The Blurry Lines Of Google’s Paid Links Policy

As you probably know, Google isn’t a fan of people paying for links that pass PageRank. It’s considered to be a manipulation of search results and a violation of Google’s quality gui...
The Blurry Lines Of Google’s Paid Links Policy
Written by Chris Crum
  • As you probably know, Google isn’t a fan of people paying for links that pass PageRank. It’s considered to be a manipulation of search results and a violation of Google’s quality guidelines, which are the focus of Google’s Penguin update. It’s interesting that there seem to be exceptions to the rule, such as a directory like Best Of The Web, which has users pay for their sites to be considered for links.

    Update: BOTW has gotten back to us since this article was published. Please see BOTW President Greg Hartnett’s comments toward the end of the article.

    Perhaps more interesting is that some similar directory sites, which aren’t necessarily in clear violation of Google guidelines seem to be getting penalized, or at the very least drawing the ire of unhappy webmasters looking to get their link profiles cleaned up after receiving messages from Google.

    Should a directory in which you have to pay to get a listing be treated like other sites that offer paid links? Let us know what you think in the comments.

    Google recently launched a PageRank update, and many directory sites saw their PR plummet. Best Of The Web, meanwhile, has managed to maintain 4s, 5s and 6s. At at a time when flustered webmasters are looking to eliminate lower-end links, the topic of directory links on the web seems more relevant than it’s been for quite some time.

    Webmasters Are Angry

    Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Roundtable ran a very interesting story about Google being “the cause of lawsuits over links to web sites.”

    “Can you imagine writing a story, linking that story to other relevant web sites and then years later being hit with a lawsuit over linking to a web site?” he asks.

    The gist is that webmasters who have been receiving those messages from Google about unnatural links are threatening to sue sites that are linking to them. “Some webmasters are taking extreme measures and threatening to sue publishers and webmasters who are linking to them,” he reports.

    I don’t know how often this is actually happening, but I can’t say it’s much of a surprise. If any such lawsuit is successful, then we have a problem.

    I don’t know about the legal threats, but I do know a lot of directories are getting angry emails from webmasters who have links coming from them.

    Google has taken issue with directories in the past – sort of. Here’s what the company told us in 2007:

    There’s no “outright penalty” for being a directory, but we do value, as I’m sure you’ve heard, “unique, compelling content.”

    Directories can run into the problem of not containing original information.

    There do seem to be some directories that have historically received a bit more respect from Google. This includes Best Of The Web, which as I said, charges users for possible inclusion.

    Google has talked about this in the past. Here’s a video about it from Matt Cutts from 2009:

    The user-submitted questions Cutts was responding to was:

    Will Google consider Yahoo! Directory and BOTW as sources of paid links? If no, why is this different from another site that sell[s] links?

    He doesn’t entirely answer the question, however. He does say:

    “Whenever we look at whether a directory is useful to users, we say, ‘OK, what is the value add of that directory?’ So, you know, do they go out and find their entries on their own, or do they only wait for people to come to them, you know, how much do they charge and what’s the editorial service that’s being charged?”

    “If a directory takes $50 USD and every single person who ever applies in the directory automatically gets in for that 50 dollars, there is not as much editorial oversight as something like the Yahoo directory, where people do get rejected. So, you know, if there is no editorial value add there, then that is much closer to paid links.”

    So basically, it sounds like if a directory rejects some things, this is OK.

    How Best Of The Web Works

    So how does Best Of The Web Work, exactly? You go to submit a site, and you’re presented with a page like this:

    Best of the Web

    It’s clear that the main motivation for submitting to this directory is to help your search engine rankings. It says, “Listing your website in the internet’s most respected directory will help increase your website’s visibility in major search engines.”

    The first example of a “link scheme” Google lists on its page about them is: “Links intended to manipulate PageRank.” While I can’t find anything on BOTW that specifically says anything about PageRank, is that not what submitters are after here?

    Best Of the Web presents multiple quotes from various marketing-types, like:

    “After implementing a plan with listings across several BOTW directories, we were able to see immediate and quantifiable improvement in our rankings. Working with BOTW has been a great success for Marriott.” — Benjamin Burns, Search Specialist

    “BOTW provided excellent service for us and our listings. I would hire them over and over again every time we need directory listings.” — Marek Wawrzyniak, SEO Specialist

    “Best of the Web has proven to be a successful strategy for Extra Space Storage when coupled with other local SEO techniques. We have seen a consistent ranking improvement in many areas with our local storage facilities by having Best of the Web part of our organic strategy.” — Tim Eyre, Interactive Marketing Manager

    It’s obvious that the reason one would want to be listed in this directory is SEO. It’s not because people are going to the directory to search for businesses. It’s an SEO strategy – something BOTW seems pretty up-front about.

    Link Schemes

    Let us refer to that “Link Schemes” help center page (linked to from its Quality Guidelines page) for a moment. That says:

    Your site’s ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to you. The quantity, quality, and relevance of links count towards your rating. The sites that link to you can provide context about the subject matter of your site, and can indicate its quality and popularity. However, some webmasters engage in link exchange schemes and build partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. This is in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact your site’s ranking in search results. Examples of link schemes can include:

    • Links intended to manipulate PageRank
    • Links to web spammers or bad neighborhoods on the web
    • Excessive reciprocal links or excessive link exchanging (“Link to me and I’ll link to you.”)
    • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank

    Let’s read that last one again. “Buying or selling links that pass PageRank.”

    Links That Pass PageRank

    As far as I can tell, if you have managed to get listed in Best Of The Web, the link will pass PageRank. The links I looked at do not include the nofollow attribute, which would prevent them from passing PageRank:

    The links marked as “ads” at the top of category pages do include the nofollow atribute.

    The category page above has a PageRank of 5. Some pages are higher, and some are lower. The home page has a 6.

    Back To The Submission Process

    If you click to get started, you are prompted to provide your email address (twice), and then to fill out a large form. The last part of that form is for the payment details:

    Best Of The Web Payment Details

    You can choose from two plans: annual fee or one time fee. Once you click submit, your card will be charged. You must check the box that says you’ve read the ToS and privacy policy. It’s only when you click through to the ToS, and through one more link there, that you find out your site may not even appear in the listings. It says, “There is no guarantee that my site will be added to the directory” and that the charge is non-refundable. You agree that you understand that, “BOTW editors, in their sole and final judgement, shall determine the suitability, placement, title and description of all sites listed in the BOTW Directory.”

    There’s nothing wrong with BOTW wanting to be selective in the editorial process. That’s what Google has indicated in the past is actually what makes directories like this higher quality in Google’s eyes. That said, Google is always preaching about user experience, and encouraging sites to provide what’s best for the user. User trust has been a major theme, particularly since the Panda update.

    BOTW does require submitters to read the TOS, before charging them, but the part about potentially not being included, even with no refund, seems a bit buried.

    Is BOTW’s practice OK in Google’s eyes because they’re using enough judgment not to include EVERY link that people are paying for in hopes of a listing?

    Is This What Google Wants From A Directory?

    I’m not going to advise you sell or pay for links at all, but I feel like Google is sending some very mixed signals here.

    Search engine industry vet Tim Mayer, who worked from Yahoo until 2010, tells WebProNews, “It is interesting as they [BOTW] are positioned similarly to the Yahoo directory of old with editors and payment. Other directories’ such as model failed due to Google changing their treatment of them. Not sure if this was due to quality or the lack of editorial oversight.”

    “Many other directories are or are considered spam sites/directory link farms as they are just pages of paid links,” he adds. “Seems to me this is may be legacy treatment. But I have not looked at BOTW and analyzed it in some time. Google probably has a better sense of if this is a good authority hub or not. If it is they should use it. I would bet that they are better quality than most directory sites.”

    But it’s not really even an issue of quality. It seems like more of a double standard on Google’s part, given that the company clearly lists “Buying or selling links that pass PageRank” as an example of a link scheme.

    Editorial judgment is clearly a factor, but is it really the “best” of what the web has to offer or is it some of the best, with some that actually paid for reviews getting in there too, regardless of whether or not they’re really the best. Update: Hartnett says “an almost imperceptible percentage” of the links are from those who paid for the reviews.

    Look at this listing for on BOTW’s Business Classifieds category page, for example. A quick glance at this site (complete with loading errors) doesn’t suggest “best” of what the web has to offer in this niche, though this is certainly subjective. It doesn’t even seem to be largely business-oriented, but more property and boat oriented. For the record, I have no idea if this site paid or not.

    Granted, the site is nowhere to be found in Google, for the query “business classifieds” (at least within the first six pages). It’s hard to say how much value that site may have gotten from paying to be listed in Best Of The Web, but I guess they at least got a PageRank 4 link out of it (PR for that category page).

    Obsess With Google’s Quality Guidelines or Not?

    Webmasters are frantically trying to distance themselves from some directory sites after getting messages from Google about unnatural links. Even directories who have never offered paid links are getting emails from upset webmasters. Jayde, for example (disclosure: owned by WPN parent iEntry), has gotten quite a few. Jayde has never offered paid links, and recently made all links nofollow.

    If webmasters are looking to start suing sites that are linking to them because they are under the impression that these links are hurting them, that’s pretty bad.

    Interestingly enough, Google used to encourage directory submissions.

    “In fact, if you look at our webmaster quality guidelines, we used to have a guideline that says, you know, submit your site to directories, and we gave a few examples of directories,” Cutts explains in that video. “And what we find, or what we found was happening, was people would get obsessed with that line and go out and look for a lot of directories.”

    “We ended up taking out that mention in our webmaster guidelines so that people don’t get obsessed with directories and think, “Yes i have to go find a bunch of different directories to submit my site to,’’ says Cutts in the video.

    I realize this video is 3 years old, but I have to say, this seems to be an example of mixed signals coming from Google again.This would indicate that you shouldn’t obsess over the things in Google’s quality guidelines, but as you probably know, the Penguin update, which launched a couple weeks ago, was all about targeting sites violating the quality guidelines.

    To Sum Up

    – Google used to encourage directory submissions from the quality guidelines.

    – Google decided people shouldn’t obsess about that.

    – Now people are freaking out about links that they have from such directories that they submitted to, and some may even be so angry as to threaten legal action (though I can’t imagine there are any legitimate grounds).

    – Best of the Web, who charge money for the chance to have links designed to influence search visibility, which seems like it would violate Google’s guidelines aren’t considered a major problem.

    Something seems wrong with that picture.

    We’ve reached out to Google for comment and have not heard back from them.

    Update: We have received a thoughtful response from Best Of The Web President Greg Hartnett.

    On the criteria for sites to be considered the “best,” and gain a listing, President Greg Harnett says, “Our guidelines for listing are pretty straightforward: we list sites that contain quality, unique content in the most relevant category within the directory. If the site does not provide a user with informative content then we don’t list it. We have always been focused on providing the user with quality content from trustworthy sources.”

    “When users (humans or spiders) come to BOTW, they know that they can trust that (for instance) all of the listings in a San Francisco real estate category contain relevant information about San Francisco real estate,” he adds. “A human being has been in there and verified it. We’ve got a dedicated team of fantastic editors that ensure that.”

    On the percentage of submissions that are rejected, Hartnett says, “I don’t work the submission queue, so I don’t really have a handle on the specific numbers. However, as a percentage of total submissions, I believe that we reject fewer sites now than we did in the past. The overall quality of submissions has increased as the years have gone by. Perhaps in general, people are now building better sites. Perhaps it’s a matter of more people knowing that BOTW doesn’t accept low quality sites, and they don’t even bother submitting. Whatever it is, I know that it makes our editors happier.”

    We asked: It seems like Google advises against paid links, but doesn’t Best of the Web charge users to have their links reviewed for possible listting?

    “Google certainly advises against paid links,” Hartnett tells us. “We’re not a pay for placement, or link buying platform. Payment for review in no way influences whether or not a site is listed within the directory. The fee is for the review, and is non-refundable. It’s not for a link. We caught a lot of flack about that policy in the early years of the directory, but we did it for a reason. We retain complete editorial control and integrity with each submission and listing. It’s completely up to our editors to decide is the site gets listed, and if listed, the title, description and category placement.”

    “It should also most definitely not be overlooked that the review model accounts for a minuscule amount of the listings within the directory,” he adds. “We have millions of listings, of which our editors have added approximately 95% for free. They work daily scouring the web adding quality sites to relevant categories to build a more comprehensive resource. An overwhelming majority of the listings in the directory have had zero interaction with BOTW at all, nonetheless paid for a review.”

    “I have no idea why Google does or does not approve of what it is we are doing,” says Hartnett. “I don’t work for or with Google and I don’t have any access to them outside of what Joe Internet does. I’d be surprised if they thought about us at all, but if they did I would like to think that they respect what it is we have been doing for all these years.”

    “We feel we have put together (and continue to build) a fantastic resource for users that are interested in finding resources that they can trust,” he says. “We have always focused on providing the user with quality resources, and figured users appreciated, and will continue to appreciate, that effort. We’ve recently added the ability for editors and site owners to add social information for each listing, as we continue to evolve with the landscape and provide users with additional information about listings as well. It’s really been a fantastic project to have been working on for the last decade or so, and we’re excited to continue on our mission.?”

    Do you think Google is sending mixed signals about paid links? Let us know in the comments.

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