Google vs. MSN on Paid Links and Cloaking
Don’t buy paid links! Paid links are bad! Don’t cloak either. Search engines don’t allow it. You’ve all heard this before right?
Well as it turns out, not ALL search engines are as hard line on these issues as some claim to be. MSN Live specifically has now gone on the record that none of the above are necessarily taboo.
Over the holiday break, Jeremiah Andrick, product manager for MSN Live Webmaster Tools, stopped by our offices. We did a lengthy video interview where we chatted about all kinds of good searchy things. Highlights of our chat included some of the emerging differences between Live Search and engines like Google on subjects like cloaking and paid links.
Google doesn’t like cloaking because it can be used to spam and fool their crawler.
Google doesn’t like paid links because their algorithm places such a high emphasis on links as a quality indicator, and paid linking subverts their system’s integrity.
Google’s solution to these problems has basically been to disallow paid links and cloaking and punish the sites that disregard their rules by penalizing or even booting them from the index.
Much to my surprise, MSN isn’t exactly following Google in this regard. They obviously aren’t going to recommend anyone use cloaking and paid links, but they don’t discount either practice as forbidden.
MSN Live Search is becoming a lot more interesting. Initially, Microsoft’s revamped search product drew some criticism for being basically a Google spin off in appearance, with less than stellar results.
The folks in Redmond haven’t just been sitting around though. The quality of their results has shown some nice progress, but more impressive (and promising) has been the quantum leaps they’ve made in terms of communicating with the webmaster community.
In our video interview, you might notice that Jeremiah says to avoid paid links. Apparently, the Live Search crew has reevaluated their stance on paid links. Live Search’s Nathan Buggia, in an email on the subject of paid linking said the following:
"Paid links are a gray area. Are they of value to the end user? Sometimes they are. Often they’re less valuable and less relevant than the organic links on a page. We reserve the right to treat them that way."
The operative phrase here is "a gray area". That’s not saying paid links are forbidden or evil or a bannable offense. Some paid links are crap, some… not so much so. Live Search is working on methods to evaluate and qualify links – paid or otherwise – before they ascribe authority to them.
When Jeremiah says in the video to avoid paid links, it would be more appropriate to rephrase that as ‘avoid bad (irrelevant/junk) linking’.
Webmasters have issues with Live Search indexing sites properly. I asked Jeremiah what he thought people were running into when Live Search wasn’t properly indexing them.
Jeremiah said most indexing issues fall into one of three categories:
1. Problems with design
2. Problems with content
3. Technological issues
According to Jeremiah, "It tends to be technological issues, or the content itself, that’s the problem," when people are having trouble being indexed correctly. "Most people are kind of hip to using better structure in their site," so design isn’t as often the culprit.
Jeremiah cited a mix between design and content as a specific problem. "Most publishing systems and CMSs a lot of people are using were designed 3 or 4 years ago," he said, before the now widespread recognition of the importance of crawlability and SEO in site design. As a result, some of these systems aren’t exactly the most efficient or effective in making a site’s content crawlable.
In terms of being totally optimized, Jeremiah said, "People do what they can, but I don’t think they always do enough or that they are not necessarily doing the right things".
But even under ideal circumstances, Jeremiah admits "you’re not going to get everybody and you’re not going to get everything out of everybody." As proof, Jeremiah offered a poignant example: "MSDN TechNet is a tier 1 site with eight or nine million documents in 42 different languages… I can tell you that it is not 100% indexed."
Their goal is likely common to all search engines… 100% indexability of everything. But that is just not a reality at this stage of search evolution.
We’re all pretty clear on Google’s position on cloaking by now. It’s a pretty simple and straightforward ‘no’. Never. Under no circumstances. It’s evil, it’s bad, it’s spammy. Don’t do it.
While MSN Live doesn’t exactly endorse cloaking, they do seem to have a slightly softer stance on the issue. Jeremiah and I talked about companies who make heavy use of Flash and other non indexable graphics on their sites.
At one point, we talked about Nike, whose site is made completely out of Flash. Jeremiah was quite up front about it, saying, "They break some of our rules just to get to the point where they can get all of their content indexed. They do a bit of cloaking and things like that."
Google of course, still indexes Nike. I’m pretty sure if MSN knows they cloak, Google can probably figure it out as well. I don’t look for Nike to suffer any Google penalties – much less be thrown out of the index for it though. However, if you aren’t Nike but maybe just a smaller webmaster, I don’t know that you’d be afforded the same considerations from Google. I’d just about bet on it.
On one hand you have Google, who apparently selectively enforces their strict no-cloaking policy depending on who you are. On the other hand, you have MSN saying sure, it goes on and while we don’t encourage it, we aren’t necessarily going to boot you from the index for it. Interesting, no?
At the end of the day, we didn’t hear too much in our video that we haven’t heard a few times before from every other search engine. Jeremiah told us in terms of SEO, "It’s always the basics. Keep it clean, let’s try to be natural, and as Live Search grows we’re going to try to provide better results for people when we’re able to do that algorithmically."
All pretty standard party line stuff. With the exception of their obvious difference in their stance on cloaking, and paid links, it could have been a Matt Cutts interview in many respects.
It’s not so much what was said, as it was who was saying it. Keep in mind, this is Microsoft. Typically, they don’t say diddly – or didn’t used to, at least.
I think this interview may be emblematic of an interesting movement going on at Microsoft. Traditionally, MS has been perceived as a closed empire – operating secretly behind closed doors, dispensing information strictly on a ‘need to know’ (or as subpoenaed) basis. Recently though, they seem to be trying to reach out a lot more.
Take for example, some of Jeremiah’s quotes: "The thing that Nathan and I are trying to do, and that is to bring more transparency… We want to endear ourselves to you and want you to want to work with us." From Microsoft? Really?
Then on GameSpy I see an email from their Xbox division publicly apologizing for holiday problems with the Xbox Live network. Could this be a kinder, gentler Microsoft emerging in 2008? And more importantly, will it lead to more marketshare for Live Search and more traffic for site owners?