It was October 24th 2007 and Big Brother Google gave me a gift: a PageRank penalty. For whatever reason(s) one of my site’s PR was demoted from PR 6 to PR 4. I said to myself, “Here it comes.”
For months I’ve been troubled by Matt Cutts — head of the Google’s WebSpam team — posts, here and here, and Google’s ‘advice’ for for us webmasters to use nofollow tag to stop comment spammers. In summary, Google wants us to use nofollow tag for every paid links on our sites. Sounds fair enough. Google wants to minimize people gaming the whole link-for-vote system. But here comes the question: “How in the world Google can automatically tell between natural and paid links?” The answer is: No, it can’t. Faced with a simple <a href> HTML code, not even a manual review can tell the difference. This lack of clarity would set any webmasters into paranoia mode. Should we now put nofollow tag on every link lest we risk a special visit from the Big G?
I must admit that I’ve been playing with a grey hat practice for 5 months, selling text link ads via TLA on my ex-PR6 site. I did this while knowing that people who bought the links were hoping to get some link love from the site and not just to get some focused traffic. I did this armed with several guidelines:
- I wouldn’t give links to non-relevant sites
- I wouldn’t give links to bad neighborhood
- I assumed that Google automatic scanner can’t tell the difference between paid and natural links from the raw HTML code alone (yes, evil me)
But of course, I’m not the one who set the rules. Google does. And Google did demote my site to PR4. I don’t know how Google come to conclusion that I sold text links. But I can only guess that their methods are not that sophisticated. One glaring example is what happened to Brian Clark. His CopyBlogger blog suffered a penalty, demoted from PR6 to PR4. This despites the fact that Brian doesn’t sell links on his blog. Fortunately Google restored CopyBlogger’s PR later to … PR7.
The good news is, the organic traffic stays about the same. And my SERP ranking doesn’t seem to be affected by the whole PageRank gymnastic. Perhaps this is a mild warning. Or perhaps the PR value displayed on Google Toolbar doesn’t mean a tad anymore. If that is the case, then Google doesn’t want people to rely too much on PR value, thus discouraging the whole paid link business.
At the end of the day, I took no chances. I dropped all my TLA ads which resulted in revenue loss. And I realize that few people (read: nobody) will purchase a link on my site for the merit of the traffic alone. Google won and I’m left with a reduced revenue and an ex-PR6 site.
Oh well… back to work.