Have Reputation, Will Sell – The Market for Links

One day a few years ago I asked my son if he had homework. He told me not to worry because he had a “homework pass”. In other words, he had earned a pass from his teacher to use to cancel out (excuse) a missed homework. I immediately outlawed that practice for him. Missing homework means missing material needed for learning. A few weeks later he told me that his friends were wanting to “buy his homework passes” and is it right to sell them? Very quickly I learned about a market that had developed at his middle school whereby kids were buying and selling homework passes! It is amazing how fast a market develops around a good idea – even when that idea hurts the integrity of the very system in which it developed.

One of the things that fascinate me about Google’s PageRank is the fact that it was basically created to mimic the practice in academia of establishing professors’ research reputations. Professors in research institutions build their reputations by publishing in peer reviewed journals. Their goal is to make a significant contribution to the literature, and it is that literature which provides a foundation for their works. In other words, their works build on the works of others. It is a responsibility to acknowledge the contributions of others to your work. It is an honor to be ‘cited’ in someone else’s work – especially if that person has a better research reputation than yourself or publishes in a high quality journal. This is how you build an academic reputation. Google’s PageRank does essentially the same thing for websites. It evaluates a site not only by its URL and the relevancy of its contents to the search term, but also by the quality of its incoming links – or the number of links from other sites that link back to the site, as well as, the number of links that link back to those sites. If a site with higher quality backlinks (or a higher PageRank) links back to your site, this is a nod of approval of the site.

Thus, the emergence of a market – the purchase of reputation through the buying and selling of links. The sellers? Those who have established reputations and high PageRank. The buyers? Those who are just getting on the web and are looking for ways to increase PageRank. And then there are the swappers - those that follow the axiom “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”.

If you have a website, at some point you will be contacted by someone wanting to be your “link partner” or someone wanting to “buy text links” on your site. Is this a good idea? The jury is still out for me on this. My first instinct is that it is a free market. Let freedom ring. Just keep in mind that many of these unsolicited emails are simply suspicious or even dishonest marketing tactics. You are likely to pay money for nothing. But even for those that are legitimate, freedom goes both ways. Let Google protect the integrity of their search system as well. Matt Cutts (Shout out to him: Go Big Blue!), head of Google’s Webspam Team, seems to take a lot of criticism for his staunch views on protecting Google’s search engine integrity. He has this to say:

Google (and pretty much every other major search engine) uses hyperlinks to help determine reputation. Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and link-based analysis has greatly improved the quality of web search. Selling links muddies the quality of link-based reputation and makes it harder for many search engines (not just Google) to return relevant results.

He goes on to suggest the penalty:

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).

And more from Matt at Google’s Webmaster Central Blog:

If, however, a webmaster chooses to buy or sell links for the purpose of manipulating search engine rankings, we reserve the right to protect the quality of our index. Buying or selling links that pass PageRank violates our webmaster guidelines. Such links can hurt relevance by causing:
- Inaccuracies: False popularity and links that are not fundamentally based on merit, relevance, or authority
- Inequities: Unfair advantage in our organic search results to websites with the biggest pocketbooks.”

And more from Google:

“Not all links are equal: Google works hard to improve the user experience by identifying spam links and other practices that negatively impact search results. The best types of links are those that are given based on the quality of your content.”

So it is safe to say that Google does not condone outright link-buying for the sake of raising PageRank.

However, Google ironically promotes link buying in some ways. For example, to improve your ranking in search engine page results, Google suggests that you “Submit your site to relevant directories such as the Open Directory Project and Yahoo!, as well as to other industry-specific expert sites.” This draws fire from critics because these directories may charge a fee for listing. Essentially Google is saying that it is ok to buy and sell links in some respects. So how do we know when it’s ok? Jim Boykin debates this in his blog. He suggests that the determining factor is whether or not there is some human element to the review decision and the possibility that the link will not be traded.

Ultimately, Jim suggests this:

“Getting a few of the right links, from the right places can be more valuable than getting 100 links from the wrong places.” He provides some great graphic analogies depicting what link buying does for a site’s reputation.

Aaron Wall, of SEO Book, suggests additional legitimate ways of buying links here.

In other words, DO YOUR OWN HOMEWORK. Think about the potential consequences of buying the pass. Follow good practices to make your site easily found on the web, and don’t overdo it or over pay for it. As businesses who want to sell online, the important lesson is to have a good product that people find worthy of buying. Build a reputation the old fashioned way – earn it.

I started this blog a few months ago. It naturally had a PageRank of zero. I am quite proud that it now has a PageRank of 2. I have a long way to go…

Bibliography and Additional Reading:

John Battelle, The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, Penguin Group, 2005, NY, NY

Aaron Wall, SEO Book, http://www.seobook.com/archives/002422.shtml, How to: Buy Links Without Being Called a Spammer, August 17, 2007

Jim Boykin’s Blog, http://www.jimboykin.com/site-backlinks/, Why That Site With 50 Backlinks Beats Your Site With 1000 Backlinks, September 2006.

Jim Boykin’s Blog, http://www.jimboykin.com/link-buying/, Link Buying: Reviewed and Not Guaranteed Is the Line in the Sand, January 2008.

Matt Cutts, Google Webmaster Central Blog, Information about Buying and Selling Links that pass PageRank, http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2007/12/information-about-buying-and-selling.html

Matt Cutts, Matt Cutts, Gadgets, Google, and SEO, “Text Links and PageRank”, http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/text-links-and-pagerank/, September 2005 (Read article and comments for a good debate.)

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