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When I started this New York Times story about black hat SEO I was hoping that it would finally be the story I was hoping for that questioned whether Google's practice of stomping down paid links could be considered anti-competitive.
Unfortunately the thing they chose to focus on is a much less interesting side of this debate:
Investigators have been asking advertisers in Europe questions like this: "Please explain whether and, if yes, to what extent your advertising spending with Google has ever had an influence on your ranking in Google's natural search." And: "Has Google ever mentioned to you that increasing your advertising spending could improve your ranking in Google's natural search?"
I've thought for awhile that not allowing paid links on sites was forcing small publishers into AdSense, which pays a fraction of what a few paid links would net a site with a decent PageRank. What's more, Google's general attitude towards any sort of paid-for content is ridiculously. Two years ago I wrote about how Google was threatening to cut PageRank from bloggers who accept gifts and then write about the company or product without using a "nofollow" tag in the link (essentially nofollow tells Google that it shouldn't count that link as a link, and therefore apply no "juice" to it). At the time I wrote this: "asking people to go through the process of adding "nofollow" feels to me like they're putting the onus on individuals to do their job (or at least a job their algorithm should be able to do)."
Not surprisingly, then, I was glad to see the comments to this TechCrunch story about Forbes cutting out its paid links. Specifically from J Nicholas Gross who wrote in response to the story:
I think this is nonsense.
If Google wants to define the "link" as the be-all end-all of page rank, they can suffer the consequences. The rest of the universe should not have to jump through hoops just to make sure their inadequately intelligent search engine isn't mis-ranking relevancy.
Michael Arrington, editor of TechCrunch replied, "I don't disagree. But in this case Forbes is selling links only to game google." To which Gross added this nugget:
I'm not sure that matters. Here, Google controls what will be easily considered a market controlling share in search, and they are trying to over-reach to force the rest of the web to do the "appropriate" linking behavior for them with the penalty of being evicted otherwise. I smell an anti-trust case on the near horizon as this is clearly anti-competitive.
I am very glad to see someone else arguing this as I've been waiting a long time to see this get picked up. To me when you add to the fact that the only real competitor to text links to the vast majority of the population is AdSense it only strengthens the anti-competitive argument. So what now?