Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Wars of the Links

Google keeps raising the stakes in the linking business. Google AdWords buyers have recently been caught off guard by the changes in AdWords quality scoring which have, for some people at least, resulted in higher advertising costs. Now SE Roundtable is also reporting that Google is eliminating affiliate sites from the program. If you don't sell your own merchandise, the days of generating traffic through Google AdWords for your Web site are coming to a close.

On the other side of the coin, click pirates are now banding together to defraud advertisers en masse. That's three links to SE Roundtable in one post, but they have done an excellent job of covering many aspects of this issue.

On the one hand, Google is making it more expensive for advertisers to advertise, they are pruning their advertiser program to get rid of the most motivated advertisers, and click pirates are devising new methods of stealing money from Google and its advertisers. PPC advertising is really taking it on the chin this year.

And alternatives are few and far between. MSN's AdCenter hasn't really grabbed the spotlight away from AdWords. And Yahoo!'s delayed release for Project Panama only makes me wonder if they'll come in behind the pack once again.

But while ad servers like Google, MSN, and Yahoo! roll out improved services and tighten their requirements, organic search results are also undergoing radical changes (at least at Google, and possibly at MSN). In the long-running community discussion of the so-called Google Sandbox Effect, John Scott's link probation argument has taken on more credibility over the past year as Google continues to beat up on Webmasters who buy and sell links.

Through my analyses of numerous sites and anecdotes that people share in various SEO forums (as well as reading those insufferably dense patent applications), I have begun to suspect that Google is looking at persistence in linkage and content. "Persistence" is a measurement of how long something stays in place. A persistent link hangs around much longer than a transient link. Are paid links simply more transient than non-paid links? In many cases, I believe so. After all, as soon as the advertiser stops paying for the link, the link goes away.

Some advertisers have paid for the same link placement on certain sites for many years, so if any of those links have been discounted by Google, they obviously are not only looking at persistence. But Google has definitely invested some time and effort in evaluating link ages and how to determine which links are new and which links are to be trusted.

As advertisers struggle to comprehend the implications of Google's link analysis efforts, the old Reciprocal Linking Wars have been largely revived by Dirk Johnson, a well-known reciprocal link program manager who is calling out "SEO gurus" on their claims that reciprocal linking is dead.

Bruce Clay responded to Dirk on the LED Digest on July 17 (Dirk replied on July 18 but the archive is not yet available). When someone asked Is Reciprocal Linking Dead? at HighRankings Forums, Dirk jumped in with guns blazing and the moderators were a little caught off guard. When they asked him who he was upset with, Dirk pointed to SEO gurus who don't usually post at HighRankings.

On the one hand, he was responding to the general SEO community in a very popular forum. On the other hand, he was using a forum to nail people who don't normally post there. The belief that Reciprocal Linking Is Dead is fairly widespread. People would not be asking if it's dead if there weren't other people saying it's dead across the Web.

Business operators like Dirk are seeing their livelihood threatened. People trust them to build up linkage to their own Web sites, and they want good links. Dirk argues strenuously that he, at least, brokers quality reciprocation -- he won't hook you up with a Viagra affiliate page. Which is all well and good, but people are nonetheless becoming increasingly concerned about whether reciprocal linkage "still works".

In some ways, it never worked. For years, the SEO community has been swaggering around like drunken sailors, swilling every link-building strategy and theory that any idiot could cook up. And some of the most well-known, highly respected link gurus in the SEO field are just that: idiots. They don't know what they are talking about when it comes to achieving high rankings at Google. They honestly believe that Google has always determined rankings mostly on the basis of linkage, which is about as far from reality as one can get. Google has always used a relevance scoring algorithm to which their famous PageRank scores have been added for good measure.

It is possible to pound your way to the top through relentless linking, but damn that's a lot of work for such little gain when other, less labor-intensive methods are available (and always have been). And what's worse is that reciprocal linking -- when I and a few other "link pirates" started organizing it for search engine manipulation a few years ago -- worked best when you linked to sites not competing for your search expressions. But as concerns of quality have emerged, people have become more convinced they should only link to "relevant" (related by topic) sites. Which, in effect, reduces the power of reciprocation. It levels the playing field.

Leveling playing fields is all good for Google. You have to go back to competing on content. So then, should people stop reciprocating with relevant sites? I don't think so. I recently agreed to add a link to a C.S. Lewis site whose operator naively asked me for a reciprocal link. How he got through my filters, I don't know, but he's got a non-commercial site with quality content that is relevant to my audience and I agreed to give him several links (I don't even want one back) and I'll run a banner ad for him if he sends me the banner.

Why did I do that? Because linking to good content is good for everyone, and newer sites or less popular sites can benefit from reciprocal linking if their partners are large, well-crawled, high-traffic sites. I don't mind helping out the little guys on occasion. I was a little guy once, myself. I know how hard it is to get traffic.

BTW -- C.S. Lewis fans should check out The C.S. Lewis Society Web site.

My point in recouping all this boring technical stuff is to underscore just how much more difficult it is becoming for new and obscure Web sites to gain powerful promotional linkage. The debates are heating up, not settling down, and there is a lot of conflicting opinion and information out there regarding what works and what doesn't.

You don't know if that link you buy will get you anything other than some branding visibility and traffic (if even that).

You don't know if that reciprocal link you just gained will get you anything other than some branding visibility and traffic (if even that).

You don't know if that PPC ad you took out will be shown or for how long it will be shown if your landing page doesn't meet quality guidelines. And you don't know how many of the clicks you pay for are legitimate clicks.

All of these strategies have come under fire and close scrutiny because of the abuse that has been directed at the search engines. Billions of dollars are at stake, and there is a growing community of people who are hungry for shares of those billions of dollars. Unfortunately for most of them, they'll never realize much gain for their efforts.

To be a successful spammer, you have to generate thousands of pages of fluff content and you'll be constantly working to devise new strategies to circumvent search engine filters.

To be a successful click pirate, you have to generate thousands of apparently unique and untraceable clicks, and you'll be constantly working to develop new resources to stay one step ahead of the click police.

To be a successful link pirate, you pretty much just have to keep producing tons of new content that is persistent. How does that make you a link pirate? Well, there's a little more to it than that. But, ar!, I'm not about to share all my secrets, mateys.

Yo ho ho and a battle of links!


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