Links for sale in a corrupt blogosphere

by Tim Hill (aka Doodled)

May 15th 2017
Many bloggers have become every bit as corrupt as the old order they seeked to displace
Many bloggers have become every bit as corrupt as the old order they seeked to displace

Bloggers changed the way we received information about the world and felt like a breath of fresh air compared to old style journalists pushing the agendas of whoever owned their news outlet.

But power brings corruption and that's where many bloggers have fallen giving Google a headache.

What with it being the worlds largest search engine Google is keen to keep it that way. It revolutionised internet search when it decided the best way to rank pages was not by considering their content alone but by working out who linked to them and what that should count for.

A page that is linked to from other sites around the net is better than one that isn't ... thinks Google. It made the internet giant a household name.

Google's first headache, widespread website hosting.

When website hosting became widely available it meant anyone could build a link. Spammers went mad creating programmes that created thousands of websites with links to whoever would pay their price.

Google creating improvement after improvement so that a simple site with a link meant nothing. It would be links within the content of the website that counted and if the site's subject area matched yours then a few more brownie points on top of that.

Google identified seed sites - websites it new to be cleaner than clean like Wikipedia, CNN, BBC, etc. It could then consider how far your website was (in terms of links) from a seed site and assign a few more brownie points again.

Today Google considers over 500 signals but links, and the quality of those links, remain key to how it sorts the web.

Enter blogger power

During this time a growing number of people had been blogging away. Their websites were gradually gathering links and their domains were aging like a fine bottle of wine (Google likes websites that have been around for a while).

They had also been gaining large followings of genuine fans or readers. But life is not all roses for bloggers. As anyone in the online business will tell you a website needs around a zillion visitors a month to make any noticeable money selling advertising space.

They were providing a largely unpaid service and getting nothing more than a pat on the back from eager readers.

At the same time here was Google saying that your website could rank higher if the links to it came from:

  1. trusted websites (they had been around a while and were not known for spamming).
  2. links that were inside the main text body of a page and within the context of the page (not just randomly dropped there).
  3. websites that had their own links that were like ... well points one and two.

Now the really big fish were out of reach - the BBC won't drop a link to your website into their story for love nor money. Neither will the next level of slightly not so large fish because they want to keep editorial quality - they plan on being around for the long term. If you don't have anything amazing to add they weren't going to build that link.

The exploitation of the blogosphere

Bloggers on the other hand were ripe for exploitation. Popular and with content heavy websites but poorly paid to the most part.

A few bright sparks started knocking on their doors and offering them a bit of cash if they wouldn't mind mentioning a particular website in their ramblings. The link was part of the attraction but it was also the influence these people yielded that attracted marketeers.

Word got round pretty fast and bloggers were soon knocking on other people's doors offering a link in return for 'this or that'.

If blogger X was to endorse a certain brand it could influence a large block of loyal followers to become loyal brand buyers and it was much cheaper than other forms of advertising. Mostly it could all be done by barter - "I'll give you these trainers if you say these trainers are great".

One of my clients who runs an ecommerce store has a queue of instagrammers halfway round the block pointing out how many followers they have and listing what products they would like. Send them, they'll take a photo and plonk it on Instagram.

What you can demand in terms of freebies depends on fan numbers, website traffic volume, email list sizes or any other asset you can dream up.

Very often bloggers, instagrammers and others with big followings on different platforms simply refer to themselves as 'influencers'.

Where Google's latest headache comes from

'Influencers' come in all shapes and sizes but they have one thing in common, they can give your website a link. They have also woken up to the realization that people will pay for such things even though it violates Google's terms. If the transaction was ever known about both websites could be thrown out of the search results.

The endless emails my clients get is testimony to this. They often start by asking if I would be interested in 'collaborating' but it doesn't take long to get to the point. They want cash or a gift in return for a link and a product/service recommendation.

Search 'blogger outreach services' and you'll find a swamp of company's offering to act as the middle man. They'll match your desire for links to bloggers with a desire for cash.

The very system Google relies on when it comes to ranking pages in the search results is corrupting by the day. Bloggers will endorse and link to products and services that they have never bought or used in return for a fist full of dollars. Some blogger outreach services will even write the blog post for them just to keep things sweet.

Google has been here before, but not quite

Creating links within articles is not exactly new. Services like Traffic Paymaster offered software to spin articles into new articles but what computers make, computers can spot, and it was short lived.

Bloggers offer the human touch (for a higher price) making it easier to remain under Google's radar. They finally have an asset that can earn them money.

But as with all such schemes greed is what normally causes the wheels to fall off. Badly written articles sprinkled with links spewing onto blogs in ever greater numbers are making it too difficult for Google to stand idly by.

I suspect a mass culling of even some well known blogs is not too far away. We have become disillusioned about politicians, disillusioned about experts, disillusioned about big corporations and pharmaceutical giants. When the lid blows we may quickly become disillusioned about bloggers, many of whom it turns out are just are corrupt as the stale old world order they started out trying to revolutionise.

Bloggers are already starting to call out blogger like Cormac Moore who believes it is inevitable that bloggers will become "The New Modern Day corrupt politicians". Word is leaking out.