Paid Links Revisited: JCPenney – A Disaster or Success?

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.

I’d venture a guess that many within the hobby blogging community aren’t even aware of the FTC guidelines, nor are they aware that if they receive something in the mail with a suggestion to review the product or if they get a digital download, both of these “gifts” might be considered a form of compensation. It doesn’t stop there. I’ve written three books and both sent and received books from others. Sometimes I get around to reading and reviewing the books, sometimes I don’t. The entire book industry revolves around sending books to those who might review such books. The same is true for digital music, movies, travel (familiarization “fam” trips), and physical products. What about expensive lunches? I can certainly imagine that bloggers would feel more inclined to blog about a product or service after a gratis fancy lunch. It would seem to me that there’s no controlling an ecosystem where compensation comes in so many forms.

Search engine engineers and mathematicians use normative data to look for patterns that might signal an attempt by someone to manipulate results, so longitudinal spikes might set off alarms even if the links are happening organically and are unprompted.

Therefore, my advice stands. Should you decide to buy links, do so with an understanding of the risks. You may want to consider whether or not to get approval from at least one or two levels up the management chain. If something goes wrong and the situation “hits the fan,” your agency doesn’t need the negative publicity. If you’re a corporate staffer and this happens, you’d better have your resume up to date.

The SEMPO Annual State of Search Survey went live this week, and while it doesn’t focus on link buying, it does ask a few great questions that you might want to answer. Other than becoming a SEMPO member, the only way to get a copy of the survey results is to take the survey or pay for a copy. Taking the five-to-ten-minute survey will make you think about resource allocation issues you may not consider every day.

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Screenshot shows a Google search for outdoor grills, the shopping ads shows images with “in store” showing the product is available nearby.