Back in 2007, I decided to write about paid direct links, a form of paid search that is altogether different from the forms of paid search we manage through AdWords, adCenter, and a few other platforms. In that column, I warned readers to “venture forth with your eyes open, understanding the rewards and risks.”

Rewards and risks are at the center of the recent media firestorm over JCPenney’s having its rankings manually lowered after Google discovered (via a New York Times reporter) a concerted paid link campaign it considered to have been purchased or otherwise improperly obtained.

Clearly, whether Google (or Bing for that matter) takes automated or manual action to invalidate any inbound links, it can’t possibly calibrate this punishment perfectly. It will either invalidate too many links (a purposeful or accidental punishment of the site) or it will miss some inbound links that were in fact paid or gained through other questionable means letting the site get away with at least some of the benefit of the inbound links.

I’ll let you decide which way Google, Bing, and others might err when they flag a site for buying links. Of course, if it’s true that Google or Bing overcompensate on the punitive side, then the clandestine buying of links that are just aggressive enough to catch Google’s attention would be a great way to punish a competitor. So I guess Google really needs to get any automatic or manual corrective action very close to perfect – something I’m not sure is possible.

The other question is where to draw the line. The FTC put out blogger and online publication guidelines way back in 2009, which conspiracy theorists might attribute to Google exerting lobbying power within Washington, D.C. to further dissuade the exchange of links (along with content) for any form of compensation. I’m curious as to the level of disclosure being practiced in that portion of the blogosphere based in the U.S.; internationally there may be even less requirement for disclosure of any form of compensation for editorial and links.[Read the rest]


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