Posted March 1, 2007 7:45 pm by with 55 comments

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I had a chance to chat with Matt Cutts’ right-hand man, Adam Lasnik (yep, that aspirin guy), about Google’s stance on paid links, before he took the stage for Australia’s Search Summit today.

After telling today’s audience that Google is “perfectly fine with people buying and selling links” (which he later qualified with a “we prefer them to use nofollow”), I managed to grab some time with him to discuss what many feel is Google’s backdoor abuse of the “nofollow” tag.

Lasnik explained how difficult it would be for Google to identify a web site selling the odd link, or a blogger adding a contextual link, in exchange for payment. What Google looks for are patterns that suggest money is being exchanged for links. A casino site buying a link from a blog about gardening, would raise a red flag, said Lasnik. As would an influx of links in a single day. However, links from one relevant site to another, would not likely cause a reaction from Google (although they would still prefer you to use a nofollow tag).

Punishments for buying and selling links vary, according to Lasnik. Google could focus on the seller or the buyer. Sellers that offer lots of links for sale, could find their outbound links filtered on a page level, or site-wide. Buyers, purchasing links from dozens of locations, could trigger Google to filter out the value of their inbound links – as Lasnik explains, why penalize hundreds of sites that sell just a single link, when it’s the recipient that is clearly benefiting?

Perhaps the most interesting comment by Lasnik, is one echoed by many search marketers. “I wish nofollow didn’t exist”, said Lasnik, who appeared frustrated with the problems nofollow creates (and probably all the questions from SEOs), compared to the ones it solves.

If we can just get Matt Cutts to agree with that sentiment, maybe we can get back to the business of building and growing our web sites and not having to worry so much about whether or not our normal business decisions (like linking) will anger the Google gods.

UPDATE: Read Adam’s additional comments.

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  • I think everyone is echoing Adam’s sentiments and it is nice to know that people inside Google are feeling the same way. Hopefully they will take a hard look at this attribute and let it begin to die…

  • Thanks for the tip.. now I know what to avoid when I start buying links. 🙂

  • Interesting bit of info, thanks for posting it. Absolutely the big problem with nofollow is that there’s so many differing opinions on how to use it. To be sure, I think the foundation of that confusion is the mixed messages sent by people at Google, Matt Cutts of course. But of course, with SEOs trying to game the system that was bound to happen whatever Matt or any other search engine representative advocates.

  • Stuff like this makes me wonder why people are still so afraid of buying and selling links…

  • Hi Andy,

    When Adam said “Buyers, purchasing links from dozens of locations, could trigger Google to filter out the value of their inbound links”, is he saying just the inbound links in question will be devalued, or all inbound links to the site, even the legitimate ones?

    I assume it would be just for the links in question because if it was all inbound links, one could sabotage a competing site simply by buying poor inbounds to it. If it is just the questionable inbounds that are devalued, there is not really a big penalty, just a swing and a miss on a link, they are only out the $ for the link and the site does not take a hit.

    As far as no-follow goes, Google will probably continue to promote it’s use until links are playing less of a roll in ranking and user behavior a larger roll.

    Thanks for the great post.

  • Chris – not sure, so I would be making my own guess on Adam’s statement. I got the impression that Google would consider either option.

  • Hey Andy,

    It was good finally getting to meet you in person and chat with you at the conference today. With that said, though, I do want to clarify what it is that I actually expressed… giving a bit more context for your readers ;).

    My core point, which didn’t quite come across in your entry here, was that it’d be really nice if nofollow wasn’t necessary. As it stands, it’s an admittedly imperfect yet important indicator that helps maintain the quality of the Web for users.

    It’d be nice if there was less confusion about what nofollow does and when it’s useful. It’d be great if we could return to a more innocent time when practically all links to other sites really WERE true votes, folks clearly vouching for a site on behalf of their users.

    But we don’t live in perfect, innocent times, and at Google we’re dedicated to doing what it takes to improve the signal-to-noise ratio in search quality.

    When we chatted, I expressed frustration about misperceptions, and — to an extent — the necessity of distinguishing amongst paid links, spammed links, trusted links, etc. using nofollow. I’m an idealist at heart, but a practical one 🙂

  • Oh, and Chris… by far, the more common penalty applied in the case of linking schemes is for the link seller to have their ability to pass PageRank stripped away. We’re aware of and very strongly tuned against facilitating the “Googlebowling” you’ve expressed concerns about… and, in fact, I’ve never seen an example of that in the wild.

  • I personally like nofollow, as long as I’m the one using it, but its definitely not a long term solution. For it to work, a large percentage of people have to comply, and I just don’t see that happening. Plus its the people who don’t comply who are probably doing a large share of the selling and buying.

  • Hi Adam, it was a pleasure to finally meet you in person. Thanks for expanding on what we discussed today.

    I agree that it would be nice to return to the times when links were links, and it didn’t matter when, why or how the link was obtained. Unfortunately, it appears Google has placed so much emphasis on links, it has no choice but to try and control the value of them.

    It’s a shame, Google became popular because it relied on webmasters linking to each other to demonstrate which sites were trusted and connected, that practice happened before Google. It certainly feels like webmasters (and SEOs) were sold a bill of goods with nofollow. We were told it was to help bloggers link to sources, without having to pass credit. Once we adopted the use of it, Google started to insist we use it for other linking practices.

    Oh well, no point living in the past. 🙂

  • Considering Google’s Algorithm is largely based on external links, providing a filtering method to discount spam links seems necessary to ensure the quality of results.

    However, so many sites that what were once great sources of identifying credible sites through linking are turning to the “no follow” attribute that it is reducing the value of sites that are actually credible. If Google continues down this same path, the rate at which sites are turning to “no follow” will largely diminish the capabilities of the Google Algorithm to actually determine credible sites thus creating exactly the opposite effect the “no follow” attribute was intended for.

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  • Andrew

    I am amazed at how people seem to care so little about quality traffic from well-placed links when discussing “nofollow”. It seems that the “nofollow” conversation has placed the emphasis squarely on PageRank and ignored the other HUGE benefit of link-building: quality traffic from relevant referrers. Search engines are not going to buy from you, but well-targeted customers will.

    If you build it (and provide quality content, market it and continue to offer something of value to your visitors), they will come!

  • Lets introduce a hard example

    If a webmaster links through to an authority site with a highly relevant link, but receives monetary compensation for the link, should nofollow be applied?

    For authority, lets just assume Wikipedia or Epinions were in some way compensating people for links.

  • Looks like Adam already stopped by to clarify. Thanks, Adam. 🙂

  • I have to dissent on this topic. There is a WORLD OF DIFFERENCE between a spam link and a quality relevant ad purchase.

    Webmasters pay to build traffic, via salaries, PPC, and marketing costs. Why should they be penalized for being compensated for driving quality traffic?

    Advertisers spent millions of dollars buying ads to drive relevant traffic. Why should they be penalized for promoting quality content?

    Call me dumb, but where’s the problem here?

  • Well, the concept is that freely given editorially reviewed links are the most valuable (in the eyes of the search engine). But yes, as I mentioned, Google is a bit cloudy on the subject of paid links, sometimes they’re ok (such as paying for a listing…er review to be listed in.. Yahoo’s directory). And then, there’s the issue of whether nofollow is really for combating spam, and if so why is Google now telling everyone to use it for paid links too. As you mention, there’s a world of difference between comment spam and paid links. But, there has to be some way for the search engines to not let whomever can afford the most links to dominate the rankings.

  • HI Andy

    I was at the conference yesterday and heard Adam speaking about links and the no follow tag. I would like to ask – what is so wrong with buying links to increase ranking? I understand the whole a link is a vote thing but this leaves commercial websites (particularly e-commerce sites that sell low involvement products) severally disadvantaged. Natural links just don’t occur that easily for a website that only has a catalogue of products. Yes I know that they can develop informative review type content but not all organizations have the human resources to do this. To me a purchased link is similar to a celebrity endorsement. When a celebrity gets on TV and tells us all about their favourite kind of toothpaste we all know that he or she is being paid to say it but we also know they are putting their reputation on the line to do so. I would like to see Google reconsider how they handle paid links – No follow is clearly not the answer.

  • Andrew

    It might be helpful to get an idea of the percentage of links that are nofollowed. For example, we know Wikipedia uses it now and some blogging platforms default to nofollow comment links unless the user changes their preferences. Looking at the big picture, does it really impact that many sites or that many links? Are we blowing it out of proportion? Are valuable link sources drying up? Probably not. SEOs will continue to follow their noses and find other places to plant valuable links that aren’t nofollowed. The link economy won’t be killed by nofollow.

    Eventually, it might make more sense to *gasp* spend time and resources creating useful content that will attract links organically. Optimize for humans and utilize SEO basics…the crawlers will follow. That’s a long-term strategy you can take to the bank.

  • Just my opinion, but it might be worth updating your post based on Adam’s clarification. My first thought after reading it was: wonder if he was saying he think NoFollow should go away or just that he wishes that there weren’t so much manipulative intent out there which makes it necessary.

    Also just my opinion… I think we need more NoFollow-style controls, not less.

  • Nofollow is such a headache. As several people have said, I think the Big G is kind of abusing its original purpose by constantly saying that it should be used to fight spam AND flag paid links.

  • It’s nice to see Google making the rounds to clear up confusion. My main problem with nofollow has been applications like WordPress that enable it by default without any simple way to disable it unless you look for a plugin. It’s the implementation by third-parties that makes it potentially harmful.

  • Jamey – why would I change the post? Adam said that he wished nofollow didn’t exist. I appreciate him adding his additional views, but it was quite clear the context of his statement, when we chatted. He wished it didn’t exist.

    I’ve been on the company side of PR before. Sometimes you say something that you later regret, and a good move is always to try and clarify a statement. Maybe Adam didn’t mean the context he originally conveyed, or maybe he’s doing some damage control. I’m sure the Yahoo guy who criticized Google’s usability wished he could go back and change what he said. Unfortunately, when you chat to the media, you have to be crystal clear about what you say. Ask Eric Schmidt, he’s made some pretty wild statements to me (and the press) and later retracted in the same conversation.

    I have a lot of respect for Adam – he’s very open and honest – but I don’t think my post misrepresents his comment.

  • Excellent post Andy, and thanks to Adam for the clarifying comments.

  • Adam clarified what he intended to say..

    I don’t think Adam clarified the nofollow usage situation which still seems to be penalizing the little guys who wish to monetize their content without being deceptive to their readers or introducing links that are off-topic.

  • What is so wrong with people buying links? (Frank Grasso) – I think that Google, and the internet as a whole, are trying to maintain a ‘fairness’ whereby people with good ideas have an equal chance of having them found because they are good ideas – rather than being hand fed with ideas that are commercially driven (ie through increasing page rank through bought links etc).

    Yes it is frustrating sometimes building traffic 0 but believe me, I know from experience, traffic turns from a trickle to a torrent very quickly if you have interesting things to say or products – purely because people like linking to them.

    I’ve written a bit about my thoughts on nofollow recently (I hope these links are nofollowed as it’s not my intention to comment spam 🙂 but – here is one ).

    I’ve also found a person with great ideas about the implementation of nofollow – JLH, a regular on the google webmaster tools forum talks about his policy here –

    I agree with just about everything he says there other than no-following links from developers (for example, the ‘powered by wordpress’ at the bottom of wordpress blogs), as I believe the fact that someone uses an open source product should be a clear ‘vote’ for the designers of that product.

    Cheers and great topic mate! Wish I was able to make it there – sounds like it was an interesting conference.


    Dockarl (Matthew James, Brisbane)

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  • It’s interesting to read Andy’s post then Adam’s clarification. I find a lot of, “Google said it’s ok to sell links and do paid posts” out here when it is far from the truth. Could it be a wish? It’s getting a little repetitive and yes, boring, sorry.

  • Andy asked (in comment #25) “Jamey – why would I change the post?” I see that you’ve now added an update with a link to Adam’s additional comments. That covers what I was suggesting. Also, it’s interesting to hear your take that his original intent clearly was that “He wished it didn’t exist” (and may now be engaging in some damage control spin).

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  • Sorry guy that you may not agree with me and with the top two heads here it is kind of hard to voice an opinion, but I believe if you can crwal it you can roll it.
    So if you have bad links on your Website putting a nofollow to protect yourself will just not cut it!


  • As you probably have already realized I do not use or believe in nofollow! So I make sure I link to clean Websites! I use to think same as Dockarl, about respecting the developers and leaving their link on the bottom of their work.

    Until I did a neighborhood link check on phpBB. I found out they link to many sub industry Websites…
    I do not want to put those word on this board.

    So because I was linked to phpBB my forum was infested with sub industry Spam.

    phpBB disclaimer states you can remove the copyright but please leave the link or you may not be able to get product support.

    Well I never got product support from them and I have removed their bad neighborhood link.
    I want to follow Google Webmaster Guideliness of not linking to bad Websites.

    I have written many mods to fix the phpBB plague that has infected my forum. All of this I am doing with an intent to provide the same service to other forum and blog users via project PHSDL that I have started.

    So let’s all stand up and support not using nofollow.

    Thank you,

  • Thanks for the info, my question would be (sorry if already asked) does google “punish” sites that don’t use the nofollow attribute? I am still divided as to use the nofollow or not but I will do more research and look into this further, thanks again for the post Andy, appreciated 😉

  • @Bree – If you plan on linking to sites that have nothing to do with your site, or you’ve made it obvious that the links are part of a directory, or it’s clear that the links are there only because they paid, then you might want to consider using the nofollow. If the links are relevant – even if they are paid – I wouldn’t bother.

    Google won’t likely punish your site for not using nofollow, but it could in theory prevent your links from passing PageRank.

    I hope that helps.

  • Cheers for the reply Andy. I do have a “Buy Advertising” link in the right side panel which I planned on selling text links so in this case it would be better to use the nofollow attribute according to what you have just said? I didn’t really want to do this as it prevents my advertisers from getting there pr/traffic allocation which they so rightfully deserve, I mean they are paying for it right! So how should I navigate this problem? Only have a selected area to allow advertising?

    Thanks for your suggestions.

  • I sure wish it didn’t exist, it seems the Internet is getting strangled with these unnecessary restraints.

  • this post reminds me of a webmaster that has PR8 website and suddenly dropped the traffic because google no longer index his website. The reason…because he’s selling links

  • SEO

    As you mention, there’s a world of difference between comment spam and paid links. But, there has to be some way for the search engines to not let whomever can afford the most links to dominate the rankings.

    Seo service

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  • Hi Andy,
    how would google know if someone buying links from the similiar type of domains. The links would look like one way link and google always respect one way links. google can come to know only in one case, if sites are selling lots of links and this would look suspicious.

  • @Ashish – yep!

  • Ah, they have a huge clampdown on link sellers, I’m hit pretty bad.. really bad..

  • I think google is right as it clearly mentioned in their policy that if you are placing any ad in your site/blog it should not be dofollow. Google dont like passing PR to some site and taking money. google will not object if you are passing the traffic anyways.


  • msn

    Oh, and Chris… by far, the more common penalty applied in the case of linking schemes is for the link seller to have their ability to pass PageRank stripped away. We’re aware of and very strongly tuned against facilitating the “Googlebowling” you’ve expressed concerns about… and, in fact, I’ve never seen an example of that in the wild.

  • I refuse to buy links. I use a method that helps me to get free organic listings and that is enough for me.

    Cheryline Lawson’s last blog post..Yeast Infection Ebook Reviews

  • Thanks you gülüm

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