Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Advertising, paid links and Google

I never paid much attention to discussions about the legitimacy, or otherwise, of paid links. On the face of it, the logic is very simple and straightforward: Google search algorithms use links to rank websites and to decide on their relative importance and keyword relevance so, anybody who wants to exploit that aspect of Google search service by selling or buying links to gain prominence in search results should be banished from web forever. Right? Well, not quite. The issue is much more complex once you think about it – it goes to the heart of the concept of online democracy and liberty to do what you want with your site (without breaking the law of course).

Does the fact that Google uses links in their algorithms to rank relevance give them the right to infringe website owners right to place on pages any links they see fit, whether free or paid? That’s Google’s problem to figure out whether links are relevant or not for their search results – they created imperfect solution in the first place (based on wrong assumptions perhaps?) so, what gives them the right now to behave like “internet police” and say:” No, you can’t take money for placing the links on your site without ‘nofollow’ flag - that’s our rule”? Sure, the size of Google and its dominance give them the power to do that but not the authority to judge and dictate what people can or cannot do. Yes, it is in the interest of small players to follow Google rules to rank high in search results and not be “penalised” but it goes against that basic democratic principle.

I admit, Google has quite a challenge on their hands in trying to decide what’s relevant and what’s not in the ever expanding entanglement of web content. It has been reported that the latest target are “content farms” which Google is trying to eliminate from search results. But content farms are not much different in concept to newspapers or other media companies that provide “topical content” and sell advertising alongside. The likes of DemandMedia may be a bit more sophisticated than traditional media companies in their approach to selecting the topics of interest but does it make them evil?

The fact that someone has a degree in journalism and writes for a masthead that has been around for a while does not mean the content is of much better “quality” than that written by thousands of freelancers. The distinction between quality and rubbish is quite subjective and trying to encapsulate “the rules” in a mathematic algorithm is next to impossible. The issue of links pops up here again. If people do genuinely link to “content farm” pages does it legitimise them and make an authoritative source? And where to draw the line what are genuine links as opposed to those SEO driven arrangements?

It gets even more blurry when you start considering what is advertising, and what is sponsored content, and what is genuine testimonial, and whether money changing hands or not plays any role in the definition… Why these considerations suddenly came to my attention? Well, I want to start accepting advertising on my sites directly form advertisers, without involvement of Google or other intermediaries, maybe even to create my own advertising platform, but that game seems to have certain rules that make me uneasy. Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of Google and what they do. I use Adsense and think it’s great for small online publishers (although those 1 cent clicks are puzzling – you can’t buy placements on AdWords nowhere near that price, regardless how unpopular the keyword is!). But those who want to move on to “bigger and better” things suddenly face a lot of intriguing questions with no easy answers…