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Small Businesses Skip PageRank Roller Coaster Ride

Greetings from inside the SEOigloo!
Well, this has been a crazy week in our industry. Andy Beard’s Chart nicely sums up the major fluctuation in PageRank that some of the web’s major SEO/marketing sites and blogs have seen over the past week. After taking hits as many as 4 points deep, these businesses began blogging about their alarm and disgust, and many came to the conclusion that Google was sending them all a warning because they are engaging in Google’s least favorite practice – link buying/selling. As Andy’s chart also shows, most of these sites are now seeing the little green bar rise again to normal or almost normal levels. My bet would be that nearly every one of these folks has, at some point, advised clients not to pay much attention to Toolbar PageRank (TBPR) because it is inaccurate, and whenever there is a TBPR update, fluctuations are reported by panicked site owners across the Internet. As has historically happened during a TBPR update, the green bar does crazy things and then settles down and we return to business as usual.
Some Crazy Things About This Most Recent Update
– The majority of the sites I learned about being hit by this update were Marketing/SEO related or simply very popular blogs. The other big group was business/news sites like Forbes, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post. These are all big entities with big voices.
– One of my favorite sites, Copyblogger.com, was hit hard, despite the fact that Brian Clark says the advertising on his site does not pass PageRank.
– Despite some oddities like what happened to Copyblogger, most of the sites affected quickly agreed they were being punished by Google for link buying/selling
– Strangest of all, it appears that Google penalized their own site, YouTube, which is currently registering a lowly PR3!
– The overall response to the PR hit was that it didn’t make a bit of difference. Search Engine Guide (disclosure: I write for Search Engine Guide) has over 10,000 subscribers to their RSS Feed, and because the PR change hasn’t appeared to affect actual search engine rankings or traffic of sites like this, the owners have been able to laugh it off, more or less, calling Google a bunch of clowns. None of the site owners seemed to indicate they would be altering their business model to avoid loss of green pixels in a toolbar icon that apparently has no effect on the success of their business.
The Dark View
If this was simply a PR update, and numbers are now settling back to normal, this has all been about a few days of panic over wonky numbers and Google was not sending a message at all. They were simply adjusting Toolbar PageRank as they have done in the past.
However, I am encountering other views on this subject that are worth noting here. Some siteowners who are selling/buying links in order to increase site rankings believed that Google punished them by lowering TBPR so that:
a) The lower PR would make them a less valuable site for other businesses to buy links on. Obviously, a link from a site with PR9 is going to be more valuable than one from a site with PR3, right?
b) People will be inclined to use Google’s own advertising business, Adwords, rather than engaging in purchasing advertising from other businesses because those businesses may be penalized by Google.
The dark view is that Google is manipulating the market so that business owners will be more or less forced to use Google’s service rather than anyone else’s. ‘Conflict of interest’ is the term folks are applying to this, and it is certainly worth thinking over.
And, though the numbers now seem to be settling down, indicating that this was simply an update rather than a penalty, some business owners may still be nervous, viewing that temporary drop in PR as Google’s calling card, reading,
“We know what you are doing. You have now been warned. You have X number of days to put nofollow tags on the links you sell and stop buying links before we return to your site and cream you for good.”
Could this happen? I simply don’t know. Preceding this recent TBPR fluctuation, it was obvious that a number of well-known marketers consider Google to be a manipulative (or some say ‘evil’) entity, willing to stop at nothing to create a monopoly that leaves the business world dependent on their services. I have even read some marketers claiming that Google has penalized them simply for publishing anti-Google sentiments…in other words, a type of censorship. Every week, stories go popular on marketing-related sites like Sphinn.com portraying Google as a bad guy. Suffice it to say that for many people, the once-upon-a-time honeymoon with Google is over.
A penalty that does nothing to reduce rankings or traffic is hardly worth calling a penalty. A penalty that results in a site being de-ranked for its major keywords is another matter. Time will tell the truth on this one. Everyone has been left wondering what Google’s next move will be.
Small Business Owners Are Left Wondering What The Fuss Is All About
In your small business, you are aware of market trends long before your customers are. For example, if you are an interior designer, you found out that brown was the new black before this ever hit the magazine racks. SEO/marketing is like this, too. My guess is that outside of our industry, most folks couldn’t care less that PageRank was invented by Larry Page, couldn’t care less what Google is doing right this minute, today, now! Website owners stand in the middle ground, spending what time they have to learn about all of this industry stuff and many of them become as savvy as SEOs because of their study of search engines. However, if people don’t even own a website, they have absolutely no reason to care about metrics like TBPR, who Matt Cutts is, or whether Google is evil. Most of what people in our industry worry about is insular, and either won’t be common knowledge for years to come, or won’t ever affect the general public at all, in any way they’ll really notice.
The link buying/link selling debate is a classic example of this. As a small business owner, I turn down offers to sell links to companies approaching me because I don’t endorse services I’ve never heard of before. The contents of this website have 2 purposes: to educate small business owners and to win contracts for ME. When I endorse something, it’s because I believe it will actually be of use to potential clients…not because someone is paying me to pretend I believe this. Sorry, my reputation as an honest business owner is more important than the $50/month I could receive for claiming to support SupersonicawesomeexcellentSEOcompany.
Do I think paid advertising is evil? Absolutely not. But, I do think endorsing products or services you have never tried on your main business site is unethical and misleading. Trust is something money can’t buy. I want to keep it that way.
In regards to buying links…well, for once, it feels good to be poor. Like most of you, I couldn’t afford to buy links if I wanted to. This is the position most small business owners are in, thus rendering this whole links debate meaningless for them. You may feel sorry for the big guys who are being constrained, hit, penalized, or you may feel vindictive about it and think they are only getting what they deserve. Either way, it’s a game you’re not playing because you simply don’t have the funds.
All The Same, Google Needs To Be Upfront About This
The basic premise of this whole conundrum is that SEOs were told, through the grapevine of blogs like Matt Cutts’ (not an official Google entity) or major marketing sites like Search Engine Land (not related to Google at all), that if we want to profit from advertising other businesses on our websites, we need to make sure that the links contain the rel=”nofollow” tag in them so that Google will not pass PageRank to those sites. We heard, in an offhand way, that Google is fine with us sending traffic to others, but it is forbidden to pass PageRank because it messes up Google’s links-based algorithm wherein each link acts as a vote for the quality of the page it’s pointing to.
This Search Marketing Gurus article perfectly sums up the sentiment I’ve heard repeatedly that Google has never made an official statement about buying/selling links. It is not in their Official Webmaster Guidelines. Necessarily, this means a website owner could be engaging in buying or selling non-no-followed links, having never read that Google doesn’t want this, and that site could be penalized by Google without the owner having the least idea why. I see the point of this argument.
However, as an SEO who works with small businesses, I find it difficult to believe that the above would be a common case. If someone has advanced enough in their web practices to be trading links, chances are, they know all about Google. I’d be skeptical of any business owner who is engaged in link trading saying they’ve never heard of this nofollow business. People trading links are doing big business. So, while I get the hypothesis that someone could trade links and get penalized without any official documentation from Google about passing PR for money being forbidden, I find it hard to believe this accurately represents the activities of the small business owner. If you know of cases to the contrary, I’d like to hear about them.
The other part of this argument that isn’t quite holding up for me is that Google has no public, written policy on this practice. In fact, they do have a page about this: HERE IT IS. This page clearly states that non-no-followed paid links violate Google’s guidelines. So, there it is. But, folks at Google, you need to put this information on the main Webmaster Guidelines page. If this is a policy you truly stand behind, for whatever reasons, you need to bring it upfront into the shop window. Don’t bury it on an obscure part of your website. It makes you guys look like you are purposely being unclear.
If paid non-no-followed links incur the risk of a major penalty, please list this on your main page, just as you do with cloaking, hidden text, etc. All it takes is adding one more link to that section of your Webmaster Guidelines. Not much to ask. And, hopefully, this will remove nearly all potential for someone to violate your policy without being aware they are doing so. Most web business owners are going to end up at your Webmaster Guidelines page at some point, right? If paid links are so awful, make this clear on page 1…please?
As I see it, when a new web business owner takes the do-it-yourself route, it is his responsibility to work towards a professional level of knowledge about all things related to running his website. This begins with don’t program your website in Flash and goes right up to Google doesn’t like non-no-followed paid links so if you want to please Google, don’t engage in this. Not one of the sites apparently penalized this week claimed they didn’t know they were violating Google’s guidelines. Their very reasonable aggravation hinges on the fact that they perceive Google as trying to create a monopoly. And it’s important for you, the small business owner, to know what it going on, especially if you aren’t working with a professional SEO/marketer. With Google controlling over 60% of search activity, what Google says and does is absolutely relevant to your business, whatever its size, and claiming ignorance will not fix anything down the road that may affect your rankings and traffic.
All of us who want to play in Google’s backyard are obliged to know Google’s rules, so that we can decide whether to obey or disregard them. If Google wants to behave ethically, they will make those official rules abundantly clear, visible and accessible to all. It is our content that makes their business model possible, and they should be eager to implement reasonable requests and to participate in dialogue with the very people who have made search the success it is. Lack of corporate transparency is rapidly breeding serious ill-will for this entity which was once so well thought of. The signs are everywhere. And, just as technical specifics filter down from marketers to the man on the street, sentiments about corporate ethics do the same.
For the small business owner, our lack of funding has lead to us skipping this ride on the recent PR roller coaster. We are busy trying to get those coveted one-way links on the merit of our content, not the contents of our wallet. But pay attention. Follow this story. In your study of search, what is happening in the big business world today may well be happening in our playground tomorrow.