12 April 2006

Safe sex the Google way

Been pondering this for a while, and thought I had already blogged about it, but I can't see anything in the archive.

Background: Search engines are in a continuous state of war with spammers, whose aim is exploit the system to try and push their sites higher up the search rankings than they should naturally be. Google, which is the biggest search engine of all by a long way (In the UK 75% of searches are made on Google. The nearest rival, Yahoo, accounts for 9.5%) bases much of its ranking on the number and quality of links a site has pointing to it from external sites. As a result a huge trade in links has built up - webmasters exchange links ("you link to me and I'll link to you") and set up directories where you can buy a listing (link). Google can spot most of these activities and devalue the importance of links that don't appear to be natural endorsements.

In the spring last year Google told webmasters that by adding a little bit of code (rel="nofollow") to a link they could tell Google's spider not to follow the link and therefore not pass any credit to the target of the link.

Why would you not want to pass credit onto a site you are linking to?

Well as Google's Spam-Master General, Matt Cutts, explained in his blog, you could avoid the risk of your site's own reputation being devalued by Google if Google thought you were trading links. "If you sell links", he said, "you should mark them with the nofollow tag"... or as the wags among the search engine watchers quickly dubbed it, a Google condom.

Much scorn has been passed on the "links without juice" idea by the Search Engine Optimisation/Marketing (SEO/SEM) community, in blogs and on forums. A common reaction has been, 'why should we do Google's work for them, identifying paid-for links?' and 'will Google put nofollow tags on its own Adsense advertisements, since they are also paid-for links?'

Directories (that's me!) are the prime targets* here because most directories are really commercial notice boards full of paid-for links. They are caught, as is Google's intent, between a rock and a hard place. If they put nofollow tags on their links they are undermining the very value of what they sell. If they don't, they run the risk that their own PageRank (that little green bar you see on Google toolbars) will be devalued, and that's one of the ways potential customers judge the directory's importance - the higher the PR of a site, the higher the value of the PR it passes on to sites they link to, the more worthwhile it is paying for a link there.

But what if you are not a directory of paid-for links?

How does Google decide if links might be paid for? Does it just look for a site with a directory structure, lots of links and an e-commerce payment system? Ooer, that's me again! (We take a review fee from sites who don't want to wait for us to find them).

But Travel Lists is exactly the very opposite. Every link is there precisely because it has NOT been paid for, or bartered in a link exchange. Every one specifically IS a recommendation. The very concept Google's page ranking system is built on.

Ironically, since the links on Travel Lists are not paid for it wouldn't matter if I did put a Google condom on them. I don't owe anything to the websites I list. But that's not the point. The point is that far from practising safe sex the Google way, the links on my site DO 'have juice' and SHOULD be passing it on.

So like I say, I've been pondering it.

Back in the autumn last year, when this became a topical issue I did slightly panic and put condoms on every link on the site. Then, the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was ridiculous and 48 hrs later I took them off again!

And that's the way it's staying for now. I'm not really bothered about large travel brands, but I do think some of the smaller specialist travel companies deserve to have proper, un-requited link votes, and like other webmasters I rather resent the fact that Google is making me choose between benefiting myself or my 'linkees'.

*Other prime targets are signature links on forum postings and links in comments posted on blogs (I haven't looked to see if the default setting on blogspot is with or without juice), but feel free. I have to approve them anyway!

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