Google has a paid link dilemma, at least according to Patrick Altoft (tip of the hat to Lee Messenger). As he says:
The reason Google doesn?t like paid links is obvious and understandable from their point of view. Google quite simply doesn?t want websites to be able to buy their way to the top of the search engine rankings.
As I commented there:
Google is really a publisher. It publishes its search results. It adds paid advertisements and the more you pay the more visible your Adwords will be. It is trying to maintain that the non-Adwords content is commercial free. However it realizes that big advertisers may well spend money to get higher in the organic results ( the publication side of the business). It needs to be visible in trying to preserve the integrity of that noncommercial content.
Clearly Identifying Advertising
This is not a new issue. Back at Christmas 2003, I offered Google a suggestion on how its Search Engine Report Pages (SERPs) might appear.
Google SERP Mockup
This is almost like a newspaper page. In a good newspaper, there is a strict division between the advertising side and the editorial side. Similarly, in Google there is a strict division, a Chinese wall some say, between Search and Advertising. In the image, the Search section is white and labelled Information Zone. Here Google will serve relevant informational pages that relate to the meaning of your search. The blue section is labelled Commercial Zone and here Google delivers Advertising that is in context with the meaning of your search.
Such a clear distinction is what the Federal Trade Commission has ruled must occur on Search Engine Report Pages (SERP’s). Indeed if Google chose to show each content on different colored backgrounds as in the image, perhaps everyone would win. Those who wish to read the advertisements can easily identify them.
Google will be 10 years old this coming September. The New York Times will be 157 years old in the same month. So it is had longer to grapple with these issues. Perhaps its Handbook of Values and Practices on Ethical Journalism (pdf file) might provide a model for Google. In particular, one can read the following:
72. The Times treats advertisers as fairly and openly as it treats readers and news sources. The relationship between The Times and advertisers rests on the understanding, long observed in all departments, that news and advertising are strictly separate – that those who deal with either one have distinct obligations and interests and neither group will try to influence the other.
Google might also take to heart what the New York Times says about integrity.
At a time of growing and even justified public suspicion about the impartiality, accuracy and integrity of some journalists and some journalism, it is imperative that The Times and its staff maintain the highest possible standards to insure that we do nothing that might erode readers? faith and confidence in our news columns. This means that staff members should be vigilant in avoiding any activity that might pose an actual or apparent conflict of interest and thus threaten the newspaper’s ethical standing. And it also means that the journalism we practice daily must be beyond reproach.
The Search Engine Report Pages (SERP’s) that Google produce around the world clearly have a much bigger impact than the New York Times. Given Google’s size, the need for integrity is paramount.
Is Google A Publisher?
Although a Doctor in Philosophy might not agree, the person in the street would have little difficulty with this question. Just take a look at Google News for example. Its tagline states: Search and browse 4,500 news sources updated continuously. It is so similar to a newspaper that Google even has to add a disclaimer at the foot of the page. The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program.
Clearly there is a major difference between a New York Times publication and a Search Engine Report Page (SERP) produced by Google. What Google publishes is entirely created by computer. Every entry is there because Google’s search algorithm deemed it more relevant than items lower down in the list. The actual text for each item is then developed by an automatic snippet production process. No human author is involved.
The problem arises because Google’s search algorithm places some weight on the number of links pointing to any given web page entry. That is the core principle of the PageRank concept, which is what distinguishes Google from other search engines. Paid links may be one way in which website owners try to influence what appears in the Google SERPs. However this is only a tiny tip of the iceberg, as compared with the way major companies can influence where their websites appear in lists. Major companies can easily create a network of associated sub companies, affiliates and partners. These might quite naturally link to the mother company website. These links are technically not paid links but certainly generate benefits for their creators. It would however be a task worthy of King Solomon to decide which should be deemed paid links and which not.
Google has decided to take a different path, which could be viewed as undemocratic. It seems to be working with a very narrow definition of a paid link. This is a link that has been created because cash was received directly for its creation. Large companies can create links in much more creative ways and avoid the paid label being applied to their links. The present Google approach is likely to hit smaller companies and of course the more who are affected the louder the volume of complaints. If they wished to create the maximum noise about their approach, this is the way to do it. If effective, it could reduce the volume of such directly paid links. It avoids entirely the difficult question of links that are created by big company networks.
The Advertising/Editorial Content Dilemma
It’s not an easy problem for Google to resolve. As Louis Hau points out, even Newspapers Confront The Enemy Within:
Newsrooms have long cultivated a strict “church-state” division between themselves and their papers’ advertising departments, fearing a loss of independence and integrity–and with it the trust of readers. Like it or not, the newspaper industry’s increasingly grim financial outlook leaves editors with little choice but to work across the aisle.
Whereas newspapers may be discussing life-and-death issues here, that’s hardly the case for Google. Whether the Google Adwords program is influencing its approach to paid links is not something they declare. Paid links are certainly a competitor for a share of any online marketing budget. Some feel that Google can set its own rules in its own publications. However when a company becomes so dominant in any market place, perhaps the normal free competition rules need some restraint.
If you feel strongly on this, you may choose to add your comments here or perhaps join the ongoing discussion on this at Cre8asite Forums.