A Brave New World: the Current and Future Status of Text Link Advertising

Text link advertising has gotten a bad name thanks to its early history. But there is a new wave of text link ad companies now, and Google is finally weighing in on the issue. What does this mean for you?

It wasn’t too long ago that text link advertising was little more than an underground network of webmasters that chose to exchange cash for links as opposed to the more conventional swapping of a link for a link.

Then along came SearchKing.com.

This portal was the first to openly sell text link ads specifically to improve PageRank and search engine results. Owner Bob Massa launched the "PR ad network" within SearchKing.com in August of 2002, offering to broker text link ad deals between potential buyers and sellers. The site quickly gained steam (and notoriety) within the SEO community, but was promptly penalized by Google in September of 2002. SearchKing.com lost its PR 7 ranking and its favorable rankings for specific search terms with in Google.

One month later, Massa sued Google Inc. and asked for restoration of his PageRank and search engine positions as well as damages of no less than $75,000. After just a few months of legal haggling, a U.S. district court dismissed the lawsuit and SearchKing.com was officially sunk.

Many thought that this would be the final death blow for mainstream text link advertising efforts, but in fact, it marked the birth of what is now a thriving industry. In October of 2003, John Lessnau launched his portal, LinkAdage.com, which mimicked the eBay auction model, but applied it to text link advertising. Around the same time, two text link ad brokerages, textlinkbrokers.com and text-link-ads.com, begin to offer their services to enterprising webmasters.

Initially, many in the SEO community were sure that these maverick portals would meet the same end as SearchKing.com, but that was not to be the case. Since none of these sites explicitly promoted improvement of PageRank as the basis for advertising, Google apparently chose to spare them the wrath visited upon their more famous predecessor. All three portals have grown significantly, in terms of both scope and revenue, and a fourth major portal, LinkWorth.com, has entered the fray.

What has ensued is a nearly four-year-long argument among webmasters concerning the legitimacy of text link advertising and whether it is a white-hat or black-hat SEO technique.

And for the most part, Google has remained mum on the subject. Sure, there were several mentions of text link advertising lumped in with reciprocal linking within some of Google’s various patent applications, but the search engine titan had no official stance on the subject. But that’s all changed now.

Google now has an official stance on text link advertising, which can be found within their "Webmaster Guidelines" section at the following URL: http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=66736&topic=8524

Essentially, the search engine giant still lumps text link ads together with link exchanges as "links intended to manipulate search engine results." This is a tremendous step for Google, because it essentially outlaws the vast majority of existing text link ad agreements. Mind you, Google explicitly mentions that text ads are acceptable as long as they include a "No Follow" attribute, which essentially blocks search engine spiders from passing through the link, but the reality is that very few existing text links include this piece of code.

Clearly, Google is stating that they are committed to stamping out text link advertising as a means for increasing PageRank or keyword rankings in organic search. So does this official stance signal the end of text link advertising as we know it? Will text ad pioneers like LinkAdage go the way of the dodo bird?

Probably not.

For starters, Google’s own guidelines state they are planning on simply discounting specific text link ads, not penalizing or banning sites for buying or selling them. The reason for this is fairly simple; if Google penalizes sites that have text link ads pointing to them, then competitors will purposely buy text link ads and point them at their competitors in order to sabotage their rankings. Sites that are deemed to be selling text link ads may have their ability to pass PR compromised, but that won’t necessarily prevent site owners from selling those types of ads to unsuspecting buyers.

Another factor worth considering is that Google implicitly states that their algorithm used to detect text link ads is still far from refined. This means that it is still virtually impossible to detect all text link ads in existence, meaning that many link buyers and sellers will continue to go about business without being detected for some time.

In addition, there are a new breed of text link ads that will make Google’s job of detection all the more difficult. This new breed is called the "contextual link." Essentially, link sellers are packaging text link ads within the actual written content of their sites either as tag lines at the end of an article or blog post or as a seamless mention within the actual content. The second of these two options is virtually undetectable because they are essentially natural citations that are virtually identical to unsolicited inbound links form the basis of Google’s citation ranking system.

Recently, I had a conversation with John Lessnau, a text link advertising maverick who was responsible for launching LinkAdage.com back in 2003. He had some interesting things to say about the current state of text link advertising, Google’s measures to stamp it out, and the future of the industry in general.

Incidentally, John tipped his hat a bit by revealing some of the inner workings of his new venture, www.linkXL.com. This new portal, which went live on May 1, allows advertisers to place relevant and targeted text links directly into the body of preexisting content. The process is automated, which is a step up from the manual context links that some webmasters now offer, and both publishers and advertisers will have a login and admin panel that will display key information regarding the links that have been placed via linkXL.

Here’s a transcript of our conversation:

HG: Hey John! Why do you think that Google has taken this latest step to specifically target paid links (text link ads)?

JL: The paid link economy cuts into Google’s AdWords/AdSense revenue stream so they will do and say whatever they can to stop any threats to their market share, up to and including, statements telling webmasters how to code and monetize their websites.

HG: Why do you feel that contextual text link ads like the ones offered on linkXL are worthwhile for an enterprising webmaster?

JL: It’s really quite simple. We allow webmasters to buy and sell text links that will actually help the search engine algorithms identify what a website is about unlike clumps of unrelated links in the footer of a website, which is what you typically get with traditional paid links.

HG: Do you expect Google to either implicitly or explicitly endorse this contextual link service that you and some of the other text link ad portals are now offering?

JL: That will never happen because our service has the potential to become a major competitor for Google’s AdWords and AdSense products.

HG: Thank you for time and your honesty, John!

JL: You’re welcome!

Clearly, the great majority of the text link advertising industry seems to echo John’s sentiments because it’s still business as usual at all of the major portals that cater to that form of advertising. None of the major players have ceased their operations due to the new wrinkle in Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. In addition, a source close to the situation has intimated that another semi-major player in the industry, linksmile.com, is in the process of re-launching their text link advertising platform after a year or so of inactivity.

What does this tell us?

Basically, it seems to hint at the idea that paid links will continue to be a major industry despite Google’s ongoing efforts to stamp it out. This lead to yet another interestingly radical suggestion: will Google ever change its stance and accept responsible text link advertising as a legitimate SEO practice?

After all, as John suggested, relevant text link ads could theoretically help Google’s ranking algorithm to some extent by allowing responsible webmaster to increase their link popularity via advertisements on relevant web portals.

In all likelihood, the answer is to this question is a resounding no, but there’s a significant insight that can be gleamed by looking at the current trends reciprocal linking.

Remember that Google has tacitly lumped reciprocal linking and text link advertising together, both in some of its patent applications and in other official statements. So technically, reciprocal linking is also frowned upon by Google. Even so, webmasters that engage in responsible reciprocal-linking campaigns (avoiding bad neighborhoods and exchanging links only with relevant sites) continue to reap the rewards both in terms of PageRank and SERPs. If I had to guess, a similar line of thinking will lead to similar results if applied to text link advertising.

Here’s one final parting note, which applies to both the novice SEO and the grizzled veteran webmaster: Google’s latest stance on text link advertising seems to re-affirm their underlying philosophy that content is king. Creating fresh and original content that encourages unsolicited linking from other websites is still the absolute best way to increase both the quantity and quality of your inbound links.

If you’re into text link advertising and it works for you, by all means, continue to engage in your activities. But don’t do so at the expense of building your site’s content, because in the long run, that could prove to be a costly error. This is not because Google’s going to ban you or anything like that. It’s just a matter of fact that nine times of out ten, the site with the most quality content comes out on top.

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