We recently ran an article called "The Blurry Lines Of Google's Paid Links Policy". Much of the article talked about web directory The Best Of The Web, which has a submission process, requiring submitters to pay a fee to have their sites reviewed. If BOTW deems the site worthy, it will list a link in the appropriate category.
Since initially running the article, we've had an ongoing dialogue with Best Of The Web President Greg Hartnett, the initial part of which was included in an updated version of the article. Since then, he's responded to a few more questions.
BOTW considers any payment to be for the review process, rather than the link itself. However, when you are the webmaster paying for this review, isn't the end product you are expecting to receive a listing and a link? The review consists of BOTW choosing yes or no on whether to include the submission. Can you imagine anybody paying $150 for a submission to BOTW thinking they are paying for a review rather than inclusion in their directory?
What BOTW Says
"The end goal of the submissions is not a link - it's a review," Hartnett tells WebProNews. "Obviously we are not privy to the inner thoughts and motivations of the site owners who pay for review."
"While one may argue that those owners are in it for a link, maybe their motivation is simply a listing in a relevant category," he adds. "Maybe it's additional exposure for their site."
Google, according to its guidelines, frowns upon paid links that pass PageRank. As illustrated in the first article, the regular directory listings we looked at were made up of links that did not include the nofollow link attribute, which would keep them from passing PageRank.
We asked Hartnett if the links on BOTW are passing PageRank.
"Not all of them, no," he tells us. "Our spots that are influenced by the site owner, our Ads or sponsorships, are all nofollowed. We do this because even though those are still reviewed by an editor, the site owner has more control of the anchor text, description (which may be more marketing-centric than directory listings) and category placement. Those listings are not fully controlled by our editors, so they get the nofollow tag."
The listings marked as ads include nofollow. This reiterates what we said in the first article.
"Standard directory listings remain in our editors complete editorial control, and as such do not need the nofollow tag," Hartnett adds. "An editor looked at those listings (pay for review or not) and decided that they meet editorial guidelines and as such merit a listing. We vouch for that listing, so why would we nofollow it?"
BOTW's submission page touts the search visibility benefits of getting listed in the directory. Hartnett points out that such language is only used on one page out of over 110,000. However, that one page is the submission page where you would expect to see the benefits of paying for submission to BOTW. Clearly, the reason one would submit a site to BOTW is as BOTW's submission page says, to "increase your website’s visibility in major search engines".
What Google Says
We asked Google about the issue generically (not mentioning BOTW by name): Just to be clear, if a web directory charges people for links, and advertises these listings as a way to help the submitter's site gain visibility in major search engines, that would be a violation of Google's quality guidelines, correct?
Well, the advertising part may not be a violation, but on the topic of paid links that pass PageRank, the company simply referred us to its guidelines. So, here's the exact text of Google's Paid Links page linked to from its quality guidelines:
Google and most other search engines use links to determine reputation. A site's ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to it. Link-based analysis is an extremely useful way of measuring a site's value, and has greatly improved the quality of web search. Both the quantity and, more importantly, the quality of links count towards this rating.
However, some SEOs and webmasters engage in the practice of buying and selling links that pass PageRank, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. 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.
Not all paid links violate our guidelines. Buying and selling links is a normal part of the economy of the web when done for advertising purposes, and not for manipulation of search results. 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
Google works hard to ensure that it fully discounts links intended to manipulate search engine results, such as excessive link exchanges and purchased links that pass PageRank. If you see a site that is buying or selling links that pass PageRank, let us know. We'll use your information to improve our algorithmic detection of such links.
What Do We Make Of It?
Could the second paragraph be exactly where the lines are blurred? In one sentence, it says, "However, some SEOs and webmasters engage in the practice of buying and selling links that pass PageRank, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites." Emphasis added.
The next sentence is: "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."
That second part seems pretty clear, but the bolded part in the first sentence could be where BOTW is able to take advantage. The thinking seems to be that they exercise some editorial judgment, so it's OK.
So, by that logic, would it be OK for a publication like BusinessWeek to post an article called the "Top 10 SEO Services On The Web," but charge different SEO services for the ability to be considered to be on the list? And then at that publication's own discretion, possibly include some of those paying services on the list, with nice, PageRank-passing links?
For some reason, it doesn't seem like that would be cool with Google.
BOTW is a nicely organized directory, and is not your typical list of spammy links. However, the question is not how great of a directory BOTW is. It's whether Google's webmaster guidelines interpret the selling of a "review" that leads to inclusion in its directory as being equivalent to selling a link that passes PageRank. If not, Google ought to be more clear about this in its webmaster guidelines.