Redefining the paid links landscape: Overstock.com and Forbes join JC Penney in Google’s link building doghouse

In its ever escalating war on poor quality links that kill the integrity of the Google algorithm, the search giant appears to be redefining what it considers to be paid links. SEO strategists and digital marketers beware! While some link schemes are obvious attempts to game the system by buying, selling or trading links, other areas are decidedly less certain. February 2011 has seen three high profile examples of how low Google’s tolerance for link schemes has become.

Two weeks ago the New York Times got the ball rolling when it accused JC Penney of buying links to own retail related search terms in every niche during the 2010 holiday season, throwing Google and its algorithm under the bus in the process. The New York Times insinuated that Google did nothing about JC Penney’s antics because the mega-retailer is also a major Google advertiser. Not since the BMW doorway page scandal of 2006 has Google lashed out against a wealthy corporation the way it did against JC Penney in order to protect its integrity and its reputation, and now Google has struck again… twice in as many weeks.

First Forbes came under fire when Google politely warned the prestigious publication against selling links that pass page rank. Forbes had received similar warnings in the past and had cleaned up its act, or so it thought. So when Google warned them via the Web Master Tools interface that they were again selling links that transfer page rank the baffled Forbes web team posted a comment on the Google Webmasters forum asking for help.

Turns out that once upon a time Forbes had engaged in a link exchange network run by a web marketing agency called Conductor. Conductor is well known in SEO circles as a purveyor of black hat links, having been called out by Google on more than one occasion. In fact, Conductor is one of the few agencies that Google has openly and repeatedly criticized by name. Forbes claims that a technical snafu during a website redesign caused some old pages that still carried Conductor links to go live on Forbes.com resulting in the paid link violation. Forbes immediately took measures to remove the offensive links and regain Google’s trust.

Then less than a week later Google was called to task again by the Wall Street Journal for missing another link scheme violation by a major retailer. It seems that Overstock.com had pushed the envelope too far in Google’s mind when it offered demographically targeted discounts in exchange for .EDU links. The Wall Street Journal uncovered the mess after a Webmasters World forum string had questioned Overstock.com’s excellent SERP rankings and Google immediately took manual action.

Google states that it considers buying or selling links that pass page rank to be a link scheme that is in violation of its Webmaster Guidelines. What makes the Overstock.com situation kind of perplexing is the quid pro quo way in which the links were “paid.” In what some may think is just creative link baiting, Overstock reached out to students and faculty at educational institutions across the US offering a 10% discount to anybody who put a targeted Overstock.com link on their .EDU page.

Even though Google has often said that it treats all links the same, when it comes to Google’s algorithm SEOs have traditionally considered .EDU links among the most valuable of link backs. The logic goes that .EDU links are the hardest to manipulate because they carry the weight, scrutiny and authority of academia behind them. .EDU links also tend to carry higher than average page rank because they come from educational institutions making them highly valuable, even in an all sites treated equally world. However, many .EDU domains have become little more than repositories for personal student and faculty run portal-blogs and like most humans, faculty and students can be bought.

But is offering a discount in exchange for a link really “buying” anything?

If you spend any amount of time in Social Media these days you know that it is full of highly targeted link baiting offers just like this one, although perhaps more cleverly disguised. Twitter is littered with “RT and win” or “RT coupon code X see link Y for more” type tweets. Facebook is full of contests designed to be “shared” with friends, both on the site and off. Stumbleupon has an entire section devoted to deals, the more popular the deal the more people share the landing page links; and the most popular deals are the ones with the most impressive rewards or discounts.

How are any of these things really different than what Overstock.com did?

They’re all less crude and obvious of course, but the net effect is the same – a deal with quasi-monetary value is offered so that a link will in some fashion or another pop up on the web. In fact, the Social Media variety of this “link scheme” may be an even worse violation as regular links become less valued than social mentions by Google and other search engines. Sure social marketers can say that what they do is not about getting better ranking but rather about earning revenues, managing reputation and courting customers; if a little link equity is part of the deal, that’s just gravy. But can’t Overstock make the very same claim? Is asking for a keyword rich link in exchange for a discount coupon any different than asking for a skill testing question… or a re-tweet?

Has Google gone too far in calling what Overstock.com did buying links? Is a discount coupon that may or may not have ever been used actually a method of payment? Or is it Overstock.com that crossed a line? Can it really claim that this offer, made only to a very small segment of the population, is a customer growth strategy with the link being nothing more sinister than a verifiable condition of use? If Overstock.com didn’t cross the line it definitely came dangerously close to it, but the situation shows that Google is redefining what it considers a paid link, and that it’s erring on the side of caution.

Who will be the next casualty in Google’s war on paid link schemes? Article marketers? Niche bloggers? Review sites? In one way or another all of these, and many other link source types, accept payment to promote products and provide related links. Unless a site is an e-tailer and an inline link triggers a sale, the value of link backs in articles, on blogs and in reviews can be hard to quantify outside of their impacts on SERP rankings. And as the power and influence of the social web grows will Google crack down on Overstock.com type link baiting games in Social Media? As usual with Google the answer to these questions is “you’ll have to just wait and see” and, or course hope that your preferred or creative link building strategy doesn’t make the hit list.