The impact of paid, unethical links in natural search

It has been common knowledge, ever since Google started that a simple equation of: Inbound Links = Authority = PageRank = Position.

So link farms inevitably came and went and Google got smarter at recognizing non relevant, reciprocal and obviously paid-for links.

Fast forward to today and rather than focusing on creating great content, optimising relationships and acquiring natural and relevant links over time, many organisations have been led to believe by their agencies that they have to spend money on acquiring mass links from other sites to boost their natural search, or un-natural search positions.

Obsession with the quantity of inbound links

This summation has effectively led right back to an obsession with chasing links by quantity rather than quality. Agencies are given numerical targets, and so are desperate to present high numbers of links acquired to their clients. And the reason these numbers are so high? Simple – the quality is so low; borderline spam, taking us right back to early 2000. This strategy may work in the short to medium term but it is highly unlikely to continue to work and in the long term and it’s going to be the websites themselves paying the price, not the agencies.

This has effectively led to a situation where the natural search results are in many cases just as much paid for as their sponsored counterparts, showing that this type of acquisition can actually work.

While there is no doubt whatsoever that the acquisition of relevant inbound links is a vital ingredient in building a website’s authority, status and PageRank; Google is unlikely to sustain in the long term, a set of results where both PPC and Natural results are effectively paid for.

Google penalising link acquisition?

Google prides itself in the Quality of its results and talks about trust and it finally looks like it may be starting to take some action.

IP has identified a number of previously unreported instances where penalties have been applied and organic positions lost as a direct result of the acquisition of large numbers of paid-for links of dubious semantic relevance.

This post focuses on only one such penalty, applied to a number of major websites over a three-month period – Q4 2010.

In each case, these websites have been penalized by Google and key pages dropped from the index entirely for the majority of Q4.

This is just one example that impacted on several major UK websites. Many more have been identified and more are certain to follow as Google clamps down on sites that are effectively paying for organic positions through artificial/mass linking campaigns.

These charts represent just one example of a positioning penalty imposed over a period and in each case, large numbers of obviously paid for links were identified.

Google is clearly getting smarter at detecting poor quality links and this Q4 test phase only impacted on those websites investing in the acquisition large scale paid for links.

During these test phases, Google will carefully analyse SERPS click-through and searcher behaviour to ensure that the quality of search results does not suffer as a result of such clean-ups.

With Google investing heavily in artificial intelligence, it is only a matter of time before the organic results return to being natural and founded on genuine quality of content and naturally acquired links, rather than paid for authority.

Any failure by Google to do this would almost certainly result in searchers switching to other search engines where the natural results are exactly that. Natural!

The URL’s have been removed from the charts below, but all are ftse 100 companies.

Chart 1
Search term: travel insurance
Search Engine: Google UK
Time period: 01 September 2010 to 01 September 2011

Chart 2
Search term: holidays
Search Engine: Google UK
Time period: 01 October 2010 to 01 January 2011

Chart 3
Search term: hotels
Search Engine: Google UK
Time period: 01 September 2010 to 01 September 2011