I was just reading an article on TechCrunch about how New York-based advertising firm MediaWhiz has launched a new product today called InLinks for advertisers who want their sites associated with specific keywords. Those words, when they appear in content, will turn into links to the advertisers’ sites. Basically, they are selling “Google juice”.
Natually, Google isn’t impressed. Specifcally, Google’s Matt Cutts says:
Google has been very clear that selling such links that pass PageRank is a violation of our quality guidelines. Other search engines have said similar things. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has also given unambiguous guidance on this subject in the recent PDF at http://www.ftc.gov/os/2008/03/P064101tech.pdf where they said “Consumers who endorse and recommend products on their blogs or other sites for consideration should do so within the boundaries set forth in the FTC Guides Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising and the FTC’s guidance on word of mouth marketing,” as well as “To date, in response to this concern, the FTC has advised that search engines need to disclose clearly and conspicuously if the ranking or other presentation of search results is a function of paid placement, and, similarly, that consumers who are paid to engage in word-of-mouth marketing must disclose that fact to recipients of their messages.”
Cutts also cites regulations in the United Kingdom and European Union concerning misleading trade practices that prohibit or at least discourage what MediaWhiz is doing.
Despite my distaste for Google’s black box approach to relevance, it’s pretty easy to see that Google has a higher moral ground than MediaWhiz in this instance. Relevance may be subjective and socially constructed, but no one wants it to be for sale except the people who can make money on selling it.
Still, it’s interesting that Cutts uses the word “violation” to describe the activity of companies that don’t have a contractual relationship with Google. Granted, he’s talking about violations of guidelines, not breach of contract, but it’s still sounds pretty legalistic. I wish I could take credit for this observation, but that honor goes to Kenneth Miller, who had this to say in a comment:
“Google has been very clear that selling such links that pass PageRank is a violation of our quality guidelines”. The way Matt Cutts phrased this imparts more authority to Google than was probably meant. At first glace it caught me off guard too – since the word violation seems to impart a breach of agreement. Surely, the internet does not exist at Google’s pleasure, and you do not enter into any contractual relationship with Google upon putting content online. Granted, if Google chooses to ignore your content because of it’s composition it may very well be the case that nobody will ever find it. It do find it interesting, however, that the company which has littered the internet with contextual text adds would have the gall to be up in arms about this obvious progression of their original idea. If Google wants to play the censorship game, perhaps they should start with the scores of morally questionable material one can easily find by using their search engine. I mean, so long as you want to talk about what is moral rather than what is for all intents and purposes still legal.
Let’s not blow this out of proportion–Google is not pressing charges against MediaWhiz, and no one is suggesting that Google would have any authority to do so. Even if “Google juice” is as valuable as SEO consultants make it out to be (some debate about that here), it’s certainly not a legal entitlement.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that Google’s decisions as a private entity have a dramatic effect on the link economy. An increasing number of folks see this as a problem, though few seem to be making constructive suggestions.
Here is one: make relevance and authority computation transparent. If the ranking of a search result comes with an audit trail, then there will be less value in gaming the ranking algorithm. Moreover, this transparency would be a first step towards making the ordering of results something controlled by users, rather than the search engine.
I know that what I am proposing isn’t the Googley way. But ultimately it is the only way that we will win the arms race against spammers.