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10 Jan 2011

Does Google Need the Manipulative Web?

The Google webspam team exists to ensure manipulative tactics do not gain traction in the SERPs, but is that really necessary in all verticals?

That’s the question posed by Ross Hudgens in his guest post on Search Engine Land last month, a question that makes all SEOs re-evaluate their tactics.

Hudgens believes that in certain content verticals manipulative linking can actually lead to better results.  Here’s his reasoning:

If these verticals were to exist solely on content strength alone, they’d do so based more on random chance and variance more than anything else. Who happened to discover what site? Did Robert Scoble happen to have an explicit interest in pornography that day on his blog, and instead of by quality, picked one with a terrible reputation – or just otherwise, happened to pick the worst of the top 10?

What if a high quality news site decided to link out based on something negative a business did? These kinds of things would lead to razor slim link profiles – elastic SERPs – and a final first results page that damages user experience.

My argument, then, is that Google needs the manipulative web.

It’s impossible for Google to discern the legitimacy of every particular link type. That’s why we see sites ranking in local search based off bad reviews when in a perfect world negative reviews would push you down the SERPs (and perhaps soon that will be the case).

Hudgens feels as if the sites pouring the most resources into link building are likely the best sites and so it follows allowing some of this link spam, so long as it’s more gray hat than black hat, would make for better results than just quality content alone in some of the lower verticals.

But content is king

In many ways, such a stance goes against what we preach here at Vertical Measures. We believe that content is king, and that the best links and ultimately the best rankings (and of course conversions) come from creating excellent content and promoting it.

In industries that involve products and services that people are willing to link to, such natural content is the way to go for success.

I am fully on board with this stance, but have you ever looked under the hood of some of the sites ranking for less savory topics? It’s often littered with spam.

Hudgens brings up the point that sites in these verticals might not be able to accrue enough links to naturally sort the SERPs, and that’s where manipulative linking becomes necessary. If Google were to try to sift through all the spam in, say, the pharmaceutical industry then there wouldn’t be any results left, and it’s hard to say whether the sites at the top of the rankings would even be worthy of such standing.

This is what makes link building so tricky. When I represent a high authority website that offers tools or resources that interest webmasters in a quality niche, finding quality linking partners is no chore. But when I represent a site offering largely product pages, it’s not as easy to get links naturally.

This issue does show why it’s so important to have quality content on your site from a link building perspective. When you have something to leverage instead of just saying essentially, “Hey homes, can you spare a brother a link?” you will have much greater success. You won’t get that link in most cases unless there’s some benefit going back to that webmaster.

The ideal not always reality

In the verticals traditionally known as being somewhat spammy, this ideal is not always possible, and as Hudgens notes this “ethical conundrum” could leave webmasters in such verticals at a disadvantage if they strive for solely content links in a vertical where more manipulative tactics are leading to rankings.

That’s one of the reasons I always like to analyze a few competitors’ backlinks before digging in. If most of the top 10 for a particular keyword doesn’t possess many high-value content links, some of the low-hanging fruit or even pure quantity of links could lead to rankings.

I agree with Hudgens’ take in that the manipulative web can help sort results in some of the tougher verticals that seem to be immune to the acquisition of high-quality links, but in most cases finding better ways to package better content will still lead to better links and rankings.

Do you think Google needs the manipulative web? Let us know in the comments!