When does a link become a paid link?
In his latest YouTube video, Google's webspam chief Matt Cutts revealed the questions the search engine asks when it comes across a suspicious link. Specifically, he sought to define what constitutes a 'paid' link.
According to Cutts, in 99 per cent of cases, a paid link will be identified because it is "incredibly clear" that someone has parted with money in exchange for a link. However, there are some instances where a link can still be considered 'paid' even if no money is involved, and these are the areas Cutts sought to address.
While he did not go into much detail on how Google is able to identify certain scenarios, he identified the key questions Google considers when it is notified about a suspicious link:
What is the value of the gift?
While you can be given things other than money by people you might subsequently link to, Google does consider the value of such gifts while deciding whether it would be appropriate to penalise a link.
Cutts cites examples such as free pens and t-shirts as items that are "probably not going to change how you behave". By contrast, if you are gifted something of high monetary value then you are more likely to be influenced into giving that person's site a link.
How close is the gift to actual money?
Google appears to use its discretion here. Cutts looks at an example of someone taking you out for a simple meal ("[not] eighteen courses or something like that") and you subsequently giving their site a link some months later as a situation that would not be penalised.
Is it a gift or a loan?
If you write for an online review site, it may be the case that a company will send you a product in order to review it. Google recognises that this is common practice, but does make a distinction between gifts and loans.
For example, If you are asked to return the product after trying it out, this is classed as a loan, whereas if the company requests that you keep it, then depending on its value Google is more likely to regard this as "material compensation".
Who is the intended audience? Is the intent of the gift to get links?
While Cutts concedes that it "can be hard to judge intent", he maintains that it is clear in the vast majority of cases.
The example cited here is that of a free trial for a service. While links may appear as a result, Cutts says that the intent here is not necessarily to cajole writers into granting links, but to encourage more users.
Would the gift be a surprise?
This is potentially a grey area, as Cutts cites two examples of gifts to reviewers. The first is a film reviewer being given a free copy of a film to watch. This would not be a surprise and indeed is something you would expect to happen all the time in that context.
The second scenario involves someone being offered a free laptop in exchange for a positive review of a start-up business. Cutts suggests that this would come as a surprise to a reviewer, and is something that should be disclosed.
Keeping track of new spam techniques
Cutts was also keen to stress that this is by no means an exhaustive list of criteria, and that Google is likely to penalise new deception techniques as and when they crop up, without necessarily announcing it.
They will also continue to monitor the usual spam techniques that some sites are still attempting to slip past Google. For example, last week Cutts announced that two Polish link networks had been hit by the search engine as part of an ongoing attempt to take down link networks across Europe.
Natalie Booth, head of search at theEword, said: "As ever, the message is clear. If you try to trick Google by paying for links, it will find out and you will eventually be penalised. This is a helpful guide from Matt Cutts, but the fact is if you're not sure if your link is paid or not, it may be best to avoid the risk and try another strategy."