Why I don’t sell text links

Filed under: — 11:45 am

I wrote about people asking me to sell them text links to exploit my Google PageRank a couple of years ago. Since then the practice has become much more legitimate in some circles, but recently there’s been some controversy when it was discovered that a couple of technical sites were selling text links. Most recently O’Reilly’s under attack for selling links for things like “cheap hotels” on some of their sites.

Tim O’Reilly’s response is open and honest, and he’s still debating over the ethical issues. Greg Yardley responds by saying that search engines aren’t public utilities, and thus this is a business issue more than an ethical one:

It’s time to stop thinking of search engines as a common resource to be nurtured, and start thinking of them as just another business to compete with or cooperate with as best suits your individual needs.

I tend to agree—there are moral arguments both for and against this, and Google is a business like any other. But the most informative text in this whole discussion comes from Matt Cutts, a Google engineer who responded on Tim’s post:

Tim points out that these these links have been sold for over two years. That’s true. I’ve known about these O’Reilly links since at least 9/3/2003, and parts of perl.com, xml.com, etc. have not been trusted in terms of linkage for months and months. Remember that just because a site shows up for a “link:” command on Google does not mean that it passes PageRank, reputation, or anchortext.

I don’t think Google has ever been this specific about pagerank in public. He’s confirming that O’Reilly’s sites have been penalized for months—they don’t pass PageRank. This makes the advertiser’s links worthless, and worse, the links to other O’Reilly sites aren’t creating the value they should. This isn’t new—phpbb.com has been selling pagerank for years, and there’s evidence that their site no longer passes pagerank.

[Aside: Matt's listing of "PageRank, reputation, or anchortext" as if they're three different internal ranking schemes used at Google is very intriguing.]

So why don’t I sell PageRank on my sites? First of all, I want to pass it on to my own sites. Second, messing with things like this can leave you with a site that doesn’t pass PageRank at all, and when you’re trying to build a network of quality sites, that’s the last thing you want.

8 Responses to “Why I don’t sell text links”

  1. kd says:

    Most people use their PR for networking.

    I link to the different groups I join and different people I meet with hopes of getting a few returns links.

    Selling and bartering links within your social network is a natural extension of the networking.

    IMHO, It is not until you get into massive programatic link spamming that trouble occurs.

  2. Michael Moncur says:

    As far as I’m concerned, trouble occurs the second Google decides to penalize you. They seem to think that even a few links-for-PR like O’Reilly has are enough to warrant a penalty, and that’s enough to convince me it’s a bad idea.

  3. Perhaps Google should go the way of full disclosure and publish the PassRank, penalties, algorithms and human intervention rules together with the PageRank. I know they don’t do it in fear that people would game the system, but they do anyway. The link spammers have their own ways of determining values of PassRank and other penalties by web experiments. In fact this is their way of gaining competetive advantage. And only we the general public are left in the dark.

  4. chrispian says:

    This assumes that the reason for selling the link is PR. The fact is, links do still matter outside of PR. Can you imagine the amount of traffic O’Reilly gets? Those links are worth more than just the PR boost from Google. PR doesn’t even factor in to the SERP results as much as it used according to Google.

    The question that seems to be on the table is “is selling PR ethical”, and the answer is no, it’s even against the Google’s terms. But selling a text link, which is nothing more than a short text ad, is about getting traffic and instead of buying clicks through a PPC, you go to the source. This isn’t just ethical, it’s good business.

    That doesn’t take into account the fact that Google might penalize you. Selling PR is against their terms and the fact that selling a link is still selling PR, regardless of the intent, is a side note really. Google is the one forcing that rule. People don’t get penalized for buying billboards, or more to the point, for putting ads into a billing insert or another company.

    Basically, Google has found a way to create a monopoly on selling text links. If you sell them on your own you might get penalized by Google. I love Google, but I’ve always disliked this policy.

  5. Michael Moncur says:

    Chrispian: you have a good point. Text ads in general are often not anything to do with PageRank, and I hope Google knows that.

    In this case, I can imagine the traffic O’Reilly gets, and I have some sites that get less and some that get more. Based on my experience with running text ads, I can make a pretty good guess at how many clickthroughs the ads get—try to find them at the bottom of the sidebar at XML.COM yourself. They’re pretty well buried on the page and I’m sure the clickthrough rates are low to nonexistent.

    There’s a fine line, obviously, but Tim O’Reilly knows more than we do about the details of this particular case:

    it’s become clear to me on investigation that these folks are indeed paying us for our Google rank, and not just for clickthroughs. We just aren’t targeted enough for their ads to be justified on a click-through basis.
  6. Tim says:

    I agree with Chrispian. I sell/buy text links for traffic aswell as PR.

  7. Arnie says:

    I am at a total loss. If a web site doesn’t exchange links (and I have yet to see a pr7 that does) and if it doesn’t buy links as you make the case against doing, how can you ever get to be a 7 with no links or more precisly how do you get those thousands of links that make you a 7. I know a certain number of visitors will own their own website and a certain number of thios will be soimpressed they will stick a link on their own web site, but how does that ever because thousands. How do you get the hundreds of thousands of visitors needed to get the 1 or 2 per cent who will add your link. And how can you do it when you start out and have no pr?I am skeptically of people who seem to be wealthy and have no job or other visibkle means of support. i am, also skeptical of sites that seem to be born with a pr7. What I do know is that no site in this oprosition ever reveals its secret. Unless you included “I have killer content” an answer./ As if writing a great book would get it autmatically published an eqarn a million dollars.

  8. Michael,

    I have been a long-time individual to dispute acusations of risks of linking to a legitimate, non-spammy website other then your own directly for the reason to gain pagerank.

    However, I must say your explanation of your reasoning to not do it is non-disputable and very well said.

    On the other hand, I really don’t think Google’s goal is to chain webmasters to fear of linking to other websites. If everybody did not link to another domain, then google’s entire algorithm would be entirely worthless.

    What I’m sure they don’t want, is for webmasters with high pagerank to exploit their wealthy pagerank status by cashing in on its distribution. However there are clear alternatives to avoiding this, as stated by software engineer and google employee Matt Cutts on his blog. (www.mattcutts.com/blog) – the introduction of the attribute “rel” with the value “nofollow” for an anchor link.

    Placing nofollow’s on outbound links placed purposely for advertisement keeps it fair, the url to where this nofollow link would be pointed to would not gain pagerank from your website true, however this is assuming that your website gets a descent amount of traffic to make advertising even worth half your time or effort.

    So in short, don’t be afraid to “naturally” place outbound links, just dont blatantly try to sell outbound links in attempt to exploit Google or any search engine in some fashion.

    Just my $0.02

(c) 2001-2007 Michael Moncur. All rights reserved, but feel free to quote me.
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