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Google's Matt Cutts: Definitive Criteria For Paid Links

     
5:11 pm on Mar 3, 2014 (gmt 0)

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This seven minute forty second video from Matt ought to help those that have doubts over whether it's a paid link or not. Money changing hands is obviously a paid link.

Some of the other examples Matt gives are less obvious, but could fall foul of a "paid link."



5:48 pm on Mar 3, 2014 (gmt 0)

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The video talks about Web Spam Team criteria for paid links and Matt says that 99% times it is a clear cut as money changes hands.

For that remaining 1%, the criteria Google Web Spam Team use is quite close to how Federal Trade Commision define what does it mean to have a material connection and Matt recommends checking FTC guidelines.

Some highlights on criteria mentioned:
  • whether your behaviour changes based on compensation
  • how close it is to actual money
  • compensation such as a cheap dinner is not a sort of thing they would worry about
  • is it a gift or is it a loan (review copy, and you need to return it, it is relatively well respected thing), so if someone gives you a camera and you have to return it is not the same as if you were given a camera and you can keep it, this is closer to a material compensation
  • they look at intended audience, whether links are for SEO value or they are for people to try it out
  • whether the 'compensation' would be a surprise in the circumstances (e.g getting a laptop for a nice review would be a surprise)
What I am wondering is how can Google tell what the compensation is - without being a 'pretend blogger' or something alongside these lines, or unless the compensation is listed on the linking out website.
5:56 pm on Mar 3, 2014 (gmt 0)

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What I am wondering is how can Google tell what the compensation is - without being a 'pretend blogger' or something alongside these lines, or unless the compensation is listed on the linking out website.


Yes, that's the big problem for the webspam team. I'm not sure Google are in a position to tell what's a paid link and what's not, unless the site clearly states it's a paid link somewhere on the site. Easy to do with a few sites, but we're talking millions of sites and billions of pages.

It's got to be more of a warning that if you're caught, expect consequences.
6:31 pm on Mar 3, 2014 (gmt 0)

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This is more about manual reviews and not about automated algorithmic paid link filters. Nice to be reminded about the mindset of Googlers but not the most helpful information.

For entertainment value, let's just bookmark this page till Google's next developer conference in case we are wondering how Google's spam team feels about Google's product development teams giving away free goodie bags worth $$$$.
6:45 pm on Mar 3, 2014 (gmt 0)

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1. If a webmaster buys me a Coors Light, it's not a paid link, if he buys me a Samuel Adams Utopia - it is a paid link.

2. Are the extras prancing outside Matt's window paid for? And if they are, does FTC know about it?

Joking aside, paying for super content to be created does not lead to a penalty. Paying for links does. Why do so many people still choose the latter?

I'm not sure Google are in a position to tell what's a paid link and what's not


You might be right, however, if you check out a blog and it's got 10 articles linking out to random sources and then comes one article with 3 links pointing to a "relevant" Forbes article, to a "helpful" Wikipedia entry and to a "useful" sales page, I guess even an unsophisticated bot can tell something smells fishy :)
8:39 pm on Mar 3, 2014 (gmt 0)

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Joking aside, paying for super content to be created does not lead to a penalty. Paying for links does. Why do so many people still choose the latter?


Probably because it's easier and cheaper to buy links than it is to create (or hire someone to create) useful content.
9:21 pm on Mar 3, 2014 (gmt 0)

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It seems the thorny question of directory listings remains unanswered.

We'll review your site and if it's approved, we'll list it for free in our niche directory. No money changes hands for the listing.

But a manual review of your site requires us to spend $49.95 worth of our time and we want to be compensated for that.

Paid link or compensation for time involved to provide a service?

[Added]

If I pay someone money to create some content, are the links in that content paid links? Seems to me those links only appeared after some money changed hands.

Gets really messy, doesn't it?
9:46 pm on Mar 3, 2014 (gmt 0)

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It seems the thorny question of directory listings remains unanswered.

Or getting lsited is free (including a link). But if you want to add more content to your listing (pictures, video, reviews, etc.) or appear higher on the directory, you have to pay for that.
10:56 pm on Mar 3, 2014 (gmt 0)

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Paid link or compensation for time involved to provide a service?


The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and in the context of this discussion, Google's doing the taste test.

If I pay someone money to create some content, are the links in that content paid links? Seems to me those links only appeared after some money changed hands.


Links from whose site, and to whom?
8:22 am on Mar 4, 2014 (gmt 0)

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@LifeinAsia, that is even harder for them to spot. How do they know what criteria you use to rank some listing higher higher? Can they tell whether some listings have pictures because it is a paid extra, or simple because the site owner bothered to send you some pictures?
9:27 am on Mar 4, 2014 (gmt 0)

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I never got this, how will they know if someone is giving another money for a link. I know Google is big brother but I dont think the spam team as access to that :)
9:43 am on Mar 4, 2014 (gmt 0)

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Note that these criteria are how Google defines a paid link, but they are probably not how Google directly identifies most paid links.

Chances are that these criteria are being used, though, to create heuristics that could eventually lead to refinements in the identification algorithm.

It's likely also that the 'historical data patent', combined with statistical analysis, could play a part. That was a significant document, and I don't think it's all been implemented yet. ;)

Google's Historical Data Patent Gets an Update
Sep 18, 2008
http://www.webmasterworld.com/google/3747164.htm [webmasterworld.com]

Follow links from that thread also to the 2005 discussion.
10:53 am on Mar 4, 2014 (gmt 0)

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If they have problems distinguishing scraped info from original info, then what chance have they got identifying payments that happen way behind the scenes offline?
2:19 pm on Mar 4, 2014 (gmt 0)

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Patterns, people. Patterns.

If you bought and paid for one or two relevant links a year, no - Google would probably never notice.

But most people, at least in this business - when they find something that works, they *do it to death*

And that's a discernible pattern.
4:49 pm on Mar 4, 2014 (gmt 0)

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What netmeg said.

Remember, too, that--just like us--the people on Google's anti-spam team can make editorial judgments based on their gut feelings and the available evidence. There's no law that says they have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
5:37 pm on Mar 4, 2014 (gmt 0)

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But most people, at least in this business - when they find something that works, they *do it to death*


For the obvious link buyer / seller who end up conspiring to create a sitewide "blogroll" of commercial anchor text links on a site, I agree.

Then there's the other type of paid link. Links that appear 100% as editorial and relevant online, no trace of a transaction of payment/favour, but one did exist.
10:15 pm on Mar 4, 2014 (gmt 0)

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It continues to amaze me that Google thinks it is any of their business on the specific financial arrangement for links.

Most websites are not government employees or contractors...

Focus should be on relevancy, legitimacy, neighborhood, etc.
10:28 pm on Mar 4, 2014 (gmt 0)

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It continues to amaze me that Google thinks it is any of their business on the specific financial arrangement for links.


It would be amazing if Google didn't object to links that were bought and sold in an effort to manipulate Google Search results.

For what it's worth, Google isn't alone in objecting to paid links. Bing's Webmaster guidelines warn against "Abusive tactics...such as links buying" that "can lead to your site being delisted from the Bing index."
6:03 am on Mar 5, 2014 (gmt 0)

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There is a reason search engines consider it adversarial information retrieval.

So they consider the relationship adversarial.
You consider it all hugs and kisses?

Netmeg nails it, avoiding patterns is helpful, but far beyond what most can accomplish.
1:41 pm on Mar 5, 2014 (gmt 0)

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It would be amazing if Google didn't object to links that were bought and sold in an effort to manipulate Google Search results.


Participation in AdWords is buying links. Selling ad space on a website is NOT illegal, unethical and expecting compensation for that ad space is how one pays for the website. It's called business.

Google is manipulating the ad market with their search dominance by suggesting that "Direct" links bought and sold will be punished.

If Google had nothing to gain from the buy/sell link position I would be on board with the message. For now, Google needs to figure out how to fix the algorithm for the search engine user and stay out of others business transaction decisions.
2:16 pm on Mar 5, 2014 (gmt 0)

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Participation in AdWords is buying links.


AdWords advertising does not pass PageRank. In the context of Google's algorithm therefore, they are not links.

Paid links do pass PageRank. Paid links are placed for the purpose of influencing the algorithm. If it's just advertising and you care about your Google ranking and want to play in Google's backyard then it is your responsibility to make sure there's a no-follow on it.

If your Google ranks do not matter and you don't want to play in Google's backyard then do whatever you want. It's as simple as that.
2:32 pm on Mar 5, 2014 (gmt 0)

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AdWords advertising does not pass PageRank.


Precisely, and spending say 100K on Google AdWords is ok, however spending 50K on individual websites that just happen to pass pagerank and get you listed UNDER the AdWords ads is not OK.

The difference is where the money went to get you above the fold.
3:50 pm on Mar 5, 2014 (gmt 0)

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individual websites that just happen to pass pagerank and get you listed UNDER the AdWords ads is not OK.


It is 100% ok to spend money on links that pass PageRank.

The decision hinges on how YOU feel about your Google SERPs.
3:55 pm on Mar 5, 2014 (gmt 0)

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Edge, Matt Cutts and his team aren't responsible for advertising or for the layouts of Google's SERPs. They're responsible for detecting, neutralizing, and preventing the manipulation of Google's organic search results.

Responding to an informational video about paid links by complaining about Google's display of ads in commercial search results is just tilting at windmills.
4:21 pm on Mar 5, 2014 (gmt 0)

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Personally I think the word "paid" is a bit of a red herring. The word people should be concentrating on or even replacing it with is "manipulated": any link that is placed to affect a search engine ranking.

Most of these will probably involve some sort of collateral anyway but that's largely irrelevant - it's the sentiment that counts. So I wouldn't get too hung up on whether it's "paid" or what it "costs", I'd worry more about whether it looks as if a link has been placed for the purposes of ranking rather than the purpose of helping the user because ultimately, that's what Google is interested in.

Plus, there are instances where a paid link is sensible, logical and useful so it doesn't make sense that Google would want to penalize those.
4:27 pm on Mar 5, 2014 (gmt 0)

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The difference is where the money went to get you above the fold.


@edge Actually no. The difference is that you are commenting about Adwords in a SEO thread. If you want to rank in the organic serps you need to follow Google rules or expect to eventually be penalized. The Google spam team has penalized other Google divisions for buying links. The Google spam team has also penalized huge companies spending big amounts on Adwords that were caught buying links. Big Adword spends do not give you a free pass with the Google spam team. This is about Google not being happy when people manipulate their search results so let's avoid going off-topic.

I understand edge is not really commenting so much about Adwords but more commenting about how bad Google is. We all have been frustrated by Google and have a long list of complaints. That is not what we are discussing in this thread. Everyone please keep your comments productive and on-topic because complaining about Google does not help anyone boost their SEO profits :)
4:54 pm on Mar 5, 2014 (gmt 0)

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There is some serious hair splitting going here... Be aware that I respect all views; drink whatever cool-aid you choose.

For the record,
1) Iím not an SEO marketer; I run my own business website.
2) Iíve been active on the internet since x-windows and before AOL dominated dialup.
3) My website traffic is significant.

I play by the rules whether I like them or not, I simply disagree with the rules as administered by the dominate players. I like level playing fields and do well when the competitive field is.

I maintain that Google needs to work on their algorithm and not worry about how advertisers spend or how websites make their advertising money to pay the bills.

Over and out...
7:02 pm on Mar 5, 2014 (gmt 0)

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Totally agree with Edge.

Google is getting awfully close to dictating where and how businesses can advertise online, and that part bothers me.

That being said, when it's a paid ad - it's no followed - end of paid link story.
12:40 am on Mar 6, 2014 (gmt 0)

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The main factor is when it is done in bulk and if it is really obvious. There is a huge grey area that Google can never detect.

There are situations where it is impossible to tell intent. The exact same links can be a paid link for one person and free to the other. The links look exactly the same in every way except one was paid for. A website owner can put two links on a page one because he really liked the website and wanted to link to it or it was a friend he wanted to help and the other some person paid him to do it.
10:34 am on Mar 6, 2014 (gmt 0)

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What if I link to a site for no payment, and use a commercial keyword to link to that site? Technically, it's OK for Google as it's not a paid link. However, if that may punish the linked-to site in the future (because it looks suspicious due to its anchor text), then shouldn't Google warn us to be very careful with the anchor text we use? Seems like we're wandering into territory where no link online is longer natural anyway - we're policed in every way by Google as to how we can link. Don't do sitewide, don't use commercial anchors, do use nofollow etc.
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