Friday, October 26, 2007

Selling text links is bad for travel sites - official

A string of websites and blogs are up in arms over what are some rather fundamental changes to the Google algorithm, which in turn has hit website Page Ranks.

The crux of the issue is this: Google is understood to be punishing websites that sell text-based links to third parties by reducing their relevancy or authority mark, or Page Rank.

This in turn affects their position of keyword search results.

Full coverage of the issue on SearchEngineLand and SEOMoz.

A few emails into Travolution today asking about the impact, if any, on travel sites.

Well at first glance it looks like some blogs (the legendary John Chow, for one) and a number of media sites (including the Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times and Forbes) are nursing some pretty serious wounds to their Page Rank.

We have only learnt so far of two travel-related sites affected: (PR7 to PR4) and (also PR7 to PR4).

The chief operations officer of a leading SEO agency told us a number of travel sites could find themselves with a “bit of a situation” on their hands if Google continues its crackdown.

The problem, however, is that there is a huge “grey area” in what Google is doing.

If a website is selling a text link to a third party and the ad copy is relevant to the content, why - asks our correspondent - should the site be punished?

Indeed, a site which has a landing page about Paris may well be penalised simply because it has sold some text links on the same page to, say, a group of city break operators?

On the other hand, the opposite scenario is where some education sites (mainly US universities, which typically have a high authority ranking) have sold links to sites selling Viagra, simply because they know the ad can command a high price.

Either way, Google is cracking down. The short term answer is to probably to stop selling any text ads, if possible.

Another emailer asked: "So what about affiliates?"

We spoke to Commission Junction, part of the ValueClick empire, asking whether as a network it would purchase text links on behalf of clients.

The worry here, email to us by one SME tour operator, is that if Google reduces the page rank of sites containing links bought by affiliate networks, then the number of leads will fall, sales may fall, etc.

The network does not purchase text links, it said, and therefore those using its platform as affiliate merchants will not be affected directly. Of course the host site may well be flogging text ads to others and they will be hit by association.

One mildly amusing irony of all this is that, despite Google’s attempts to crack down on those selling text link ads, type “text link ads” into its search engine and the world’s biggest search engine is happily taking pay-per-click advertising from the likes of, and [We did not sell these links!!]

A quick call to Google this afternoon revealed nothing apart from a very carefully worded statement, emailed back a few hours later:

"Google is always working to improve the ways that we generate relevant search results and update our opinions of sites' reputations across the web.

"The Google Toolbar shows an indicator of PageRank, which is Google's opinion of the reputation of a webpage.

"Values in the Google Toolbar can fluctuate for a number of normal reasons, including changes in how we crawl or index the web, or changes in the link structure of the web itself.

"In addition, Google may update the visible PageRank indicator in the Google Toolbar to incorporate not only our view on the backlinks to a page or site, but also to incorporate our opinion of the forward links for a site."
This is clearly going to rumble on and on. Any comments from SEO agencies or other victims?

[ProBlogger has some good analysis and advice for bloggers]

Kevin May, editor, Travolution

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Anonymous said...

It was only a matter of time, warning shots were fired from Google back in May 2007.

I personally wish we had acted then.

Short term, there's a change you can make to the text link ad so that Google [and other SE's] see your not trying to manipulate the search results.

What impact this will have long term we'll find out.

Thankfully, our own ranking and traffic has not dropped, but it is an end to SEO agencies buying links for their travel clients to manipulate the results.

Travel companies won't come out and say they do this, for a fear of being penalised, but it happens.

We are stopping selling links and will look at other ways of generating revenue, but believe me when I say Google AdSense will not be one of them.

Sorry about the Anonymous. I wanted to comment and we are in communication with our advertisers at the moment.

Travolution Blogger said...

Anonymous: thanks for the comments, and understand why you wish to remain anonymous.

Anonymous said...

For anyone interested in making their text links search engine friendly, use the no follow tag.

< a href ="thedomain" rel="nofollow" > text < / a>

(Without the spaces of course)

There's a wiki about this tag

Travolution Blogger said...

Anonymous: thanks for the code and the explanation.

Andreas said...

Interesting Post. Thank you for this detailed review.

I am running a travel community called GLOBOsapiens. which has droped from a strong 6 to 4 and lowering now to 3 according to the google data centers. There are only travel related links on GLOBO, next to content. Not in the footer or so, next to content. I believe this is where the problem lives. Google wants that those advertisement dollars will be directed to them. That is a classic adsense spot there. I am waiting for the day, that google will be taken apart into a search engine and a marketer. There is a clear conflict of interest here and they are using their monopoly to push their adsense network. Who guarantees for example that sites without google adsense will not rank lower? In the end a regular user is moving from google property to google property with adsense links, which is in my opinion also a reason why they do not open in new windows.
Anyway, what to do now? I believe the GLOBO travel links are a main feature of the site and should stay there. However in the end we must all do what the owner of the Internet wants us to do, so we will comply in the long run to stay in business.



Andy Zeus Anderson said...

My concern as an affiliate marketer is the methods at hand for trying to establish which links are paid links and which are natural.

I am a affiliate marketer and like the paid links systems most affiliate links are run through a tracking service. I can sell links on my websites and blogs without the use of a tracker and they would appear to be regular links.

This allows you to still sell links but cuts your revenues as major advertisers are drawn to services and with direct links you are at the mercy of being able to attract the interest of the advertiser yourself. Google makes it's living from text links, I can too.

Andy Zeus Anderson

Travolution Blogger said...

Andy Zeus Anderson: I'thanks for your comments.

i'm not totally convinced how this move will impact on affiliate schemes. i have asked a few other affiliate networks, as well as CJ, to come back to us with more information.

Sam I Am said...

I'm pretty sure it's been common practice amongst all big players to nofollow all affiliate links anyway. There is clearly no benefit in not doing so, although I find it annoying since when a site links to any other site I want it to be considered accountable in some way. In other words, if I link to an affiliate site the visitors of my site can be 100% sure I have tried out the service and actually stand for it being a good service. I realize in 95% of all sites this is not the case, but that's exactly why sites that clearly show only to work with reliable affiliates should be given some extra credit here, regardless of how they link to the actual affiliate site. In the end though, the users also make this choice by choosing your site again or not and they will stop using your site if it recommends junk affiliate stuff.

Regarding the page rank. I'm yet to hear of an actual site losing rankings at the same time as this drop in PR. Anyone? Until then what is the big deal exactly about a few pixels less green? Even Apple dropped from a PR10 to a PR9 and you can be sure they don't sell text links!!

Here's a theory; Google just recalibrated their pagerank in some way to counter the number of increased pages online (I can remember this happening at least one other time). I see several larger sites dropping one PR point like travelpod & bootsnall and I know from our site that some of the inner pages have dropped one point which indicates a less strong overall PR. I think they might also have recalibrated the way outbound links are treated. It's always been assumed that linking out does not reduce your own page rank, but what if it does now? That would explain the huge drops for bloggers etc.

Oh, and of course don't run programs like text-link-ads specifically on your site!

I totally understand why G wants to send a message here but I think we're getting on a very slippery slope here if people start no following all their links, even the ones they do endorse!! How will G ever be able to build an index if everyone no follows all their links??!!

Anonymous said...

>> How will G ever be able to build an index if everyone no follows all their links??!!

Good point Sam.

What about blogrolls?

We add a link because we enjoy reading the blog, and think it will be a good blog for our readers.

Will G now think that these are paid links, therefore shouldn't we be no-following these aswell.

Search Engines use the quality/number of links pointing to a page to rank a page [plus other factors] so if everyone adds-no follow won't we make the quality of the search worse?

People loose an income form not being able to sell links, so Google assume that everyone will use AdSense instead.

No thank you.

Anonymous said...

Re. affiliates.

Don't a lot of affilites links include javascript [I thought CJ did]

If it's a javascript link I thought Google couldn't follow these links?

I think the problem is for companies who have bought links to improve ranking, and could find themselves sliding down the search results.

All the big travel players buy links.

I know because of the number of emails I have received from the SEO/Marketing guys who manage these sites.

Michael said...

Looks Google have just gone and done it again :-

Google Change Algorithm...

They seem to be on a bit of a role or maybe enhancing previous changes to support their own busines models?

Anonymous said...

This tool is handy to check if you've been hammered or not.

A paid link (eg TLA) is just an affiliate link dressed differently - so how they can punish one and not the other seems inconsistent -- especially if the text link is relevant to your readers.

Surely a fairer way would be for Google to devalue links that they deem to be paid links rather than to punish the site wholesale. Seems they're treating something that is effectively their indexing problem by trying to make the problem the publisher's instead.

Anonymous said...

As an SEO in the Travel Sector - I do have a vested interest in this issue - warning shots happened earlier on in the year when the notorioua american Real Estate Industry was hit quite hard.

But note that PR is just an indicator - not necessarily a factor of search positions.

The no follow tag is to be used when selling links for "traffic" purposes. Adwords are not text links in the sense that they are counting as a human vote - they are used to boost visibility and traffic. If you follow the same reasoning in your site - there are no problems.

To my knowledge blogrolls etc wont suffer as bad, because they are designed to be votes - but they are still open to investigation - you can still report suspected activity which will be investigated

The fact is that most of the SEO world knew from 2005 ( that google is going to do something about the whole link buying industry...

Anonymous said...

Lets get real. The effect this will have will very much depend on how many links a site has sold and how they have been sold. Most travel sites who have sold only a few links should not worry about this, they simply won't be on the radar. Google have much bigger fish to fry.

nomad4ever said...

Although it's been a few month, just wanted to add that my travel related website dropped from PR5 to PR3 with then about 9 Links sold via TLA.

For me it's double standard by Google, but something I think about. As long my income from TLA is higher than from Adsense I won't change it. So far so good.

Problem is that TLA uses PR to calculate their prices for links sold, even though they influence it indirectly. Last month I dropped from 9 to now 7 links, so maybe that's related.

The PR drop didn't influence the traffic yet. It's still growing exponentially and most traffic is still from Google.

Go figure...