Theory: How Does Google Determine Which Sites Sell Links?

Oct 30, 2007 • 7:37 am | comments (13) by twitter Google+ | Filed Under Google PageRank & Algorithm Updates

The largest topic by far this week in the forums is the PageRank update that hit sites that are selling links. There are literally dozens upon dozens of threads at many of the webmaster forums on the topic.

We covered it with What Does This Google PageRank Message Mean? and 2nd Google PageRank in October 2007. Yes, Google has confirmed this is a PageRank reduction in the toolbar for selling links. Even Matt Cutts, of Google, gave Loren a quote:

The partial update to visible PageRank that went out a few days ago was primarily regarding PageRank selling and the forward links of sites. So paid links that pass PageRank would affect our opinion of a site.

Going forward, I expect that Google will be looking at additional sites that appear to be buying or selling PageRank.

The big question is why did this PageRank update hit some sites that are selling links, while others it did not hit? In addition, how did Google hit some sites that were not selling links, which they had to restore a few later?

That is where the theory on how Google determines which sites are selling links.

Remember when Google released the paid link reporting tool back in June? Google asked everyone to report sites that sold links. People reported sites, sites they love, sites they hate, sites they are impartial to, to Google via this form. The form collected hundreds, if not thousands of sites. Google probably put a person or two on the task of scanning the list to validate if those sites sold links. YouTube was on the list, the person who reviewed it may have been on the call and forgot to uncheck it as a site that sells links and moved on. Many sites were not manually reported by you and I (SEOs and Webmasters) and those did not see a PageRank reduction, at least not yet, not until someone reports them.

In my opinion, this was a fairly manual process. Of course, I can be wrong. I am sure Google will automate the process as they continue to collect data, set up characteristics and profiles of sites that sell links. But right now, this seems much more manual than automated to me. And that is why I feel that "we" did this to ourselves. Webmaster A reported Webmaster B, who reported Webmaster A.

Does it matter? I have personally not seen any decline in Google referrals since the drop. Does it mean I will lose sponsors? I have lost one but I have also received an email from another sponsor who said:

I know with the latest PR update that just went live last night you are going to get hammered for going from a PR7 to a PR6 to now a PR4. I wanted you to know that I won't be one of those. We will continue to support you as an advertiser as long as the quality of your blog continues.

We're proud to be a sponsor, regardless of your PageRank.

Honestly, that email was incredibly touching. I never sold links for PageRank purposes. I always thanked those who placed their ads on my site, not in a promotional method but in a way to support the SEO community and this site. I do share site statistics, I don't share PageRank scores on my advertise page. This PageRank update may be a good thing. It will weed out advertisers who are just looking to "buy PageRank" from those who have good intentions about supporting the industry and this site.

But the big question is. Is my theory right? If so, did we do this to ourselves?

Forum discussion at DigitalPoint Forums and WebmasterWorld (plus a zillion other threads).

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10/30/2007 01:29 pm

If you are not intending to pass pr with your advertising, why do you not add no-follow onto your links?

Barry Schwartz

10/30/2007 01:36 pm

Dan, Like I said before. NoFollow was about, "do you trust those links." That is why it was first created. I trust my sponsors or else I would not list them there. My sponsors trust me back. Why should I label a link not trustworthy if I trust them?

Joshua Wexelbaum

10/30/2007 01:40 pm

I recently posted on my blog about Robert Scoble's claim that pagerank is keyword dependent. So each keyword has it's own pagerank.. If his claim is true, it makes this toolbar PR discussion even less significant.


10/30/2007 03:02 pm

Interesting post, and its nice to see that you have a level headed advertiser or two.


10/30/2007 03:45 pm

I respect you a lot and read this blog everyday. I do have to admit however that I am slightly shocked that you are still to "get" this whole subject. You keep saying that you are not interested in passing page rank and that your advertisers do not advertise for the purposes of page rank. This is why surely you should have added the no follow. This is now what no follow is about. I am not saying that the stance by google is right, it is very hitler-esk as they are still accepting companies like text-link-ads money via adwords -this itself is a complete joke but Danny Sullivan made it quite clear what would happen. Dan

Barry Schwartz

10/30/2007 04:06 pm

I am not complaining. I know what Danny posted, this was expected and this is the way it is. I have to make a moral decision. Do I nofollow my sponsors, which may be a slap in their face or not? I know very well why the nofollow was introduced and now what Google wants us to use it for. Doesn't mean Google is right. But it is Google's index and they have every right to do what they have done. Again, I need to determine if its a "trust" thing or a "pagerank" thing.

Barry Schwartz

10/30/2007 04:16 pm

Check out some of the sphinn discussion at also.


10/30/2007 04:43 pm

Truth hurts unfortunately. I will virtually guarantee that you will lose at least 80% of those advertisers if you add the no-follow. You may well lose them in any case as google has now lost trust in these sites as they are now aware that they pay or links. On a brighter note the price for a link if you can work out a new route has just sky rocketed!

Sam Daams

10/30/2007 05:53 pm

I think the bottom line there is solid Barry. You are illustrating that by not no following your paid links you have checked the sites and are vouching for their credibility. The fact that you haven't lost traffic is testimony to the fact that you haven't been demoted in G's eyes. You've just lost some px of green which everyone has been saying is dead anyway... I wish I had the nuts to do the same but we actually did experience a drop in traffic about 6 months ago. nofollow was one of the first reactions. The drop was apparently totally not related to this but I don't dare remove it anymore now ... even though I have personally gone through every single one of those sites and can vouch for them. Oh well, the income from that just isn't worth the risk and that's the business decision every owner has to take for themselves.


10/30/2007 08:45 pm

I keep hearing that people who have had a page rank demotion have not seen any reduction in traffic or in their serps. Not yet people but there has been no major ranking changes on google for sometime, when it has its next re-jig the fireworks will really begin, this may be planned to coincide with Nov 5th. This blog will always have a large readership due to its quality however the webmasters could have averted the pr drop if they had been a bit more aware and pro-active. The shareholders of google are well impressed with what is happening, the rest of the seo world is not. Article marketing will once again become a vital part of web promotion.

Clint Dixon

10/31/2007 11:02 am

Its amazing but I could swear this was a business Barry built. Walls at my bank are Google ingot indicator free.


11/01/2007 05:13 am

I have about 100 directory sites. I do sell advertising space but not with the intention of passing page rank... I have been using an internal redirect to link to my advertisers and I thought that this would avoid passing pagerank. It now seems clear to me that even this internal redirect method requires a "nofollow". In any event, I can say with some certainty that Google used automated processes to determine who is selling paid links... On about October 17, as an experiment, I added a new link to 4 of my sites that said "Advertise Here". When the shakedown happened on Oct. 24, the sites that were by far the most affected out of my 100 sites were 2 of the 4 sites that said "Advertise Here"... (their traffic has dropped by over 50%). The reason that the other 2 "Advertise Here" sites escaped the punishment (i assume) is that they had not been crawled recently enough for Google to know that they contained this offending text. (I confirmed this by looking at the date on Google's most recent cache). Needless to say I have added the nofollow to my links now, and I have removed the "Advertise Here" text. Hopefully the punishment will not be too severe... as I said the biggest mistake I made was not including the nofollow... it was never my intention to pass PR or sell PR... i am simply selling traffic, since my sites get more traffic than my advertisers ever could.


05/11/2008 08:37 pm

I find it funny that some of the supposed most ethical SEO firms in the UK are buying links from this 'on-topic' site. If these businesses were any good at what they do they would not have to buy links period. You're lining your pockets pure and simple.

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