Text Links, Nofollow and Google PageRank

In my pursuing of monetising this blog I joined Text-Link-Ads back in September last year. It was simple to deploy their code and then start to generate income by selling text links -- it was almost effortless. Grey Hat So I used TLA to earn some petty cash from a few sites that I got lying around, and all is good, although I knew link-buying for the sake of search engine manipulation is not as white hat as I like.

Then in August this year I wrote about potentially being penalised by Google for selling text links and paid reviews. I could sense a storm is coming, although my sites were just small fishes in a big pond. I did cancel my account with ReviewMe back then, but I kept my Text-Link-Ads account alive for a while. After all, the "petty cash" got up to around $300-$400 US greenbacks a month which supported development of my other sites, and it just became too hard to get rid of it.

But I eventually let it go.

At the beginning of this month I received an email from Brock Boser, the Inventory Manager at Text-Link-Ads.

Scott,

It is against our terms and conditions to have a rel="nofollow" on the TLA ads. Could you please remove this? Please let me know once this is done and so we can send you payment for your links. Until then I have put your account on HOLD.

Also, can you please change the "Sponsored Links" text to something like "Friends" or something along those lines?

Thanks,

Brock Boser
Inventory Manager
Text-Link-Ads

Wow. I did not realise that I cannot put rel="nofollow" on the paid links, as it was recommended by Google's Matt Cutts. That is fine then -- I guess I better comply with the terms and conditions (which say nothing about the nofollow attribute but forbids modification of their code). However, changing those "Sponsored Links" to "Friends" is definitely not right. A sponsored link is a sponsored link is a sponsored link, and the last time I checked, friends are those whom I knew personally and whom I have frequent communication with. Definitely NOT my advertisers whom I hardly know as they simply bought an ad through a broker.

Well. I guess that's the call -- choosing between money and something you know that is not right. So I replied him with the following email:

Brock,

Sounds like I'll give TLA a miss. Please cancel my account and I'll remove the links. To be fair with the advertisers, feel free to keep the payments and refund them.

Regards,
Scott

My account was closed within 24 hours, and all the links removed. I felt a little bit poorer, but felt a lot better for not polluting the search engines.

Then we had OCTOBER, where there were multiple Google PageRank updates, one earlier this month, and another one late last week. Both of them were targetting paid links, as we saw many text-link heavy blogs and websites have been penalised with a lowered PageRank.

I can imagine Matt Cutts sitting inside his Googleplex office laughing out loud, "Bwahahaha... See?! TOLD YOU!" Well, I guess everyone should have got the message now. However, are text-link sellers really penalised?

Some of my sites received a lowered PageRank last week as well. Well, this site stayed as PR5 and so did HostingFu, although it used to be a PR6 10 months ago. FuCoder.com dropped to PR4 (from PR5) but I was closing down that site anyway and have moved all the pages back here. OzBargain received the biggest hit -- from PR5 to PR3, and guess what -- I used to sell text links on it via TLA (with rel="nofollow" though)!

However, I doubt it was caused by the paid link penalty as I was following Google's recommendation regarding paid links. It was likely caused by myself moving the Bargain Blog, which used to be a PR5 site with tons of backlinks to OzBargain.

The thing is, if you don't already have Google Toolbar (or Search Status which is the one I use) installed to get the PageRank reading, you probably won't feel like being penalised. Naughty Corner At least in my case, the organic traffic are coming along as usual, the keywords that I ranked well stay unchanged, and lots of people have continued to find my sites on Google. The lack of change in search engine traffic has also been reported by many other site owners with lowered PageRank. Penalty? Google probably has not sent a strong enough message! If you send a naught kid to Time Out, make sure it is really a time out for them! You don't penalise them, and then send them lots of traffic at the same time!

After all, everyone pretty much understands that PageRank has little to do with your ranking on SERP in 2007. PageRank on Google Toolbar is even more irrelevant. Hyundai Excel with Exaggerating Spoiler It is a bit like that huge exaggerating rear wing on your Hyundai Excel. Yes, it looks good. Yes it gives you quite a bit of street cred (hey, my PageRank bar is longer than yours!). Yes it will make your car look like it is going to go very fast (my site has PR6, surely it is popular!). But how effective it really is?

Yaro Starak wrote about some possible explanations for PageRank slamming. Great points, but I have an alternative. Instead of penalising the text-link selling bloggers and website owners, how about it's Google's next step against the Link Brokers, i.e. TLA and friends? Google did it by messing up the economy Google created in the first place -- link popularity and PageRank. Websites are not really penalised as they still rank well in SERP despite lowered PR. However potential link buyers have lost the incentive because lowered link value to be passed on, and also for the fear to be detected and then penalised.

I guess it makes sense for Google to do so. Their primary focus is on search relevancy (which brings them more users thus more opportunity to sell ads). To reduce gaming the system, they can suppress the activity by killing the link broker in SERP, like what they did with Text-Link-Ads.com. It just means all the buying/selling will happen underground, but buyers are still making purchases thinking this text link can somehow boost their own traffic. Or they can simply mess up the economy behind link buying to make it an activity not worthwhile to pursue, which seems to be what they have been doing with the recent PageRank updates.

I think it will be interesting to see the development of TLA, TNX.com and other link brokers.