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Is Google Declaring War On Link Building?

Link building

Following on from JCPenney’s very public punishment by Google last week, this week it’s the turn of OverStock.com to get raked over the coals. To me their infringement seems much more grey than JCPenney’s though. The full story is in the Wall Street Journal and on Search News Central today, but here’s a quick overview.

OverStock.com offered certain sites, including a lot of .edu sites, a 10% discount code for their visitors in return for a placing a link heavy piece of text on their sites. The sites themselves don’t get any money (*) in return for adding the links but it seems Google has called foul on this as being akin to buying links and have taken “corrective action” as they like to call it.

(* Because there’s a discount code being used there is a chance that the sites get a kickback, but in this case it seems the same discount code is being used on many sites so it is unlikely.)

Where to draw the line?

The problem I have with this is that it becomes very difficult to see how any overt link building exercise can be safe anymore. Say for instance that you have a web app that saves users a considerable amount of time by automating something that previously took a lot of manual effort.  It doesn’t save the user money per se, but it is still provides real value to them. Otherwise they would either have to spend their own time or pay someone money to do the required work.

Now, it is seen as perfectly white hat to go out and ask people to link to your useful free web app. The sites that link don’t get any money but the end users will save time. The sites that put up a link to your web app are in effect saying “Go here and save yourself some time”, but I disagree that this is materially different from linking to a site and saying to people “Go here and save yourself 10%”.

The only thing I can see that OverStock.com have done that might be considered dodgy is the inclusion of a lot of links with very optimised anchor text in their block of text. This will obviously improve their SERP rankings for these keywords, but again where is the line? Most people who build links will at least try and optimise their anchor text, even if it is only one link being asked for. So if one optimised link is OK, how many is not OK? Three? Five? Ten? You get my point.

Organic Vs Built Links

It seems to me that Google are moving the goalposts as to what’s acceptable and what’s not in terms of link building in response to being caught out at being gamed by JCPenney, OverStock.com and others. Their ultimate intention seems to be to only count organically gained links, and discount built or asked-for links. That sounds like a relatively hard problem to solve but it makes sense for them to try in response to the constant criticism they’re receiving at the moment about spam (or gamed) search results.

If things do pan out that way it means that a lot of sites are going to start seeing their rankings fall, and dramatically.