Pick Another Playground: Link Schemes & Lessons From The Skinny Kid

Ian Lurie

Note: Zillow hired me to review the proposed bylaw change that led to this post. Redfin wrote that proposal. Redfin and Zillow aren’t buddies. I hope that didn’t affect my analysis. But keep in mind that someone who opposes this proposal paid me to write.

I wrote a recent post on Inman.com about a proposed change to the National Association of Realtor’s bylaws. The purpose of that post was to discuss the proposal, weigh the risks and rewards, and give my opinion.

But there’s a general discussion to be had about SEO, links and link schemes. This post is my own take on all that, as an old-fart SEO. It’s also my take as someone who never kept his mouth shut on the playground and learned some things the NAR needs to know:

  • Don’t punch the big kid in the face. Punch them somewhere else
  • Don’t pretend it’s an accident. It just makes them madder
  • Don’t drag other people into it. It’s not fair
  • Don’t expect them to negotiate. It’s too late

The proposal, and the problem

Remember: Don’t punch the big kid in the face.

We all know that Google despises manipulative linking:

Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.

Google’s notoriously vague about their terms of service. But they’re clear about arm-twisting link schemes. Here’s one of their examples of a link scheme:

Requiring a link as part of a Terms of Service, contract, or similar arrangement without allowing a third-party content owner the choice of using nofollow or other method of blocking PageRank, should they wish.

The proposal I reviewed reads:

Participants shall include…a prominent, followable, search engine indexable, plain HTML hyperlink…Participants shall not alter or manipulate any Link such that the Link is not readily recognized by search engines.

Translation: “To be part of our organization, you must provide followed links to certain content providers.”

Or: “We will require a link from you as a member, and you will not block this link from passing PageRank.”

I nearly coughed up my gallbladder. This is a hey-look-at-me punch aimed squarely at Google’s schnoz. You couldn’t have created a better example of a TOS violation.

Remember widgetbait? This makes widgetbait look like a love tap. Google is not going to let it go.

Yeah, NAR. This policy will punch Google in the face.

This is about attribution. Or is it?

Remember: Don’t pretend it’s an accident. It just makes the big kid madder.

I understand the non-SEO intent of this proposal. Redfin wants to provide attribution for people who create content. That’s a good thing. If you read my stuff, you know I feel pretty strongly about that.

If this weren’t an SEO thing, I’d be all for it.

Except this is an SEO thing. The proposal is crystal clear: It requires SEO-friendly links. Don’t pretend. Pretending otherwise insults everyone’s intelligence. It just makes them madder.

Google’s bad, and it doesn’t matter

Also important: Don’t drag other people into it.

Google sets my teeth on edge. Don’t manipulate links, they say. The next day I look around and find sites with laughable link profiles. They say provide a good UX and… well, you know how that ends.

They make white-hat SEOs look stupid on a daily basis. Their TOS enforcement is wildly inconsistent. Someone needs to call bullshit.

Right now, though, we’re talking about lots of people who have jobs and businesses that, for better or worse, depend on Google rankings. Unwittingly flinging them into a lopsided fight isn’t OK. There are other, more-impactful ways to do battle and keep everyone off Rocinante.*

Don’t drag the entire industry into a fight you pick by violating Google’s terms of service. They didn’t volunteer, and it’s not fair.

Google won’t discuss this

One last thing: Don’t expect them to negotiate. It’s too late.

It’s tempting to think you can negotiate with Google.

Maybe you can, but not when you’re discussing a proposal that’s a perfectly-executed violation of their terms of service. You’re going to Google and saying “Hey, we’re going to stick a fork in your left nostril, is that OK? Can we talk now?”

The resulting “discussion” will be Google saying “let your realtors use nofollow, or we will bathe in the blood of your rankings.”

That’s a discussion you can avoid, by the way, with a simple fix.

Fixing this proposal

If your goal is attribution, there’s a simple fix for this proposal. Google’s going to object that this proposal requires followed links. So don’t. Permit nofollow, instead of forbidding it. Let folks decide for themselves.

It moves away from Google’s definition of a link scheme. It ends the fight before it begins and lets you pick a better one. So why not do it?

Pick another playground

For me, the last lesson was the most important.

I’m not suggesting you lie down and forget about attribution. I’m suggesting you pick a different playground.

Pick a situation where you’ve got a better argument, where you’re not directly violating Google’s terms of service, and where you can fight on behalf of your industry. That’s how you can win. Because like it or not, you’re the skinny kid on this playground.

* Don Quixote’s horse. Also a spaceship in a cool TV show. If you’re heading for the latter, go for it. If the former, well, you know what happened in that story.

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  1. >Their TOS enforcement is wildly inconsistent.

    If you’re a big million/billion dollar brand, you can basically do whatever you want. I’ll eat my hat the day a big brand is actually punished/deindexed for manipulative link schemes/etc.

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