported business model of the existing search engines. However, there will always be money from advertisers who want a customer to switch products, or have something that is genuinely new. But we believe the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm.” No, it’s not an exact comparison or even a pretty close metaphor, but the idea that the most relevant result has to pay for its position is true in both cases. Larry and Sergey knew that was wrong way back then, oh my how their little project has strayed.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and postulate that Google cannot detect 100% of the paid links 100% of the time. I’ve deduced this solely based on their behavior. 1) they still encourage people to tattle on their competitors and do their job for them 2) They have to manually penalize sites by removing PageRank or knocking them down a few hundred notches in the results, and 3) If my buddy calls me tonight and tells me he’ll buy me a shot and beer if I link to him tomorrow, no where in that process is Google involved. If they were able to detect paid links there wouldn’t be a need for penalties of any kind, they would just re-rank the index as if said links didn’t exist. The fact that Deep Throat and Danny had to have that clandestine meeting is proof enough to me that Google’s ability to detect paid links is completely flawed. By admitting that penalties for selling links exists, they are admitting that they cannot handle them algorithmically, which as you’ve heard before just isn’t scalable. Sure there isn’t a shortage of 3rd world countries with people willing to work for $1 a day hand checking sites, but at some point the web will become so large that even that isn’t scalable for a company with billions and billions to spend.
I don’t want to just hammer on Google, I give them a lot of credit, they still are the best option available for sending free traffic to a site that isn’t going to go viral on youtube. Perhaps Google’s inability to detect and devalue paid links isn’t all that flawed, all paid endorsements are not irrelevant. That is what we are after, relevancy. If you want Bill Clinton to speak at your college’s commencement be prepared to pay him handsomely for the honor. That does not make his speech to the leaders of tomorrow any less relevant. To get Jeff Gordon to use your motor oil and put a little sticker on his car it’s going to cost you millions, but his endorsement would mean a lot more than the man on the street telling you what to buy. Then again if Bill Clinton told us what oil to buy and Jeff Gordon wanted to tell us how to work in the global economy no one (should) listen to them either. The point is that both of these men are experts in their field who demand a high amount of compensation for their limited time. The fact that they are paid does not render their opinion any less relevant. The same could be said of links. If Stanford links to an academic the link should carry a lot of weight, then again if they link to britney-spears-mesothelioma-nude-lawyer.info it shouldn’t be considered an endorsement on that subject either.
In that sense the drones saying, “Don’t worry about PageRank” are right. PageRank in it’s purest form, the sum of the weighted links to a page shouldn’t be worried about. The relevancy of the links should, be them paid endorsements or pure out-of-the-goodness-of-their-hearts editorial links.
One final note on paid links. This includes some other webmaster guideline no-nos here as well, like hidden text. We can all easily prove that Google’s ability to detect either a paid link or hidden text is limited. Create a new page, buy a link see if it get’s indexed or create a page with some obscure hidden text, see if you can find it on Google. Even if they could detect 100% of the hidden text and paid links within a month of it’s publishing, that month would be plenty of time for some people to make use of it. With domains being pennies now adays the true black-hatter doesn’t even care if a domain is banned, penalized, or blown-up completely. By the time that month is over they’ve moved on to hundred or a thousand other sites. Who’s really getting caught up in this dragnet is the “honest” webmaster’s who think they are acting the way they should. They are trying to build a site for the long-haul and really want to produce a good product but are fed so much bad information that they truly think they are doing the right thing. It’s the center of all the anger I have with Google right now, utter lack of communication with the real webmaster. Daily many webmasters approach the Google webmaster help group saying things like, “I’ve exchanged tons of links, bought links and yet I lost my ranking” Not because they are trying to be sneaky but because they feel that is what they SHOULD do. They don’t read searchengineland or listen to Rand’s youtube video of the week because they are busy running their sites. It’s the actual honest webmaster’s who don’t have the right information in front of them that are getting hurt, while the black-hats slip through the cracks only to have Google help them by removing legitimate sites by the thousands.
I want to rant about PageRank funnelling and Google’s Green attitude, but that will have to wait for another post. I’m tired.