Google's War On Links - Prohibition All Over Again
Written by Stone Tapes   

Given that Google's life blood is the hyperlink you might find it strange that it has just declared war on said link. Not only that, but in its attempts to make search better it has placed a weapon in your opponent's hands that you are powerless to defend yourself against.

Google started out with a really good idea and one that was so clever people are still writing academic papers about it. PageRank, invented by Larry Page, was a mathematical way of discovering the important of a web site simply by analyzing the links that pointed to it and the links that pointed to other web sites. This is the basis for Google's search algorithm and it is what made Google great.

Given any ranking system people will try and find devious ways to gain a rank that they don't merit. This is the role of, not exactly black hat, more a shade of gray, SEO - Search Engine Optimization. As Google puts value on incoming links all you have to do is arrange for some. Where "arrange" means buy some. The problem is that PageRank values links from high ranking sites more than links from lower ranking sites. As not many high ranking sites are willing to sell links, the practical effect is that you have to purchase a lot of low ranking links to move your own ranking up.

As a result sites designed specifically to sell links appeared and they masked their true purpose from Google by simply copying material from other sites and generally using low quality material.

The original ranking algorithm couldn't tell the quality of a site based on its content - but the new Panda Penguin algorithm can.

The first thing to say is that Google's ranking algorithm isn't what it was. In the early days it was a theoretically pure and simple thing. It was elegant. Today it has evolved to include lots of "signals" of website quality and it is no longer elegant. It is also believed that the original PageRank algorithm plays little or no part in the current ranking - but Google's secrecy makes it impossible to be certain. It seems that the web is now too big to perform the computation of PageRank.

However, on the practical side, the signals that Google uses to spot a low quality site can now be used to detect the SEO link farms and here things get very murky.

There is nothing wrong with using SEO to attract links to a site. It sometimes takes a bit of a prod to get a blogger or a web master to include your site in their "recommended links" or whatever. They have to do something to create the links and they don't really get anything back in return for their effort so it is worth encouraging them and this constitutes white hat SEO.

The problem is how many links look suspicious?

After all you don't want to trigger Google's vengeance.

If you do Google will send you a warning pointing out that your website has a lot of doubtful links. If you don't do something about it then Google will drop your site down the search listings until no-one ever sees it.

So what do you do?

If you have paid for links to be inserted the you can contact the sites concerned and ask them to drop the links. But what if they won't? They could even ask for money to do the job of removal. At one level this is reasonable as they have to edit the pages to remove the links. However, you can see that this is a gray area that could well turn into blackmail.

"Pay the ransom or we don't remove the links"  is an interesting threat.

Not only has Google's new approach generated the possibility of blackmail, it also creates the new occupation of negative SEO. Suppose you have a competitor who gets on the top of the first page of the search results that you really want to be top of. Instead of paying for links to your site why not pay for links to your competitor's site? If you buy enough links then the result will be that Google will send a message to your competitor to remove the bogus links. Of course, your competitor knows nothing about the links and while they could track the links down they would be powerless to remove them. Unless, of course, the link provider decided to make the whole situation even more dishonest by auctioning off the links to he highest bidder.

Of course the same sort of thing could happen just by accident. You have a lot of links to your site but what if Google classifies those sites as low quality? Then you risk being tarred with the same brush and your rank could go down.

It is clear that in this new world there is no such thing as a safe link.

Perhaps Google understands what it is doing, but I doubt it. By trying to defend itself from paid-for links it has created a  prohibition-like situation where the dishonest can prosper even more in the climate of suspicion.

So what should Google do?

The answer is very obvious, it should improve its ranking engine so that it really can judge the quality of a website. All it needs is some of the AI that it is so fond of in self-driving cars and recommendation systems.

The task of rating the quality of a website shouldn't depend on the number of links it has, and it certainly shouldn't be based on any property of the web sites that link to it. This just puts a loaded gun into the hands of the potentially wicked.

Update: Google has addressed this problem with its Disavow Links Tool.



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Last Updated ( Friday, 19 October 2012 )