Update, 3/2/2009: Use this authenticated paid link report form now.
One thing I heard at SES London was that people wanted a way to report paid links specifically. I’d like to get a few paid link reports anyway because I’m excited about trying some ideas here at Google to augment our existing algorithms. Google may provide a special form for paid link reports at some point, but in the mean time, here’s a couple of ways that anyone can use to report paid links:
- Sign in to Google’s webmaster console and use the authenticated spam report form, then include the word “paidlink” (all one word) in the text area of the spam report. If you use the authenticated form, you’ll need to sign in with a Google Account, but your report will carry more weight.
- Use the unauthenticated spam report form and make sure to include the word “paidlink” (all one word) in the text area of the spam report.
As far as the details, it can be pretty short. Something like “Example.com is selling links; here’s a page on example.com that demonstrates that” or “www.shadyseo.com is buying links. You can see the paid links on www.example.com/path/page.html” is all you need to mention. That will be enough for Google to start testing out some new techniques we’ve got — thanks!
Update, May 12th, 2007: I finally got some time to circle back around to this subject. I wanted to add an example or two of the sorts of reports that we’d be interested in getting, and try to answer a few questions about paid links. Let’s start with some questions.
Q: Can you give me some more background on how Google views paid links?
A: Absolutely. Start with this post from 2005. It’s a pretty good review of our policies at the time (e.g. link sellers can lose trust, such as their ability to flow PageRank/anchortext. Also, we’re open to semi-automatic approaches to ignore paid links, which could include the best of algorithmic and manual approaches.). You can also read about panels at search conferences where we did a site review and how much paid links stood out in a site review. I even mentioned earlier this year that paid articles/reviews/posts should be done in a way that doesn’t affect search engines. Here’s a post from January, for example, where I said:
Yet another “pay-for-blogging” (PFB) business launched, this time by Text Link Brokers. It should be clear from Google’s stance on paid text links, but if you are blogging and being paid by services like Pay Per Post, ReviewMe, or SponsoredReviews, links in those paid-for posts should be made in a way that doesn’t affect search engines. The rel=”nofollow” attribute is one way, but there are numerous other ways to do paid links that won’t affect search engines, e.g. doing an internal redirect through a url that is forbidden from crawling by robots.txt.
So this post shouldn’t be a surprise; it’s inline with our previous discussion of paid links. Some people wanted a way to report potential paid links and that was the main reason for this post.
Q: Now when you say “paid links,” what exactly do you mean by that? Do you view all paid links as potential violations of Google’s quality guidelines?
A: Good question. As someone working on quality and relevance at Google, my bottom-line concern is clean and relevant search results on Google. As such, I care about paid links that flow PageRank and attempt to game Google’s rankings. I’m not worried about links that are paid but don’t affect search engines. So when I say “paid links” it’s pretty safe to add in your head “paid links that flow PageRank and attempt to game Google’s rankings.”
Q: Can you give me an example of the sort of things you’d be interested in hearing about?
A: Sure. Here are some paid text links on a site dedicated to Linux:
There are a few interesting things about these links. If you take off your webmaster hat and put on a user hat for a minute, you quickly start asking yourself questions like “Why is a Linux site linking to a bunch of poker, pills, and gambling sites?” Users often consider links like this spammy or low-quality. I’m sure some people will happily defend links like these, but in my experience people who search on Google don’t want links like these to affect Google’s search results.
There are a couple other interesting things about these links. First, you can’t tell it from the image, but the “Sponsored Links” text in the example above is actually an image, not text. The rest of that site is very text-heavy, so the choice to make the “Sponsored Links” be an image is potentially trying to avoid detection of these links as paid. I can’t be sure that’s the reason, of course — maybe they just wanted that phrase to be pretty. The second interesting thing about these links is that our current approach to paid links worked quite well in this case. Our existing algorithms had already discounted these links without any people involved. However, our manual spamfighters had detected these links as well.
Q: So in addition to algorithms, Google has people who take action on spam?
A: Algorithms and algorithmic spamfighting are an essential way to improve Google’s quality, but Google does reserve the right to take manual action on spam (here’s a reference from 2004 where GoogleGuy, a search engine rep, said that Google can take manual action on spam). For example, if someone reports off-topic, keyword-stuffed porn for someone’s name, we do reserve the right to take manual action on that. In my personal opinion, Google’s philosophy on webspam is to look for scalable, robust approaches that improve our quality (with a heavy emphasis on algorithms). I did an interview last year with John Battelle where I gave my personal opinion in more detail.
Q: That paid link example was helpful. Can you give me another example?
A: Sure. This one also has “paid advertising” as an image, but our existing algorithms still discount these links:
Q: Okay, that example gives me a feel for the sort of paid links you’d like to hear about. What will you do with the new reports you get?
A: There are several ways that we intend to use the data. Our current algorithm detected the paid links above just fine, but these outside reports are a great way to measure (and then improve) the precision and recall of our existing algorithms on independent data. Next, the reports help build datasets for future algorithms. So the data helps us build the next generation of algorithms to improve quality. It also lets us work on new tools and techniques to improve how we detect paid links. Finally, we can investigate and take direct action on many reports that we receive.
Q: This is all well and fine, but I decide what to do on my site. I can do anything I want on it, including selling links.
A: You’re 100% right; you can do absolutely anything you want on your site. But in the same way, I believe Google has the right to do whatever we think is best (in our index, algorithms, or scoring) to return relevant results.
Q: It’s Google’s job to return clean/relevant results regardless of what people do on the web, so I don’t intend to send any feedback to Google.
A: You’re right, it is our job. If you’d rather not send any feedback to Google, I respect that decision. The primary intent of this post was to enable the people who did want to send us reports to do so. I appreciate when people do send us feedback, because that data helps Google improve its search quality and helps Google design new algorithms to give better results.
Q: Are you getting pretty good reports in response to this post?
A: Definitely. We’re getting a nice quantity of reports — I believe that we’ve gotten more paid link reports than there are comments on this thread. The quality is also high, in that many of the reports are pretty detailed. It’s also cool that (at least from a quick glance at our reports), a majority of the reports appear to be going to our authenticated form. I’m glad to see people using that form, because we can give those authenticated reports more weight.
Q: I’m worried that someone will buy links to my site and then report that.
A: We’ve always tried very hard to prevent site A from hurting site B. That’s why these reports aren’t being fed directly into algorithms, and are being used as the starting point rather than being used directly. You might also want to review the policy mentioned in my 2005 post (individual links can be discounted and sellers can lose their ability to pass on PageRank/anchortext/etc., which doesn’t allow site A to hurt site B).
Q: Are you interested in things like affiliate links? Are you interested in hearing about directories in this report?
A: Nope, I’d be most interested in feedback like the examples that I mentioned above, or things like paid posts that might affect search engines. If you’re still unsure what sort of reports we’d like to get, that’s okay. Fortunately, the vast majority of people sending in reports are on the same wavelength and are sending in solid feedback like the examples above.
Q: Hey, as long as we’re talking about directories, can you talk about the role of directories, some of whom charge for a reviewer to evaluate them?
A: I’ll try to give a few rules of thumb to think about when looking at a directory. When considering submitting to a directory, I’d ask questions like:
- Does the directory reject urls? If every url passes a review, the directory gets closer to just a list of links or a free-for-all link site.
- What is the quality of urls in the directory? Suppose a site rejects 25% of submissions, but the urls that are accepted/listed are still quite low-quality or spammy. That doesn’t speak well to the quality of the directory.
- If there is a fee, what’s the purpose of the fee? For a high-quality directory, the fee is primarily for the time/effort for someone to do a genuine evaluation of a url or site.
Those are a few factors I’d consider. If you put on your user hat and ask “Does this seem like a high-quality directory to me?” you can usually get a pretty good sense as well, or ask a few friends for their take on a particular directory.
Q: Google’s quality guidelines say “Make sites for users, not search engines.” Put that in context for me; how does that interact with buying links?
A: If someone is buying text links to try to rank higher on search engines, they’re already doing something intended more for search engines than for users. If you finish that guideline, you’ll see that it’s talking about doing radically different things for engines versus users (for example, cloaking or creating doorway pages). It would be a misinterpretation of that guideline to think “Okay, I can only do things for users, I can never do things for search engines. Therefore I can buy text links, but not in a way that doesn’t affect search engines.” That same philosophy would mean that you wouldn’t create a robots.txt file (users don’t check those), never make any meta tags (users don’t see meta tags), never create an XML sitemap file (users wouldn’t know about them), and wouldn’t create web pages that validate (users wouldn’t notice). Yet these are all great practices to do. So if you want to buy links, I’d buy them for users/traffic, not for PageRank/search engines.
Q: Suppose I didn’t want to read all the comments on this post. Did you post any other nuggets that I should be aware of?
A: Hmm. Well, someone did mention AdSense spam and so I reiterated how to report MFA or AdSense spam. I’ll quote that for folks that are interested:
If you see a spammy or made-for-AdSense site, do the following:
- Click on the “Ads by Google” link.
- At the bottom of the page, click on the “Send Google your thoughts on the site or the ads you just saw” link and fill out the form.
- When you fill out the form, at the bottom you’ll get to a section that says “Add additional information here:”. Include the word “spamreport” all in one word to make sure that the webspam team can see the feedback.
I don’t want any Google user to encounter spam, so please feel free to use Google’s authenticated spam report form for any other type of spam. We can also handle authenticated spam reports in several different languages.
Q: I kinda liked that nugget. Got any other interesting nuggets?
A: One rule of thumb is that if a link seller is talking about how hard it is to find a paid link or how paid links are made so that no one will know, that’s probably a bad sign to Google. For example, someone forwarded me an alleged email from one link seller that went like this:
Matt says they will try to find the links. This is where our service really cleans up ALL the competors! Google may be able to find the competition very easily (sitewide links are easy to spot), but our ads are too hard to find. Here’s why…
1. I have removed all identifying “buy here” items (ads/html/divs), making our ads hard to find.
4. Our service is not high profile, not flashy, not well known… making our ads hard to find.
Personally, when the link seller is talking about how a paid link is hard to find, that would worry me. (Yes, this was a different company than the post I did about undetectable paid links and spam earlier this year.)
Q: I don’t think paid links are the biggest threat to Google’s quality. I think technique X is having a bigger impact; why aren’t you tackling that?
A: It’s a safe assumption that Google’s webspam team is working on several different things at once. The posts I did in mid-April were mainly to reiterate Google’s stance on paid links and provide a way that people can give us feedback if they want. I hope that the examples above give an idea of the sort of things that people want to tell us about, and that we want to hear about.