Google has a major problem relating the identification of paid links, but I believe it has an even bigger problem relating to the definition of ‘paid links’, and the very term itself.

Econsultancy’s Patricio Robles wrote about this earlier today so I don’t want to cover too much old ground, but I do want to comment on the difference – or similarity – between paid and commercial links.

IZEA’s Ted Murphy says Google cannot identify a paid link, and many would agree with him. 

He says: 

I still believe the concept of no-follow is absolutely ridiculous. There is NO WAY Google can possibly determine paid links from unpaid links, even if you could where does it stop? I work for IZEA, they pay my salary. I link back to them solely because they are my employer. Should that be no-followed? What about parent companies linking to subsidiaries and brands? Vendors linking to clients? Bloggers who get “review units”, free trips, tickets, etc.

“If you are going to try to enforce rules tied to “paid links” you need to look at the very fabric of all inks and the commercial relationship between sites… and guess what? You can’t.”

No_follow is simply Google’s way of asking people to own up and identify paid links. It’s a bit like a link amnesty. You know, ‘hold your hands up and we won’t penalise you’. And just for the record, and to be on the safe side, Econsultancy believes that it is best practice to adopt no_follow if you’re in the business of selling editorial, your platform, paid reviews, or straight links (check out Jeremiah Owyang’s list of sponsored conversations for a few notable people that do this).

The trouble is, most paid links are not shrouded in the no_follow tag, which is as much down to ignorance as anything else. This makes Google’s life harder, and its rhetoric – and penalties – harsher. The practice of taking money to pass on link juice remains firmly frowned upon at the Googleplex.

But I fear that Google has backed itself into a hole when talking about paid links. Because the term ‘paid link’ is too narrow. Perhaps it should have used the phrase ‘commercial links’? 

Here are a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean.

1. Affiliate links

Are these paid-for links then? “Not at the time”, says the publisher. “I didn’t receive a penny to add that link to my website!” Ah yes, but you received £12,500 in commission at the end of the month, as a result of adding that link. If that’s not a paid link I don’t know what is!

Yet the search engines do not subscribe to this view. Rand Fishkin noted as much from SMX East last year, during a Q&A session between the audience and search engineers from Google, Yahoo and Microsoft: 

Shockingly, when asked point blank if affiliate programs that employed juice-passing links (those not using nofollow) were against guidelines or if they would be discounted, the engineers all agreed with the position taken by Sean Suchter of Yahoo!. He said, in no uncertain terms, that if affiliate links came from valuable, relevant, trust-worthy sources – bloggers endorsing a product, affiliates of high quality, etc. – they would be counted in link algorithms. 

“Aaron from Google and Nathan from Microsoft both agreed that good affiliate links would be counted by their engines and that it was not necessary to mark these with a nofollow or other method of blocking link value.”

So Google can spot affiliate links, but it doesn’t deem them to be paid links. Nevertheless, these are commercial links. Surely? They earn money for the publisher, and they pass on linkjuice to the merchant. This is one hell of a grey area, and I think we need further clarification here. 

A side point: if the search engines were to discount all the linkjuice accumulated by the millions of affiliate links to merchants, then there would presumably be a massive Google Dance. This might hurt the relevance of search results for retail-specific search queries.

2. Links to sister company websites

Last month Patricio also wrote about Mahalo’s attempts at playing the SEO game after search guru Aaron Wall called out Jason Calacanis for being spammy

The issue was that a Mahalo widget was found on HackADay, a popular tech blog.

Now, anybody who has seen Jason present knows his provocative stance on SEO (SEO is ‘snake oil’ / ‘dead’ / ‘bullshit’) and on spam in general (‘affiliates have to stop polluting the river’ / ‘If anybody from IZEA is here please kill yourself’). He is Mr Anti-Spam. So surely he would never resort to spam or paid links?

You’re damn sure he wouldn’t. He responded as follows:

“We own HackADay and are simply cross-promoting our best content in our sidebar/blogroll … the search engines don’t pass page rank from sidebars in any real way from what I’m told, and as such these are really just cross-promotion.”

This leads us back into that nasty grey area. A publisher has the right to promote whatever they see fit, especially if it is within their own network of websites. But at some point a line might be crossed, in Google’s eyes (a view that Jason would most likely not want to subscribe to, given that he doesn’t want to play the SEO game: “My secret to brand building is NOT SEO but rather making highly helpful services.”)

The older blog networks (and major publishers) have done this sort of thing for years, and the newer ones do it too. Take Sugar Inc, which owns ShopStyle, and publishes 20 links to ShopStyle from blogs like PopSugar and FabSugar. It doesn’t bother with no_follow. Why would it?

The big issues…

Google has backed publishers into a corner with the term ‘paid link’ and the guidance around these links. Nobody in their right mind would add no_follow to a link unless absolutely necessary, and on the assumption that they had been paid (and only after the fear of the GoogleGod had been forcefully inserted into them).

But is it really ok to pass on linkjuice to affiliate partners, simply because you don’t receive an upfront fee? History shows that these are definitely commercial links, especially if you wind up earning commission from them. Yet it seems that so long as the fee comes along after the link is added, and assuming your website is reputable (a surely subjective definition if ever there was one), then you’re on safe ground. 

And is it ok to distribute pagerank within blog networks, and to other proprietary websites? Mahalo and Sugar Inc would never put no_follow onto the tags in their widgets because they own the sites they’re linking to. And they are not paying themselves to link to themselves! But can promotional links like these be deemed as commercial links, if they boost an advertiser-funded site’s search rankings? Savvy publishers have long been aware of the benefits of smart internal linking policies, but at what stage does linking to networked sites move into that shady grey area?

I think ‘commercial links’ might be a better term for Google to adopt when it wants to address these issues, and confront techniques it regards as spammy. Yet if anything, this whole area is becoming even less clear, and further clarification is needed.