In their ever vigilant zeal to be perplexing and clear as mud on the issue Google has many stances on the paid links situation.
Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.
Some not so official:
We’ll be concentrating primarily on the sellers, but if you send us a site that appears to be buying links that pass PageRank it’s trivial for us to look up all the backlinks for that site to find potential sellers and work from there.
Whether or not they are “concentrating” on link buyers or not, it appears through many threads on Google Webmasters Help Group that people are actually being penalized for buying links. The ones I’ve seen have been pretty obvious either through sponsored themes, automated link networks, or the most obvious sitewide footer links.
They do offer a method for buying links without getting in Google-hot-water with the much maligned and oft misapplied rel=”nofollow” link or through a robots.txt block:
Links purchased for advertising should be designated as such. This can be done in several ways, such as:
- Adding a rel=”nofollow” attribute to the <a> tag
- Redirecting the links to an intermediate page that is blocked from search engines with a robots.txt file
Which is a all well and good if you are running the site and have control over the links. But what if you are buying the links? What Google is failing to recognize is that sometimes people may actually buy links because they want the traffic. Gasp. It is possible that a permanent link purchased for a set price will in the long run cost less per click than… let’s say… an adwords ad.
I haven’t mentioned the negative SEO aspect yet, as I’m not convinced that it’s really a viable method, but it is often discussed. If Google is penalizing sites that buy links generally the next thought in the room is “Then I’ll just buy my competition a bunch of links and report them!”. First off I’m not 100% convinced they actually penalize the buying sites but rather just discount the links from the sites that sold them, which if the case you are just paying money for clicks to your competition. Not generally a good business practice. Second, I’m not sure they’ll react to all of the reports so you may in fact be buying them some links that will help them in the rankings PLUS the clicks, also not a sustainable plan. Either way there are a fair amount of webmasters out there worrying that someone else can buy links to their site and have it hurt them.
With all this in mind, the desire to buy links (that you cannot control the format of) for traffic and the logical concern that someone else could buy links to your site that may hurt you I propose that Google institutes a “Report My Paid Links” or “Disavow Links” feature in Webmaster Tools.
I envision this tool to allow a webmaster to list domains or pages that have linked to their verified domain that they do not want to count for or against them in ranking. It’s a way for a webmaster to say that they’ve purchased links for traffic in a local directory or perhaps a high profile school newspaper but don’t want to give the impression that those links were purchased for PageRank manipulation. It would have the added benefit of letting a webmaster feel more at ease if they see some spammy links pointing to their site that they may want to disavow. Oh, perhaps the old idea that there is almost nothing a competitor can do to harm you still applies and those links won’t actually hurt you, but it would be a good thing to help put them at ease.
So I say: Google, please let me report paid links! Let me tell you which links I bought for traffic. Let me tell you so that if somebody reports my site as a link buyer you can see that I already told you about them, increasing your trust in me rather than taking the chance that some human reviewer gets it wrong. Let me have those links on record in case the link I bought which was on a nofollow page is changed later by the webmaster without my knowledge.
Then again if you are only going to punish the sellers and not the buyers, then say so, so we can put all this “Google bowling” non-sense behind us.