Does Google think your product review is linkspam?

Be prepared... by Mark Lindner

Image by Mark Lindner on Flickr

Google’s guidance on linking has just been updated to include free gifts among the factors that might count against a webpage’s ranking.

The guidance on link schemes now includes “sending someone a ‘free’ product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link” as an example of “link schemes which can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results”

Google has for many years penalised sites that pay for links and those that sell those links –  called ‘linkspam’ – including newspapers.

Extending the guidance to include what is effectively ‘payment in kind’ makes sense – particularly in those countries where products are not normally kept by journalists (i.e. the US).

But enforcing it seems problematic.

I’ve written before about similar, wider ethical and legal issues with regard to prizes-to-post being offered. But in those cases, at least, you have either an evidence trail (legal) or shared awareness of the tactic (ethical). An algorithm has neither.

If a blogger is reviewing a product, it is natural to link to the product in the review, regardless of whether or not a link was required as part of receiving the product, or indeed whether they were given the product or not.

Will Google think every product review with a link to the product itself is linkspam? How will the search engine know whether if blogger was given the product, and what terms were imposed as part of that?

The question doesn’t apply if the reviewer includes a ‘nofollow’ tag in the link – but I suspect many won’t know what that is.

Tweaking the content management system so all links are ‘nofollow’ isn’t a great idea, either, as it would deprive everyone else of deserved ‘Google juice’ from your links.

Online marketer Laura Louise writes that “Brands may be scared to send [bloggers] products now as a seemingly natural link may cost them dearly in the Google rankings.” Of course,  if a brand is really interested in your review, rather than your Google juice, then it shouldn’t matter. But the question is: how will Google know?

(h/t Laura Louise)

3 thoughts on “Does Google think your product review is linkspam?

  1. Aaron Bradley

    “How will Google know?”

    Indeed. While Google does investigate and manually follow-up on submitted spam reports, this obviously doesn’t scale, so here – as in other areas – Google must rely on algorithms to make a best guess about how to index and rank content.

    And here – as with many other Google strictures concerning the use and abuse of links – Google knowingly tries to spook webmasters into playing by their rules in situations where they know enforcement may be difficult or impossible.

    While there have been endless calls for Google to “clean up” its handling of how links are valued, there really is no easy fix. A large part of the success of Google’s ranking algorithm is predicated on the value of links as “votes” for a web resource. It works, but it’s also terribly susceptible to gaming.

    As an SEO I find nothing so tiresome as the endless quest for links. This pursuit on the “white hat” side has lead to what seems to me to be amusingly backward approach to content generation, where “content marketing” has become a strategy where the tactical deployment of useful content has only become necessary based on the fact that non-useful content is less link-worthy. This is backwards because content generation has become predicated on the link and social sharing value of content, rather than its usefulness to users up-front.

    In any case I don’t expect the uneasy relationship between links and SEO to become any easier any time soon. We’ll continue to see search marketers doing whatever they can to build links, and for Google to take countermeasures against link gaming – including stern, ominous warnings to webmasters about links, which many webmasters will feel happy to ignore if they feel they’ve adequately covered their tracks.

  2. Pingback: Linking ethically (and for SEO): canonical and nofollow | Online Journalism Blog

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