It has been an interesting week (aren’t they all?) in the world of SEO.

Unless you are an ostrich, you will no doubt have read about the storm that followed a very public outing of J.C. Penney’s link buying activities courtesy of the NY Times. Probably the best summary of what happened and why can be found in the excellent article by Vanessa Fox over at search engine land which is definitely worth a read..

There are some interesting questions to ask about why the NY Times singled out J.C. Penney but there is no doubt that it addresses an issue that is not restricted to the US retailing giant.

Even more interesting is the latest news that Forbes has had its knuckles rapped by Google for selling links.

Rather than take the hint and stop doing it, a certain Denis Pinsky (Forbes digital marketing director) decided to go public and suggest that they were not aware of any purchased links on the site. The resulting discussion must surely lead Denis to wish that he hadn’t gone public as some specific examples of paid for links were identifed, although those pages have curiously vanished.

The fact that Google sent them a warning in the first place (which is very fair) and that Matt Cutts added to the public discussion  does indicate that Google is ramping up its efforts to stamp out the practice and is prepared to take on the big brands.

This can only be good news for those that practice ethical SEO and we genuinely hope that these latest examples are an indication that Google is improving its ability to identify link buying.

This is, however, an interesting point as it is almost impossible to know with 100% certainty whether a link has been bought for the purposes of boosting page rank or if it is genuine. If Google becomes too aggressive in its automatic penalties, than it is inevitable that some links would be incorrectly judged to be ‘false’ and some good sites would suffer.

Equally, if sites are easily penalised for having very poor quality links (i.e. bought links on unrelated sites) then we would expect to see some deliberate attempts to buy cheap links (in their thousands) for competitor sites. Whilst it may seem strange to build links to your competitors, if it becomes an effective way of knocking them out of the SERPs due to overzealous penalties being imposed by Google then you can be sure that it will be done.

Barely a day goes buy without us being offered the opportunity to purchase links (and often from sites that really should know better) and it is hard to see how it is going to go away soon, but we are very pleased to see some high profile sites being punished as it will send out a clear signal to those considering buying or selling links.

The challenge, as always, is to justify ethical approaches when it is often clear that the top ranked sites have all been buying links. Maybe 2011 will be the year that more paid link reports will be filed…