Paid links are something I’ve written about lately as the possibility of Twitter data being incorporated into the Google and Bing search indexes has raised the spectre of a much more complicated situation vis-à-vis paid links.

In the case of Google, the rules are clear: paid links are bad. If you get caught buying or selling them, you could find yourself in a world of hurt. But just how good is Google at detecting paid links? If the example I’m about to give is any indication, it’s not good at all.

Before I begin, I should make it clear: I’m not going to reveal the identity of the website in question. It’s not my place. I’m not a competitor in any shape or form, but even if I was, when it comes to the SERPs, I’ve found it’s far more fruitful to focus on improving your rankings than on sicking Google on your competition. So here we go.

The website in question is an online retailer with the top organic spot on Google for a one-word, plural dictionary keyword, and the second organic spot for the singular version of this word. It’s not run by a big brand and we’re not dealing with an exact-match domain. The homepage of this website has a PageRank of three, which is worth pointing out because, for the plural word, it beats out a website with a PageRank of six. A decent example of how PageRank isn’t everything.

It’s not too hard to find out how this retailer is doing so well in the SERPs. A quick look at the site’s backlinks reveals a ton of links, generally from rinky dink blogs, many hosted on Google’s free blogging service, Blogger. One of these blogs even states:

This blog is a sponsored blog created or supported by a company,
organization or group of organizations. This blog accepts forms of cash
advertising, sponsorship, paid insertions or other forms of
compensation.

Of course, none of the links on this blog are nofollowed.

According to Alexa, nearly 30% of this retailer’s website upstream traffic comes from a pay-per-post service that pays bloggers to post ads for its advertisers. And Alexa sees over 40% of the site’s traffic as coming from Indonesia, India and the Philippines, locations that the retailer doesn’t even ship to.

It’s not too difficult to do the math. For those not wanting to rush to judgement: many of the blogs that link to this retailer’s website on with anchors placed on precisely the keywords referenced above are written by people who disclose that they live in these countries. One even has a ‘review‘ of the retailer which notes the retailer doesn’t sell in the author’s country.

All told, there are lots and lots of backlinks all coming from the same sort of blogs and websites, all with the ‘right‘ keywords linked to the retailer’s website. Some date back several years, while others are brand new. Clearly, this is a concerted effort that has been going on for a long time and isn’t stopping anytime soon.

What about legitimate backlinks?‘ you might ask. In my survey, it was hard to spot more than a few that were legitimate. The retailer in question does run an affiliate program, but interestingly few of the backlinks have affiliate IDs, making it clear that payment for links, not affiliate popularity, is what’s driving the linking.

By any stretch of the imagination, Google should have detected this ‘bad behavior‘ by now. After all, it has a lot to go on. The vast majority of backlinks come from no-name blogs, I didn’t see a single blog that was closely related to what this retailer sells, and almost all of the links I’ve found have the same ‘perfect‘ anchor text – all linked back to the retailer’s homepage, usually multiple times on a single post/page. And this pattern appears to have existed for several years. In short, if Google can’t detect that something fishy is going on here, one has to ask the question: is Google really capable of detecting paid links and webspam?

Of course, the most cynical would point out that this retailer purchases ads on Google through AdWords. As I write this, has the top spot for the two keywords mentioned above. These probably aren’t coming cheap. But I don’t buy the notion that Google is letting shady operators slide if they spend lots of money on AdWords. The separation of paid and organic has been settled in my mind.

So back to what’s really going on. To be fair to Google, I think there are two problems:

  • Just because a website is relevant doesn’t mean it isn’t using paid links and webspam. It’s hard to deny that Google’s results are generally pretty relevant. After all, if they were filled with irrelevant junk, searchers would go elsewhere. But take the retailer mentioned here: it does sell the product for which it has top SERPs. So its presence in the SERPs for these keywords isn’t ‘irrelevant‘. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the rest of the web has legitimately voted for it as the most relevant result either. Unfortunately, unless the irrelevance is obvious, there’s nothing else to go by.
  • In some markets, there just aren’t likely to be a whole lot of quality backlinks. Here, the retailer in question isn’t exactly selling a type of product that people are going to scream at the top of their lungs about (we’re not talking iPhones). So it’s likely that there are few competitors with massive legitimate backlinks from authoritative sites to look at. That doesn’t help Google.

When all is said and done, a handful of examples of top-ranking sites that are clearly using paid links and webspam to boost their position in the SERPs make it clear to me at least that Google is surprisingly bad at detecting this junk, especially when the junk isn’t used to rip off consumers or spread malware. I’ll leave others to speculate on the implications of this, if there are any. In the meantime, there’s no reason to believe that paid links and webspam are going anywhere because right now, they’re clearly still very effective.

Photo credit: dannysullivan via Flickr.