(Disclaimer: I actually think the best solution is to drop the subject altogether. Paid links, to me, are like product placements on TV and in movies. Seeing Scarlett Johansson drinking a Coke doesn’t impact my enjoyment/trust of the movie, and a paid link on a site doesn’t change my enjoyment/trust of the site. But if Google thinks this is a problem, well….)
Given: Google can’t easily distinguish paid links from non-paid links. That much we know, thanks to Matt Cutts’ weekend plea for help.
Michael Jensen and I were apparently thinking alike today, at least at the idea level: Is there a better way to handle this “problem”? Michael’s idea, spelled out in his post The Perfect Solution to Paid Link Disclosure, involves the creative use of CSS to make a small image appear when a user mouses over a paid link. This method will tell human users what’s paid and what’s not, without telling search engines anything. I’m not a fan because it interferes with the user experience. It’s interesting, but it obviously doesn’t solve the so-called problem from Google’s point of view. Michael is attacking this from the disclosure angle; I think disclosure is just a symptom. The real problem is at the algorithm level, and that’s where any solution has to be targeted.
Now, I don’t believe it’s our job to solve Google’s problem for them, but I have a different idea on how to approach this issue.
Google’s idea: Find sites buying and selling links and filter/penalize them. This is inherently flawed.
- Ignore sites that are buying links. This is called “advertising” and no search engine can legislate how/where a business advertises itself.
- Find sites that are not selling links and reward them with a little algorithmic pat on the back.
Instead, focus on rewarding sites that aren’t selling links. Here’s how I’d do it:
1. Invite sites that don’t sell links to submit themselves as candidates for an official Google “attaboy.” That eliminates the possibility of submitting your competitors and setting them up for a penalty.
2. Give each submitted site a very detailed manual review to confirm that everything is on the up-and-up. It would prevent the black hat and dark gray hat-types from trying to get credit where it’s not deserved; those folks aren’t likely to say “Hey, Google, come look at my site with your fine-toothed comb.”
3. Re-review each submitted site manually every 3-6 months to make sure there are still no signs of link selling. (Yes, this will require a lot of warm bodies to do the reviews. Google has the money to hire 500 new employees tomorrow. They’ll be fine.)
4. Expand Webmaster Central to include detailed “flags” and reports about which outbound links are suspicious, i.e. – look like they might have been sold. Allow for an open line of communication between the webmaster and the reviewer to iron out any disagreements.
5. Set the algorithm to reward the non-sellers with enough “juice” to encourage those sites to continue to not sell links, but not so much that these sites suddenly leapfrog over authority sites that deserve a high ranking even though they sell links.
6. Permanently exclude Wikipedia from the ability to get this extra “We don’t sell links” juice. They don’t need it.
Personal anecdote: I don’t sell links on my hobby site about the rock band U2. It’s a not-for-profit operation. I even no-follow the handful of affiliate links on the site. But one of the other well-known U2 fan sites does sell links via Text Link Ads, and they appear to be making pretty good money, too. I’d never report them for doing so, because I just don’t care enough. But if Google gave me a way to say, “Hey – I’m not selling links” and gave me a little reward in the process, I’d do that in a heartbeat.
Bottom line: It’s better to reward the behavior you want than to penalize the behavior you don’t, especially when you can’t identify that behavior in the first place.
[tags]google, paid links[/tags]