In Links We Trust – How Google Reshaped The Web


Google arrived on the scene in 1998 with all the exuberance and naivete of a grad student, not surprising given that its creators, Larry Page and Sergey Brin were both graduate students when they first met at Stanford University.

Their collaboration on a 1996 project known as BackRub, (so named because backlinks were analyzed) became the search engine we all know as Google. By 1999 Google was no longer a beta engine and had moved from the garage to an office on University Avenue in Palo Alto.

The PageRank Citation System was indeed bringing order to the Web. Even as early as 1998 some thought was given to the impact that commercial interests would have on their search engine algorithm, as evidenced by the following quote,

“At worst, you can have manipulation in the form of buying advertisements (links) on important sites. But, this seems well under control since it costs money.” – From, Bringing Order To The Web -1998

That woefully short sighted observation should have been a warning to everyone that Google’s idealistic creators had no idea the impact their search engine would have on e-commerce, and that buying links, even in 1998, was a practice that Google’s creators frowned on.

tb2Buying and selling links was a common practice in 1998. It was simply known as ‘advertising.’ In 2000, Google would launch their toolbar and this simple browser plugin would have as much of an impact on the Web as the search engine itself.

With the addition of the little green bar as an indicator of PageRank, Google had unwittingly supplied a tool to those that wanted to manipulate Google’s search engine results. Now the link merchants had an easy way of valuing the links they were selling and to those people that craved the #1 spot in the Google results, control now seemed to be in their hands. The longer the little green bar, the more green could be generated by both link sellers and webmasters.

Link exchange UCE (spam) quickly became a problem. Anyone and everyone with a website that had a decent PageRank value became the target of those wishing to buy, sell or trade links. Link farms sprang up all over the Web. Directories were created that took advantage of PageRank values as price points. By 2003 PageRank was seen as so important that the first lawsuit occurred over the perceived sale of it.

To help combat the problem, Google reduced the accuracy of their PageRank indicator to the point that it became useless. In 2003 however, Google launched a program known as Adsense and the Web is still reeling from the impact.

With the launch of Adsense it was now possible for anyone to make money on the Web. No need for a product, tax tables, shipping cost calculators, expensive shopping carts, no need for any confusing or low-paying affiliate program, all you needed was a website or blog and enough know-how to copy and paste a snippet of code.

With high payouts and such easy implementation, it wasn’t long before everyone wanted to cash in on the Adsense phenomenon. Unfortunately, not everyone wanted to take the time to create a worthwhile site. It was much easier to scrape content from other sites and places Adsense on the stolen content. To make matters worse, once someone is approved for Adsense, the code can be placed on any number of sites, with no review.

This fast and loose policy is directly responsible for the proliferation of ‘Made For Adsense’ sites, known as MFAs. Only one ingredient was missing for success with Adsense. Links. Even scraper sites need links and since the content is typically poor or worthless other webmasters won’t link to them. A solution was available however. Link spam, in the form of comments on blogs.

Automated programs seek out blogs and add a link to the target site in the form of a thinly disguised comment. The automation of comment spam became so bad the major search engines like Google and Yahoo banded together to find a solution. Their answer to the problem is known as ‘nofollow’. Place ‘nofollow’ on the links people add in their comments and the the target site receives no boost from the search engines.

As solutions go, nofollow is a poor one. People running the automated comment spam programs simply don’t care about nofollow. With billions of pages out there, they’ll find pages in which nofollow isn’t used. Real solutions, like Akismet, have proven much more effective.

While nofollow as a solution to comment spam has been largely ineffective, Google is now recommending its use for other purposes such as combatting the efficacy of paid links. Google wants to know which links to trust, and to Google, paid links simply aren’t trustworthy? Why? The answer is simple, paid links are effective. Buying links allows anyone to manipulate Google’s results. Which brings into question the continued viability of the citation-based ranking system that is crucial to Google’s success.

How is it possible to tell that paid links are effective? Because Matt Cutts, a Google engineer, wants people to report paid links. On the surface, that might not seem like such a bad thing, but the reality may be quite different.

Google’s citation-based system is falling apart in a world in which links are traded like commodities and Google wants control, not just control of their own results but control of other people’s websites. They’ve basically stated that paid links are bad for the Web unless they’re Google’s links. Anyone that thinks that Adsense ads, (paid links) don’t directly affect the search engine results doesn’t understand the impact that Adsense has had on the Web.

Links are the very essence of the Web, allowing Google to tell you how to link gives them with far too much power. If you want to follow Google’s advice, build your site for your visitors, not for the search engines, and that includes your links. If a paid link is beneficial to the user, so be it. Whether or not it was paid for should have no bearing on the issue.

If you think for a minute that Google cares about the user experience, think about this, Google allows Adsense to be placed on sites without regard to quality of content and they advise blending your ads to look like site navigation, a perfect example of deceiving the user. What their actions say is simply this, paid links are just fine, as long as Google is the one getting paid.

Link freely, link often, and let Google clean up their own mess.

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  1. Rafa

    Damn dude, I wish I had said that. I’ll give you a call when I get back from London.

  2. That was a great post! It will be interesting in how Google handles paid links, even though paid can stand for a vast number of things…

  3. Very well written summary of the situation and background DG. Now Google has moved so strongly to a link based algo, you wonder where they can go now. The genie is well and truely out of the bottle here.

  4. Now Dean that’s just plain cruel – all you’re trying to do is create more work for poor little Matt Cutts.

    Go for it!!


  5. Kirby

    All they will get are the low hanging fruit. The Cuttlets will go wild with reports, but the players will remain unscathed. It’s Google’s version of gun control and the result of this logic will be the same – the people the Cutletts hope to see disarmed will be the only ones with the weapons.

  6. DG

    Hello Nick,

    >>wonder where they can go now.

    Semantic search is the holy grail. Their Ph.Ds seem to be stuck in word matching and link manipulation.

    Kirby, I love your analogy. Then again, I own lots of guns. ; )

  7. Major kudos for the post, DG! Amazingly well said!

  8. Word up. Nicely written and pretty much says it all.

  9. DG

    Hey guys, glad you like the piece but Google isn’t going to change anytime soon. Arrogance comes to mind. Check out the forums and you’ll see the Googlers fiercely defending Google’s actions.

    One of the problem is that some people actually believe that Google will be able to correctly identify paid links and that identification will improve the algo. Others just don’t seem to grasp that this is entirely different than official ‘webmaster guidelines’.

  10. Repeat after me: slippery slope, slippery slope, slippery slope.

    I still find it ironic Matt linked to a site that was chock-full of non-relevant text-links.

  11. Matt

    Google says I can’t pay for links. Willing to have sex with seller instead. ;-)

  12. Great article. Thanks for taking the time to give an insightful and well thought out perspective. It will be intersting to see future developments….

  13. robert

    Great stuff! I love this article. It just the truth und so helpful.

  14. Magnificent beat ! I would like to apprentice at the same time as you amend your web site, how could i subscribe for a blog website? The account helped me a appropriate deal. I have been a little bit acquainted of this your broadcast provided vivid transparent idea

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