A nice bit of controversy to end the week today…

We are not letting the cat out of the bag on this as it has been covered elsewhere (e.g. the excellent Econsultancy blog), but we received an email from the Express Group yesterday alerting us to the opportunity to buy links at £1,000 a pop by providing advertorials in which you can embed links.

Anyone with a working knowledge of SEO will know that link buying is a controversial topic and one about which Google makes its view fairly clear:

“However, some SEOs and webmasters engage in the practice of buying and selling links that pass PageRank, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.”

We were therefore fairly surprised to see such a blatant approach (a bit of investigation suggests that the email was actually from the Express Group’s ad agency sales team – time to get your coat?) and it isn’t a great shock that they have been outed in the public domain.

What is more of a surprise to us is just how many organisations are already doing this. A particular search on Google will show you the extent to which this has been happening, although a lot of the articles have now been taken down (use Google’s cached version if you want to see it….). As you can see, there are some big brands in there including the likes of John Lewis** and Sainsburys.

We have always been against buying links (see ethical search marketing guarantee) but there can be no doubt that it does occur and it is understandable why some organisations choose to do it for especially competitive sectors.

What will be interesting to see is how Google responds. There are signs that some of the Express sites may have already been penalised to some extent (e.g. the OK website’s page rank is currently at 2 whereas it was 6 not so long ago…) but what is Google likely to do to those companies that have been paying for the links?

Will we see a ‘negative impact on site rankings’ as Google suggests in their guidelines?

Our guess is probably not, but it will be interesting to see if there is any ripple effect now that it has become so public.

Perhaps more interesting is the fact that the Express Group has gone down this route. Yes, we all know that publishers are feeling the pinch and are desperate to generate revenue wherever possible but the publication of advertorials will surely lower the quality of the content and the long term consequence appears to have been forgotten in favour of short term gain.

No doubt it will all be forgotten in the very near future, but definitely an interesting end to the week and a reminder to one and all that not very much can happen in secrecy in this modern era of the internet….