Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Text Links Ads + College Newspapers = BAD

Through my capacity at Personforce, I've gotten to know the college newspaper industry reasonably well. It's a delight to work with the students and faculty at these fantastic training grounds for journalism and media management. I can't say enough good things about the caliber of the people at these institutions and the journalism they produce.

Working with college newspapers , I'm struck that perhaps a pernicious force has infiltrated these otherwise sterling institutions - inadvertent influence-selling through text link ads.

In today's media landscape, it's very important to understand Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and make sure you abide by ethical online practices so that Google will find you. Google is the starting place for where most people find content. Jeff Atwood discusses that after launching his startup StackOverflow, he now gets 83% of his traffic (over 3 millions visitors!) from Google. So in today's media landscape, it's important to play by the rules or you'll get black listed and shut out of most of your traffic.

Almost all search engines use links as a currency to measure a website's authority. If you get lots of good inbound links from high profile websites to your website, Google rewards this by giving your site a high Page Rank. A high Page Rank means that people are more likely to find your content through Google. The more people can find your content, the more traffic, the more revenue for your newspaper.

One thing that struck me though is that most college newspapers have very low page ranks in Google. Even more startling - their page rank keeps falling. This was extremely surprising to me for a variety of reasons. First, all of these institutions publish first rate, original, sophisticated content. Yet somehow they have page rank of 4, the same as a mid-level blogger. Second, almost every college newspaper has been publishing online for over 10 years, but from Google's perspective they look like a brand new publication of questionable authenticity. Heck some of these newspapers have been around for over 200 years!

So why is this going on? Digging around the answer is clear - text link advertising. For some bizarre reason many college newspaper have insidious text link ads all over their websites. Text links ads are when an advertiser pays to have a link on your site so they can get some of your "google authority" and look like they have authority because your newspaper is linking to them. In essence, the advertiser wants the newspaper to link to them so their company shows up higher in search results and they willing to pay for it.

Virtually no reputable newspaper, blog, or publisher accepts text link advertising today for a big reason - when you sell a text link you are selling your influence. It is the technical and ethical equivalent of publishing a favorable article about a company in your newspaper because they paid you to do so. Ethical issues aside, Google thinks less of newspapers that do this and punishes them tremendously.

Matt Cutts, a Google search engineer and evangelist for the company writes:

Google (and pretty much every other major search engine) uses hyperlinks to help determine reputation. Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and link-based analysis has greatly improved the quality of web search. Selling links muddies the quality of link-based reputation and makes it harder for many search engines (not just Google) to return relevant results.

Remarkably, Matt Cutts specifically calls out college newspapers for selling text link ads:

When the Berkeley college newspaper has six online gambling links (three casinos, two for poker, and one bingo) on its front page, it’s harder for search engines to know which links can be trusted.

When text links ads are sold without using the "no follow" attribute, Google knows you are doing this and penalizes the newspaper as a less reputable source:

If you want to buy or sell a link purely for visitors or traffic and not for search engines, a simple method exists to do so (the nofollow attribute). Google’s stance on selling links is pretty clear and we’re pretty accurate at spotting them, both algorithmically and manually. Sites that sell links can lose their trust in search engines.

So if any college newspaper is wondering why it has a 4 or a 5 page rank instead of a 6 or a 7, this is probably the answer. Most likely some company is taking advantage of students who think text link advertisements are a conventional form of advertising. In reality they are the purest form of payola and taint a site's reputation. The New York Times, Washington Post, or any newspaper wouldn't touch them with a 10-foot pole.

Given the prevalence of all these text link ads for college newspapers, my next question is where are they coming from? Who is taking advantage of the students at these colleges?

1 comment:

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