Google Invests in Creating Paid Links?

Wednesday I posted an interview I did with Oliver Roup after accidentally stumbling onto his company, VigLink, through an article in Internet Retailer. And something pretty interesting resulted from it – well, interesting to me as an SEO anyway. However, I didn’t want to overshadow the interview so I held back pointing out what it was and why for a separate post.

Google VenturesAs the interview mentioned, Google Ventures is one of VigLink‘s investors.

Considering that, as I mentioned in the intro of that interview that VigLink is basically like Adsense for affiliate marketing, it makes sense. However, what doesn’t make sense is Google investing in a company whose goal is to create paid links on the web.

If you skipped the interview thinking it only had interest to affiliates, I’d suggest you read it, paying close attention to question number two, also posted below:

Rae: The VigLink site states: “VigLink lets affiliates create merchant links naturally, with no unsightly affiliate codes and no unintelligible jump domains. Cleaner links mean more user trust, more click-throughs and more conversions.” Can you give me an example of what an affiliate link using your software will look like on my blog?

Oliver Roup: Yes – the demo page has a number of example links all of which are affiliated by our software.

VigLink doesn’t mask the links or add (or require) nofollows on those affiliate links. You link DIRECTLY to the merchant or product and VigLink creates an affiliate link without altering the actual link on the page. You link to it hoping for monetary compensation via affiliate sales.

So, as an example, let’s say I write a post about a product I’m hoping to sell through affiliate on my blog as a VigLink publisher. I’d link directly to the product on the merchant’s site (which would give full SEO credit) and VigLink then does their thing on the backend to attach my affiliate information to it. I actually CAN’T redirect the link for the VigLink system to work – it must be direct.

Now, I don’t think an affiliate SHOULD have to nofollow or redirect affiliate links if they choose not to. BUT, Google’s lead spam fighter, Matt Cutts (and an all around helpful and nice guy), has been VERY vocal that monetarily incentivized links within posts should not be direct. Period.

In that post, you’ll note that Matt referenced penalizing bloggers that linked to K-Mart with direct links in exchange for a gift card. Google most recently penalized for offering discounts on purchases made at to .edu bloggers that linked to them. JC Penney was very publicly penalized, tarred and feathered for paying bloggers flat fees for links.

Yet, Google is funding a company that promotes bloggers directly linking to sites so they can hopefully receive a commission for it.

I’m not bashing VigLink here as I don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. I personally believe webmasters should be able to monetize however they see fit and that the whole war on paid links is ridiculous. I also believe a good portion of these links would exist anyway, with or without the monetization factor. It’s Google’s double standard that I’m putting a spotlight on.

My bashing is of the hypocrisy. Google is absolutely and strictly against direct links that are incentivized in any form. Unless they are created by a company they fund and profit from? When we say “Google hates paid links” we have to remember that Google is a huge company now. We (as SEO people) have the most contact with one division. And the question becomes is it really Google leading the war on paid links or a division within Google?

As well intentioned as their fight against paid links may be, this isn’t the web of 1994 anymore when the web was pure and all about free expression, free information (and free porn.) The solution to their algorithm being passed by seems to be forcing the web to remain still. Even divisions of their own company look at compensated links and don’t see the issue in the business world of the web (and neither do I.)

The only place on the web that compensated link IS an issue is in Google’s antiquated algorithm.


About Rae Hoffman

Rae Hoffman aka "Sugarrae" is an affiliate marketing veteran and the CEO of PushFire, a search marketing agency specializing in SEO audits and link building strategies. She is also the author of the often controversial Sugarrae blog. You can connect with Rae via Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

Sugarrae runs on the Genesis Framework

Genesis Framework

If you’re someone who doesn’t understand a lot of PHP, Genesis will give a ton of functionality that you wouldn’t be able to obtain otherwise with a simple control panel instead of having to alter code. For the advanced, Genesis has incredible customization possibilities via Genesis hooks.

The theme is not only highly customizable, but it has allowed me to run Sugarrae more professionally, with a much more targeted focus on monetization than it ever has been able to achieve before.

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  1. Dan Deceuster says:

    Wow, now this is interesting. Hopefully this brings about a change in the paid link policy. I think it may. I did a blog post you can read here:

    In it you clearly see in my screenshot that Google allowed advertisers to bid on terms like “buy links.” I found that to be quite a double standard. Yet today, no matter how I search for buying links on Google I do not find any ads at all. Maybe the attention to the double standard caused a change, what with the added exposure of paid links from the websites you mention in the article.

    Very good insight here. I think when these things are pointed out about Google that it can bring some good changes about.

  2. any comment yet from google? curious minds… want to know what their response is

  3. JadedTLC says:

    Thank you for exposing this. The more we “out” Google’s hypocrisy, the better. It looks to me like the marketers are tired of Engineers ruling the roost, while they make all the gold.

  4. Brian Shoff says:

    Ha! “Antiquated Algorithm.” Love it.

    I too am frustrated with the hypocrisy.

  5. Andrew Shotland says:

    When a company gets into as many different markets as Google it’s inevitable that different divisions will not always be in sync, although the whole link thing is kind of one of the crown jewels so you’d think they would be more on top of this.

    That said, I hope you are using VigLink in your links to their site. It sounds pretty genius. :)

  6. This Viglink looks a lot like BANS to me and Google deindexed the heck out of those sites once they found the footprint. Same with PHPBay.

  7. Ralph Remkes says:

    In England you have Skimlink which is huge and doing the same

  8. Rae Hoffman-Dolan says:

    Dan – it probably has more to do with advertisers knowing that they put themselves in line for penalties and to be slapped by announcing they sell links with Google’s own PPC. Least I would think so.

    Allyn – I know Google penalizes sites that sell links… the question to me is if 1. why they’re investing in technology to help sites sell links and 2. if they’ll hit their own company.

  9. Brent Nau says:

    You can also add in the Hubspot (a company that offers search engine optimization) investment made by Google Ventures as well.

  10. chris faron says:

    I agree Google needs to change their outdated Algo, counting links is so old now.
    I use Skimlink as well, their service differs in that their code is added via JavaScript

  11. Steve Johnston says:

    Okay, so does this differ, in principle, from Amazon stripping affiliate codes and permanently redirecting Google (not users) to the canonical form of the product URL? Because Amazon has its own affiliate engine, it can manage its link profile in real time in a similar way, but at the target, not the source. And if it doesn’t differ, we’re left with the question as to whether an affiliate link should pass juice or not. I don’t think Google is hypocritical here, I think it is conflicted, because in the ideal world of an editorially-selected affiliate link, it has been selected because both the product and the retailer are likely to satisfy the visitor. Isn’t that a link worthy of passing juice?

  12. Rae Hoffman-Dolan says:

    Steve, the difference (in my eyes) is Amazon’s affiliate links have a definite footprint Google can easily identify and discredit if they choose.

  13. Steve Johnston says:

    I agree Google could discredit Amazon’s links, but I haven’t seen any evidence that they do. Amazon’s product and category search performance continues to be peerless, which is likely to be very much due to their affiliate link profile. To me, this suggests that allowing affiliate links to pass juice is not viewed the same as the issues in Matt Cutt’s article that are about ‘paid posts’, or ‘sponsored conversations’. I hold the position that I have for a number of years now, that affiliate links are likely to improve the ‘usefulness’ profile of a target page in Google’s perception. Which, if true, means that it is not hypocritical of Google to invest in systems like Viglinks.

  14. Rae Hoffman-Dolan says:

    Actually, to my knowledge, Google has actually stated that they can and do filter (figure out, whatever) affiliate links and prevent credit from passing, thus they don’t care if they’re nofollowed. Whether or not you believe them is another story.

  15. Dan Deceuster says:

    Here is part of an interview of Matt Cutts with Eric Enge:

    Eric Enge: If Googlebot sees an affiliate link out there, does it treat that link as an endorsement or an ad?

    Matt Cutts: Typically, we want to handle those sorts of links appropriately. A lot of the time, that means that the link is essentially driving people for money, so we usually would not count those as an endorsement.

    I believe you are right in that Google’s stance on affiliate links is to not value them. With VigLink, I don’t know how Google could ever tell they are affiliate links, so I believe there is a paradox here. Heard any Google response to this story yet?

  16. Steve Johnston says:

    Thanks Dan. Matt, as with any publicly-speaking Googler, chooses his words very carefully, and I’ve learned to read such statements very carefully in order to get as close to the truth as I can. ‘A lot of the time’, ‘essentially’ and ‘usually’ leave a few gaps for quality endorsements in the form of affiliate links to squeeze through, IMO. Large scale feed based affiliate sites are very unlikely to acquire much of their own reputation so are likely to be filtered out in this assessment, whereas a site like dpreview, with it’s Amazon affiliate links is likely to get through and add value. The algorithmic approach Google takes will not simply exclude an affiliate link – should it detect it – from passing value simply because it exists, because it isn’t logical for it to do so. I’m going to go away and have a think about what this all means for VigLink…

  17. Sherwood says:

    Seconding Andrew’s comments: Ventures is probably separated from the algo team by lots of corporate structure. Nevertheless, now that this has been brought to light, I wonder if they’ll eventually divest, or have the company make their links more recognizable.

  18. This “paradox” doesn’t surprise me at all. What Google says and does are two different things, and the paid links debate/war seems to be more in the public relations sphere rather than the technical side of SEO. Anyone that’s taken the time to look at the backlinks of big companies/websites can clearly see the level of paid linking going on that goes unpunished. It seems as though large companies – JCP, Forbes, Overstock – get punished when their paid links become too apparent, in quantity or context.

  19. The things Google says shouldn’t be done historically mean the things their algo stinks at detecting so they use fear and those that bow down at the alter of Google to intimidate as many people as possible.

    It’s funny, Google says they do not manually tweak the algo to make exceptions, yet when you see examples of Google themselves violating their own guidelines the only conclusions to draw are that they manipulated the algo for their own gain or that their algo is ineffective at detecting supposed violations.

    Making Google and those that blindly follow and defend them look foolish.

  20. Charles says:

    Viglink is implemented with a chunk of Javascript so wouldn’t that be an easily identifiable footprint?

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