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Measuring the quality of an ad system

Many bloggers and other website owners around the world aren’t selling their content these days, they’re financing their site with advertising. Almost every ad system seems to be a compromise. You can measure this compromise across different parameters: is the ad relevant? Is it unobtrusive? Is it disclosed? Is the product or service advertised fair to users? Is the ad directly influencing search engine rankings? Is the ad creating a conflict of interest? Is the ad obfuscating the voice of the website owner?

As an example, let’s look at Google AdSense ads by analyzing these parameters. AdSense come in various flavors, so we’ll pick the AdSense image ad type. This type of ad is sometimes relevant, but not always; Google’s technology aims to deliver an ad that somehow matches the content of the page it’s own, but they’re not always successful. It is sometimes obtrusive – because it allows for animations – though this also depends on the placement on the page. It is always disclosed, by the way Google serves the ad (ignoring some rare bugs that appeared in the past). Whether or not the advertised site is fair to consumers depends on the type of ad (Google does some monitoring of their ads, but there’s a lot of weird stuff in their program as well). This type of ad is not directly influencing search engine rankings, because of the way it’s delivered (using a combination of JavaScript and inline frames). The conflict of interest for the website owner is very low, because many ads are rotated, and there is no manual approval mechanism. This type of ad also doesn’t require you to “lend your voice” to the ad – an advertorial, which starts with e.g. “This site recommends the following product …” – thus it will not obfuscate your voice, unless it’s placed in such a way that people will confuse it with your content.

Whether or not this ad type is acceptable to the blogger thus depends on a variety of factors which need to be balanced. Maybe the website owner will decide that the ad is relevant enough most of the time, or that the animations are so rare they don’t particularly mind. Pragmatically speaking, the higher the payout for the website maker, the higher (on average) the chance they’ll go along with a bigger compromise. If you’re a webmaster who doesn’t accept popup advertising, for instance, ask yourself; would you allow popups on your site for 1 hour only (ever) with a payout of, say, $100,000? If you answered “yes”, then you can see how the payment influences your judgment of what is acceptable.

Let’s take the example of a classical paid link, because the topic caught some additional heat lately when Google employee Matt Cutts announced a way to report on such paid links through Google’s spam report form. A classical paid link, unlike AdSense text ads or affiliate links, makes the webmaster a flat amount of money for the ad display in a given amount of time; e.g. the link will read “Buy Sailing Boat” and will be up on the website for 1 month for a payment of $100.

There’s a variety of these services around, and a large number of websites – like A List Apart, 9Rules, 37signals, Kottke.org, TechCrunch, Search Engine Land, Search Engine Journal, to name just a few – advertise text link brokers. One of Google Blogoscoped’s main sponsors in 2004, for instance, was Text-Link-Ads.com (around the time when I sold text link ads myself, pointing to such things as WordPress templates, or search engine optimization consultants in the right hand ad bar). In fact, Google themselves promote paid link brokers via their AdSense advertisements, which is interesting in the context of the spam report form Matt Cutts suggested for paid links (Google was not available for comment so far).

The compromise of paid links

So what’s the compromise with paid links then, when measured across the different parameters? We’ll quickly realize it’s doing fairly well with some parameters and doing quite bad with one other parameter. Paid links are sometimes relevant, sometimes not. They’re almost always unobtrusive. They’re sometimes disclosed, but not always. They’re sometimes advertising those services which are completely fair to users, and sometimes not. Most importantly in the context of search engines, they have the potential to directly influence search rankings of the advertised site.

To understand why paid links can influence search rankings, we need to look at one of the main ranking approaches of search engines today, which can be wrapped up with “a link counts as a vote in the web democracy.” Not every link will count the same – it also depends on the power of the page that sends the link, which Google measures as PageRank. Making a link count as a vote is one possible interpretation of what a hyperlink expresses, though the World Wide Web Consortium – the standards body putting forth recommendations that tell us how to write websites – merely defines hyperlinks as expressing a “relation” between two documents. Nevertheless, interpreting a link as being a vote had been a successful approach, in particular for Google, who with their technology dramatically improved search ranking relevancy in the late 1990s.

Text link brokers know this fact of paid links influencing search engine results very well, and it’s actually their main selling point. (“Google built an [algorithm] that placed value on links, so is it any wonder that an economy built upon selling those links sprouted up?”, search engine optimization consultant Michael Gray ponders.) Many of text link sellers, while often not touching the trademarked term “PageRank” itself, use vocabulary like “PR”, “Page Rank” or “Link Popularity” to describe the value of a webmaster’s page to the advertiser (as a webmaster, the higher your PageRank, the more money you can make from selling text links).

One of the players, TextLinkBrokers.com, pitches their service as follows: “Textlinkbrokers primary business is selling relevant links to help increase our customer’s link popularity.” Elsewhere, they continue to say, “While we do not sell links for direct traffic, we love direct traffic as a side-benefit.” Over at Text-Link-Ads.com, the top answer to the question of “why buy text link ads?” is this: “[they] can help your natural (organic) search engine rankings.” Sending traffic is listed as number two benefit. Text link seller LiveCustomer.com on their website argues, “The main benefit of text link ads is increased Search Engine Ranking.”

 

A PageRank 8 text link on an undisclosed “Home Page of IRC Chat Log Website” is being auctioned by LinkAdage.com. The bid starts at $190/ month.

Indeed, a paid link on a trusted site reading “Buy Sailing Boat” has the potential to push the advertised site into top rankings when you search for buy sailing boat. But many search engine makers consider this an unnatural way to rank pages, because their approach tries to work on site relevancy, not site advertising budget. Google in the past already heavily punished those websites which gained too many site-wide backlinks, with too similar wordings. Buy-Text-Links.biz on their site explain: “Text link buyers used to prefer site-wide text links, several or dozens of links throughout a site. The Search Engines no longer consider this an effective strategy. Text links on every page in a site appears contrived, rather than natural.” They add that one should make it a point “to vary the anchor text on the sites, which looks more natural.”

Some text link brokers also keep the sites that sell paid links secret in order to prevent punishment from Google and others. TextLinkBrokers.com on their website say “we understand that it is important to keep our inventory confidential. This is essential in order to prevent the search engines from penalizing our inventory partners from passing link popularity to our clients.”

 

A link from a PageRank 9 “Authority Computer Resource” homepage is said to have been sold for $599/ month. The broker is Buy-Text-Links.biz.

Enter “nofollow”

The battle between text link brokers and search engines could thus be described as this: text link ad sellers try to make the paid links look as natural and unpaid as possible, while search engines try their best to find unnatural link structures. A search engine maker can look at block structures of a website, for example, and lower the value of links which appear to stem from footer or sidebar areas, though this is by no means trivial. Another approach, recently emphasized by Google’s head of webspam team Matt Cutts, is for webmasters to include what Matt calls a “machine-readable disclosure” of such paid links (my emphasis):

[T]his seems like a pretty good opportunity to talk about a simple litmus test for paid links and how to tell if a paid link violates search engines’ quality guidelines. If you want to sell a link, you should at least provide machine-readable disclosure for paid links by making your link in a way that doesn’t affect search engines. There’s a ton of ways to do that. For example, you could make a paid link go through a redirect where the redirect url is robot’ed out using robots.txt. You could also use the rel=nofollow attribute.

The “nofollow" value for links was introduced by Google and others in 2005 to “prevent comment spam.” Google back then said they “encourage you to use the rel=’nofollow’ attribute anywhere that users can add links by themselves, including within comments, trackbacks, and referrer lists.” But the attribute value was also meant for webmasters to use “basically anywhere that you can’t or don’t want to vouch for the quality of a link”, as Matt Cutts later explained. As time went by, with statements like above, it became clear that Google wanted webmasters to use the “nofollow” attribute on paid links – as well as links within paid reviews – too. (It’s unclear where webmasters who actually would vouch for their advertisers fit into this discussion.) Some accuse Google of using “nofollow” as a “backdoor to weed out paid links” (Andy Beal), while others are happy that Google is increasing their efforts to battle those who game search rankings, strengthening white-hat search engine optimizers at the same time (Harith).

Should webmasters use paid links, and should they use “nofollow"?

But not everyone agrees it’s up to webmasters to help Google figure out how to rank websites. Romanian search blogger Ionut Alex. Chitu told me that webmasters should put paid links on a separated place on the website, and label them in such a way that users don’t think the webmaster is affiliated with them. Other than that, Ionut argues, “Search engines should be smart enough to detect navigation areas, unrelated links or spam.” When asked on whether he thinks webmasters should use the “nofollow" value, Ionut says, “No, they shouldn’t. Unless they care a lot about search engines. Ideally, webmasters should act as if search engines don’t exist.”

UK Google expert Tony Ruscoe on “nofollow” comments, “The search engines should stick to telling us what [they do] and let us decide when to use it. If I want to nofollow ads, that’s my choice.” Tony says search engines shouldn’t penalize you or the people you’re linking to just because you didn’t “nofollow” a link. (Tony is also a Google Blogoscoped blogger. Note that on Google Blogoscoped, all ad links are nofollowed or otherwise inactivated for search bots.)

Others think you’re participating in a search engine gaming scheme when you work with text link ads. Popular Waxy.org blogger Andy Baio – he’s also a Yahoo employee, and participant in The Deck ad system (which also includes text link broker promotions) – tells me (my emphasis in bold):

Paid links are almost always fine – if they operate as advertising designed to be viewed and clicked on by people. If the viewer is irrelevant and the target audience is a search engine crawler, it’s probably abuse. Would the advertiser still pay for the link if it included a nofollow? If not, it’s crossed the line from traditional advertising to search engine gaming.

It’s worth pointing out that when search engines are gamed, in a way so are their users – which means all of us who access Google, Yahoo and other engines everyday. “The paid link schemes have already polluted search results in many cases,” Jayson Joseph comments in the blog of a Google employee. While Andy thinks that text link brokers like Text-Link-Ads.com also sell traffic, he says they’re clearly “emphasizing the SEO benefits of using their service.” And while text link brokers tell advertisers they can improve organic search rankings, Andy remarks, “Unfortunately, there’s nothing organic about payola. It’s buying your way to the top.”

I asked Text-Link-Ads.com’s Patrick Gavin (who I consulted on some of his other ventures in the past) what he responds to accusations of his service gaming search engines. Patrick says that they have always promoted their product as a “dual benefit” helping both traffic as well as search engine rankings. “Our goal has been to build up a large enough marketplace of sites that you can purchase ads that would make sense to buy if they passed on a ranking benefit or not. We are achieving this goal for some of our clients and strive to get there for all of our clients.” Questioned on whether he would want to use “nofollow” on paid links – that “machine-readable disclosure” (Matt Cutts) – Patrick says, “Our clients want static html links void of the ’nofollow’ tag and so that is how we display our ads on our publisher websites.” Other text link brokers I contacted were not available for comment.

Webmaster responsibilities in the paid links economy

“Would you be interested in buying ad space on my hair care related site [depleted].com (PR 4)?

I can sell you a very cheap text link from the website homepage right panel (under recommended sites).

$ 7/month or $70/ year is what I am looking for. The link will be static and the rate is for unlimited clicks.”
– From a spam mail I received this week

Some webmasters are aware of the compromise of paid links, and the impact these might have on search rankings, and some aren’t. Some webmasters are aware of the “nofollow" value for links. But not all. And not everyone’s decided on the issue. Barry Schwartz, prolific blogger at Search Engine Land, as well as Search Engine Roundtable (where he uses related text link ads himself), tells me he has no strong opinion in either direction. “Paid links that are not nofollowed can influence search rankings. The search engines need to determine if they are bad for their search results.”

Many webmasters certainly appreciate the revenue of paid links. Scott Beale of LaughingSquid.com, a site which also uses paid links, says these are doing “[m]uch, much better” than AdSense for them. David Lee from Arlington, Virginia (USA) is the webmaster behind GoBackpacking.com, a site he began in 1999. He tells me he used a variety of ad systems, including Google AdSense, AdBrite, affiliates like Amazon or affiliates selling rail tickets or travel insurance, but that paid text links turned out to be “the strongest and most dependable source of web income" for him. David also finds text ads to be less distracting than Google AdSense.

One of the people I’ve talked to is 23-year old Emil Stenström of FriendlyBit.com. He’s a web developer from Stockholm, Sweden – as well as a juggler who can manage up to five balls – and he’s using text link ads on his PageRank 7 blog. (PageRank 7 is a very high value for a personal blog, and only rarely will non-multi-authored blogs go any higher than this.) Emil’s paid links section is titled “elsewhere” – sub-title: “Sites seems to pop up here for strange reasons” – and uses link texts such as “Windows Vista,” “myspace layouts,” or “website hosting,” pointing to outside domains like myspacemaster.net or forumla.de. To include the ads, Emil says he used a plugin provided for his blogging platform, WordPress.

 

Emil’s paid links section. (Emil told me he decided to remove the link “Paris Hotels” in the meantime.)

Emil, who makes about $450 per months from these paid links, says one thing he likes about text link advertising is that the ads are unobtrusive, and that his users “don’t get their face full of ads.” He’s considering AdSense, but finds that this would require a different layout than his current one because it’s dependent on user clicks. Emil says he’s heard about the “nofollow” attribute being suggested for paid links and doesn’t think it’s a good solution. “People buy links from me because it gets them a [search engine]-boost, not because of the traffic it gives them (which seems to be the only linkbuying Google is OK with).” Emil adds that he finds it “mighty disturbing” that Google seems to try to shut down ad schemes other than AdSense.

Asked whether he believes his paid links game search engines, Emil answers, “Some links do, some links don’t. What’s important is whether they are relevant or not, not if someone paid for them…” He outlines the compromise he’s struck: “Currently I have 9 spots that I let advertisers fill, and as soon as a more relevant site shows up I remove an irrelevant from the list (…) Relevancy is better for both me and the advertiser.” Emil says his approach is in some ways imperfect, arguing that being true to your users and making money from your site are “in many cases contradictory.”

I asked Emil about the way he discloses (or doesn’t disclose) his paid links. Emil tells me this was another compromise he made. “I did use the phrase ’advertisement’ as the header initially, but after an advertiser complained I decided to go with something generic like ’elsewhere’. It’s better than ’recommended’, that the advertiser asked for, I think.” During Emil’s communication with this particular advertiser, who represented a search engine optimization firm, Emil says he was offered to replace all of his links by links paid from this firm – provided he changes some things with the way he presents the ads on the page. “The first thing was to remove the word advertising above the links. I started asking him why and got the explanation that my whole site would be banned from [Google] and stop forwarding [PageRank] altogether if I didn’t do it.” The SEO firm representative claimed to have had this knowledge from a private email exchange with a Google engineer. “He explained how each page was manually examined by a Google Quality Engineer and how important it was that I wholeheartedly recommended his site in my own words.”

While Emil finally ended the relationship with this particular advertiser (“I obviously said no to his nonsense, and probably hurt his feelings, because he withdrew his link from the site at the end of the month”), this does bring up an important issue: adding a human-readable disclosure to your paid links increases the chance Google finds out about it, which in turn might allow them to devalue the links. In that case, the advertiser would not get what they paid the text link broker for – improved search engine rankings.

What penalties can webmasters expect?

The penalties that someone who buys links en masse can expect are known for years; their site might get banned or heavily down-ranked in Google for over-optimization. Hence text link brokers and those who advertise with them adjust their approaches in order to optimize, but not optimize too much. What can happen to those who sell paid links on their site, on the other hand, is a different story. One risk is rather obvious to search engine optimization experts: if you link to so-called “bad neighborhoods,” your own site will be down-ranked as well. But ever since Matt Cutts announced the spam report form for paid links, as an early experimental stage to collect data to try out algorithms, we have to ask ourselves if there’s more to it than the “bad neighborhood” risk.

Back in 2005, Matt Cutts argued that he considers it outside of Google’s guidelines “to get PageRank via buying links,” adding that he would use “nofollow" for paid links meant to actually build buzz. On potential penalties, he stated:

[W]hat is Google’s current approach to link buying? Of course our link-weighting algorithms are the first line of defense, but it’s difficult to catch every problem case in adversarial information retrieval, so we also look for problems and leaks in different semi-automatic ways. Reputable sites that sell links won’t have their search engine rankings or PageRank penalized – a search for [daily cal] would still return dailycal.org. However, link-selling sites can lose their ability to give reputation (e.g. PageRank and anchortext).

Matt repeated this in other places afterwards: yes, your page can maintain a healthy PageRank, but not pass on any PageRank itself. It’s still unclear whether or not Google introduced, or aims to introduce, additional penalties for site owners who sell links. Or whether they’re able to do so in the first place – not everyone believes that Google has all the tools to successfully penalize all those they consider gaming their rankings. Blogger Tony Hung wonders if in fact paid links are Google’s Achilles heel, writing “The problem is that links can be paid for and sold without any notification on your blog, and there would be impossible to tell. (…) [T]here is no way of knowing whether or not reviews of anything, including web2.0 properties, have been discretely paid for behind Google’s back.”

Search engine optimizer Aaron Wall also tells me he has doubts. “I think text links are exceptionally effective, and many of them are hard to detect too. You wouldn’t see search engineers spreading FUD [Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt] and / or begging for help against paid links if they were not effective. There are risks if one is too aggressive, but as long as paid links is only a small portion of your overall marketing strategy it should not have much risk. And the bigger a brand is the more they can get away with. Just look at how quickly BMW was re indexed in Google.” (BMW.de was briefly removed from Google’s index after the discovery of “optimization” pages on their site which were against Google’s webmaster guidelines.) SEO blogger Tetsuto Yabuki, who goes by the handle of Halfdeck, in a comment on Matt Cutts’ blog ponders, “Is nofollow used to help Google detect paid links, or are they there to protect my site from getting penalized?”

Options in the paid links debate

Depending on where you’re at on this issue, you will ponder different options. The aim of search engine makers like Google is pretty clear (they don’t want non-nofollowed paid links), and the position of text link brokers is clear as well (they only want non-nofollowed paid links). Both sides of the issue are conflicted in their interests; Google Inc runs an ad system (which does not promise better search ranks), and text link brokers run ad systems (which do promise better ranks). Between these sides, there’s a variety of positions and interests: bloggers/ webmasters trying to make some money on the side from paid links, webmasters advertising text link brokers, ad network makers accepting text link broker promotions, Google users who want better Google results, blog visitors who want unobtrusive ads (including those blog visitors who never click on ads, ever, as Brinke Guthrie tells me), and those netizens who might not particularly care about a search company’s ranking problems at all.

In the current debate, you can’t shake off the feeling that Google would get more webmasters onto their train if only they told them where the train is heading; and perhaps, to tell them if the train is supposed to stop somewhere (“nofollow” has grown considerably over time and right now is used for such a variety of purposes as Wikipedia’s outgoing links or Slashdot.org’s credit links, uses which to some extent are contrary to the Google Webmaster guidelines statement “Make pages for users, not for search engines”). On the other hand, for a text link broker to disperse all accusations, introducing “nofollow” to their system might be an option. Not many text link brokers would survive such a move, but those that would apparently did more than sell search engine rankings. And webmasters, as usual, have to ask themselves whether paid links are an ad compromise really worth making.

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