Google has been warning the SEO community it would put the smack down on paid links. The message started coming in loud and clear earlier this year with the Google guys and gals talking at conferences about how the GOOG don’t like no bought links, and that sparked a lot of debate on all the forums: Just how would search engines distinguish paid links from “natural” links?
Then, in case you weren’t listening, Google started a de-PageRankifying campaign that was sure to get the community talking: first it dropped the Toolbar PageRank of paid directories (presumably those that had been created for SEO purposes) and then, more dramatically, it stripped major general-interest sites like the WashingtonPost.com of their precious green Toolbar pixels.
“You listen’ now, punks?” asked Google.
That, all the savvy SEOs knew, was just a shot across the
bough bow, because does WaPo really care about how many green pixels it gets in the Toolbar? Does that change the economics of their business? No. But…with the holidays coming and Google having a reputation for making big, disruptive algo changes right before the big shopping season, I for one warned that sites utilizing paid linking as part of their link strategy would see the effects soon.
And in three… two … one:
Here’s are the Google rankings of one site for its top keywords and keyword phrases — check out what happened to that site’s rankings since Friday (I was out of the office on Monday, so it might have happened as recently as yesterday). [ed. I should note that none of the affected pages themselves lost any Toolbar PR, because the TBPR thing is only symbolic. It's the rankings (and therefore traffic) that actually matter.]
Just eyeballing this chart, it looks like paid links were stripped of their link juice, but not that the buyers of those links were heavily penalized. In the example above, most of the rankings dropped only a page — that’s significant, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not as bad as the dread Minus 30 penalty, or an outright ban. Unlike the Minus 30 penalty, there isn’t going to be an opportunity to beg forgiveness. The links that were devalued can be removed, but that won’t help get your rankings back up. In fact, it’s entirely possible that Google isn’t done with this update yet and that further drops in these sites’ positions will occur.
But not everyone loses out in this latest rankings shuffle, obviously. Some sites — those that didn’t participate in detectable paid linking — get to move up a couple of spots. (Well la-dee-da, lil’ Goody Two Shoes.)
But, you knew the “buy yourself top organic rankings” strategy wouldn’t last in the long run.
Or maybe I speak to soon… also possible that this was a one time index clean-up and not a permanent change to the algorithm, in which case you could continue to discreetly buy links on other sites that haven’t been outted yet. hmmm…. I’m not saying that paid links are the best value for your money right now, but people tend to overreact to changes in the search engine landscape. I really wouldn’t advise you to pull the plug on every paid link you have out there; knee-jerk reactions to an algo shift aren’t going to help. There’s no way that Google figured out every single link that’s been paid for on the entire Internet … point of the hyperbole: some of those paid links might still be worth quite a bit. The trick is knowing which ones.
I also want to know how this is going to effect business of the big text link brokers. Are people going to stop buying text links now? I for one still think there’s plenty of opportunity there, as long as sites selling links stop being so frickin obvious about it. Like the WashingtonPost – they put the same block of paid link on ALL of their tens of thousands of pages. Of course that was going to be detected!
How ’bout you? Are you changing your strategy? And how do you hope to make up for the lost rankings now that the paid links aren’t boosting your position (assuming you paid for links, that is)?
Updated December 7: May I Have This Google Dance?
Less than 2 weeks after I published the post above, a funny thing happened. All the rankings came back to what they were before and have been holding steady since. I think they listened to me when I said “good things come to those who don’t panic.” (Paid links are dead! Long live paid links?)