There has been quite the buzz recently about Google’s recent move to encourage use of the rel=”nofollow” tag on paid links. Matt Cutts, whose blog offers an insider look at SEO in the Google world, argues that buying links to boost page rank should be prevented, as it constitutes deception of the search engine’s algorithm, and prevents it from serving the most relevant links to searchers.
The Official Google Blog also has an article about the nofollow attribute, which clearly states that incoming links from sites that Google deems have been paid for will not be ‘credited’ towards the target site’s page rank. Now, my point here is not to argue that Google should be allowing comment spam and other obvious and highly exploitable means of link-spamming. However, the fact that Google (and now Yahoo! and MSN Search) have decided to support and enforce the nofollow attribute as the default for paid links means that the three major search engines on the Web, through which most of the people that find information on the Web locate the sites and content they want, have taken the stand that money shouldn’t be able to buy recognition on the Internet, or at least better search results on the Internet.
While this attitude seems quite reasonable, and is garnering a lot of support throughout the blogging community, where spam is an ever-present problem (thank you Akismet, 10,000+ pieces of junk automatically filtered and counting), few seem to be regarding it as the fundamental cultural paradigm shift that it represents. In the ‘real’ world, companies with large amounts of capital can fund massive marketing campaigns, using their clout to eliminate poorer and weaker competitors. It is a simple reality of capitalism that money continues to be used to buy influence in the offline world; in fact, large firms constantly flood the market with print, radio, and TV ads that cost billions per year across the board. Why is it then, that Google and other online search giants have decided that paying to be noticed is deceptive and wrong? Is it a moral stand against a cutthroat practice, or merely another assertion of corporate domination over a particular market by its largest players.
I, for one, will be curious to see how the forces at play in the market affect the decision Google has made on paid links, as sites like ReviewMe and Text-Link-Ads will have to decide whether to conform with Google’s ultimatum, risking the wrath of their advertising clientele, or to leave the nofollow attribute out of their links, thereby risking losing publishers who fear a declining page rank. All in all, I think the decision made by Google to filter search results by non-paid links only is noble, but it ignores the larger reality of our society, which is that money drives people to content all the time.
Take, for example, the recent advent of Gofbot.com, a site operated by McDonald’s as part of a marketing campaign featuring fake newscasts proclaiming Gofbot to be ‘bigger than the Big Mac.’ The point of the campaign, and the fake page counter on Gofbot.com, which always resets to 4 hits, is that nothing is bigger than the Big Mac, a tried and true ‘American classic.’ However, if you look it up, Gofbot has a relatively decent (for a site with NO content) Alexa ranking of 352,306, driven solely by the TV campaign and the buzz it created. The page takes you to McDonald’s website after you’ve seen the mini presentation, and voila! McDonald’s has paid to send you through a link to their site. And they did it by circumventing Google and placing their high-priced advertisement in a market that already accepts that money buys the attention of people in our society.
When you consider that the Web doesn’t live as an entity by itself, and that search engines are but one way that people are driven to websites, it certainly complicates the issue that Google is taking such a clear stand on. I would love to see a world in which advertising dollars don’t make you more relevant for a particular search term, but I’m not sure Google’s moral stand can survive in a world where money already buys the attention of millions of consumers every day.