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.