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The Paid Link Stages Of Grief

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Let the bargaining begin. It’s a natural stage of mourning. As Google shuffles loose the paid links from its algorithms, SEOs are cycling past their initial denial, their outrage, and have begun negotiating. Stay tuned; depression and acceptance are likely to follow.

The Paid Link Stages Of Grief
The Paid Link Stages Of Grief

On his blog this morning, SEOMoz.org’s Rand Fishkin gave a sneak peak at the presentation he has intended for PubCon in Las Vegas. It’s topic: A solution to the paid links debate.

Fishkin introduces (I’m using a looser sense of this verb, which I’ll get to later) his solution/compromise as "Sponsored Editorials." If this strikes you immediately as similar to pay-per-post, you might be right, but Fishkin has put some idealistic stipulations on an admittedly imperfect model without actually outlining how it differs.

Instead of selling a link, Fishkin suggests selling reviews with links in them. In essence, webmasters are paying for the review, not the link. The reviewer is paid whether or not he or she posts something positive. The link is designated "nofollow" if the reviewer is not offering an endorsement, or the nofollow attribute is removed is the reviewer does offer endorsement.

"The marketplace has to exist," he writes, "and search engine have to fight against what they perceive to be manipulative, non-editorial votes. But, what if there was a solution that could make both sides happy? A place where money changed hands between parties, but editorial decisions still came into play?"

Commentators are quick to point out that while it as at least a step in some direction, it seems only a matter of time (and perhaps very quickly) before this system is also gamed, before money under the table is exchanged for the removal of nofollow tags, before reviewers run unscrupulous review systems. One suggests a more complicated system of credibility ranking, to help control for that.

Or the kind of credibility system like the one Google’s been working on for years. Fishkin’s proposal comes with unfortunate timing. Over the weekend, Google’s Matt Cutts, in a lengthy post, intimated that paid reviews (paid posts) are also on the webspam team’s radar.

Cutts reiterates Google’s commitment to assuring quality information and utilizes the sobering example of brain tumor treatment research. A person researching such a horrifying diagnosis would most likely be aghast, or at least potentially ill-served (if you’ll forgive the pun) if sponsored reviews of medical treatments like radiosurgery influenced the patient’s research results.

Especially if they are reviews like the ones Cutts exhibits where reviewers have bad spelling or demonstrative lack of knowledge about that which they are reviewing.

"For this very important (potentially even life-or-death) medical topic," writes Cutts, "we saw paid reviewers admit that they knew nothing about a treatment before getting paid to post about it, or who didn’t research the subject enough to know that a treatment was decades old instead of brand-new. We saw people writing about brain tumors who didn’t even spell ‘tumor’ correctly, and we saw people who got the name of the sponsor wrong."

In short, things aren’t looking good for the paid post. At least, where one is openly or obviously paid.

A cynical contributor to Aaron Wall’s SEObook, though, makes a fair point that Cutts’ example (that it was fear-based notwithstanding) denies the reality of medical research and the big money behind it. Wall questions whether paid posts are worse than sponsored research, and calls on "RFK" to drive it home:

"The irony is that most/all of the articles that he would prefer to see on the Google SERPS are researched, assembled and ghost written by pharma companies. Having worked with a number of clients in the medical field it’s become more and more apparent that the ‘studies’ published by well-known academics are most often based on research by the drug companies, scripted by a hired copywriter and given to the academic to sign off and publish under their byline."

Surely, and one is also reminded of recent accusations that certain FDA commissioners rejected experimental cancer drug Provenge because of their investments in chemotherapy, a competing treatment.

Though Wall’s post switches direction and delves into the more esoteric concept of "the googlization of reality," the point that no industry or topic is without its vested interests and stakeholders rings a resonant (and perhaps more deeply frightening) bell.

For even the purity of Wikipedia, which Google loves to champion, is not without its soiled fringes – what with secret mailing lists and editor witch hunts gumming up the gears from time to time (watch out for "free range sarcasm").

On to the next stage of grieving then, which is depression for SEOs now looking to bargain with Google about (overtly) paid anything – and that general malaise that comes with the cracking of an ideal that anything, even within Google’s gleaming search rankings, is pure.

And acceptance? Well, if it ever comes, it will be accepting that our porcelain ideals are chipped in practice, are borrowed eventually from the realization that the Behaviorists were right (nothing is without prior motivation), and are never without a dark mirror of an ideal to contradict. But that’s no reason not to have them, now is it?

The Paid Link Stages Of Grief
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  • http://web.mac.com/whstroud William H. Stroud

    Sounds like closing down the whorehouse in favor of escort services, which of course sell only companionship between consenting adults.

    Seriously, credibility is simply reputation. I trust the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to make an honest effort to give the news fairly and honestly because my experience has taught me that, despite occasional lapses, I can usually trust them. A credible web source will have to build a similar foundation of trust, which means transparency regarding conflicts of interest, a responsible editorial hand and a willingness to correct errors as soon as they are found out.

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