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Matt Cutts Explains Google’s Criteria for Identifying Paid Links

By now, most web developers should know that Google frowns upon the use of paid links. Paying for links that pass Page Rank is against the search engine’s terms of service, and if a website is caught either buying or selling links that pass Page Rank, Google is not afraid to take disciplinary action against the site. This disciplinary action can include reducing the page’s Page Rank or even excluding the page from Google’s listings altogether.

While that part of the policy is simple enough to understand, there still remains some question as to what exactly counts as a paid link. This is why Google’s Matt Cutts released a video to clear up the confusion. In the video, he discusses six guidelines that Google considers when determining whether or not a link counts as a paid link and whether or not Google should take action against the site owner.

According to Cutts, most paid links are easy to recognize. The seller often spams or advertises with language that makes the intent clear. However, there are instances when the nature of the link isn’t as clear, such as if someone gives a gift and receives a link in return. In instances such as this, Google evaluates the nature of the link by asking the following questions.

1. How Valuable is the Item that the Person Receives in Exchange for the Link?

Cutts points out that a free pen or t-shirt is not nearly as influential as several hundred dollars. The more a person is paid—either in money or items—the more suspicious the link looks. Google figures that if all a person received was a free pen for the link, then the person probably posted the link because he or she genuinely wanted to, not for the free item.

2. How Close is the Compensation to Money?

Giving someone money for a link is clearly against Google’s terms of service. Gift cards and purchase credits are very similar to money, and their exchange constitutes a paid link as well. Something like a beer or a pizza cannot be redeemed the way that cash and gift cards can, and is less likely to be considered payment for a link.

3. Is the Compensation a Gift or a Loan?

According to Cutts, trying out an item in order to write a review about it is a completely different matter than being given a product in exchange for a review with a link. Receiving a product to review and send back makes sense – people need to be able to try out a product in order to write about it. Receiving a product in exchange for a link would make the link a paid link.

4. What is the Intended Audience or Purpose?

It is normal and natural for companies to give their fans and followers free downloads, trials or samples. This is a common business practice that seeks to get the customer to try the product and purchase more. It is not natural for people to give each other products or links across completely unrelated niches. If the two sites are completely unrelated, the link is more likely to be considered a paid link.

5. Would it be a Surprise?

The last question Cutts asks is a type of catch-all that allows Google to use common sense, rather than just specific guidelines. For example, people would not be surprised if a movie reviewer saw the movie for free or if a food critic ate for free. While the movie and the dinner are compensation, most people understand that this is how reviews work and the reviewer’s opinion is not likely changed. If a reviewer received a car in exchange for a review about it, however, that would be a surprise, and the link would be considered a paid link.

While there will always be some gray area regarding which links qualify as paid links and which do not, these guidelines help Google to determine which links they should take disciplinary action against and which they do not. For additional questions, Cutts advises people to refer to the guidelines set up by the FTC, as their guidelines are fairly similar to Google’s.

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Article by George Eblacker