A Dutch discussion on paid links

Here in the Netherlands we have this long history of having so called startpagina’s. They’re basically collections of links to websites around a subject, with each subject having it’s own subdomain. They’re named after startpagina.nl, the first, biggest and probably best of it’s kind, and there are many, many, many, many clones.

These pages were notorious for selling links and creating very weird link profiles for loads of Dutch pages, and luckily enough, these clones have recently been dropping hard in the rankings. Not the original startpagina.nl though, which is still a source of a lot of traffic, traffic that often converts very well. As such, people are very willing to pay for links on these pages, and in my opinion loads of companies should be buying those links.

The problem is that the company which sells a lot of those links wrote an article on MarketingFacts today, one of Holland’s biggest marketing blogs, highlighting the traffic and conversions these links provide, but also highlighting the search ranking aspects of these links. I’ll try to literally translate the sentence I took beef with: “Google sees paid text links as spam, unless (bolding mine) they’re placed in a relevant context.”

Now my personal opinion on this doesn’t really matter, but by putting it like this, in my opinion they claim to have gotten some sort of “ok” from Google, or know that they’re doing the right thing. Now of all I’ve seen in the discussion around paid links over the last months, my conclusion is that Google does not look at it that way, and instead just thinks that all paid links should be marked as such with a nofollow link, whether or not they’re relevant doesn’t matter.

Because the debate about this can go on forever in Dutch, since there’s no one from Google to chime in, I’ve made the above post, and hope that allows for feedback from Google. I also hope that if I’m drawing things out of context or putting them wrongly, the Dutch people who followed or joined in the discussion at MarketingFacts will correct me.

Update: while checking out the site of AdLantic, the company selling those links, I found this:

AdLantic adverteert uitsluitend op thematische linkoverzichten met een hoge pagerank. De linkoverzichten hebben meestal 1 specifiek onderwerp (bijvoorbeeld: hypotheken, vakantie, dating, computer, etc), waardoor ze bij Google een zeer hoge relevantie hebben.

In English: “AdLantic advertises solely on thematic linkpages with a high PageRank. The link pages usually have one specific subject (f.i.: mortgages, travel, dating, computers, etc.) which makes sure they have a very high relevance in Google.”

I’d like to say: case closed.

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46 Responses

  1. Richard HearneBy Richard Hearne on 6 March, 2008

    Curiously, I had some interactions with one of the larger US link firms operating in the enterprise area. They actually made the exact same argument – paid links on thematically similar pages are not bad and are within the ‘spirit’ of Google’s TOS.

    PS – I got a very odd popup when I tried to open this page – something about enabling Silverlight?

  2. SteverBy Stever on 7 March, 2008

    “clones have recently been dropping hard in the rankings”

    So does this mean that Google is moving towards allowing one key player in each niche to hold the monopoly on selling PR passing links??

    AdLantic’s statement is of course worded to please those they want to sell links to and for now their statement may be true. Will it remain so?

    And how is “paid links on thematically similar pages” any different from the long preached “relevant links” many have been purchasing all along?

  3. Case StevensBy Case Stevens on 7 March, 2008

    When I went to Marketingfacts this morning, after your Tweet, already some 30 people had commented, so I even didn’t bother.
    As you say: Case closed (no pun intended).


    It’s after midnight here Joost, so please bear with me while my neurons deteriorate, but I fail to see what the AdLantic quote above has to do with the matter.
    As far as I’m concerned, that may be true.
    What is not is that Google therefore allows paid links on these pages without a nofollow.

    Can you fill me in please?

  4. Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 7 March, 2008

    @Case my point is that they’re selling links with the purpose of increasing rankings, and they’re telling openly. There are other reasons to buying those links, but if you buy them to increase your rankings, they become a liability the minute they state it like that. And my main problem is that they say they “know” how Google thinks of these links, and that they sort of say “these kinds of paid links are not as bad as other kinds”.

  5. SintBy Sint on 7 March, 2008

    The text on AdLantics website is clearly purely marketing. It would be wise to fix this in the light of this discussion.

    I believe AdLink passed the line in the article by saying the links have a positive SEO effect. Every company has the freedom to have its own policy concerning to these kind of matters. But it is bad to tell a customer things that might end up differently.

    Your point that one should be very carefull not to harm yourself by buying links the bad way (i.e. without rel=”nofollow”) is a useful warning.

    The only thing is that the moderators (all volunteers) of Startpagina.nl don’t have any options to put a rel=”nofollow” on a link. Because I know Startpagina does not want to be evil at all and they have a lot of SE knowhow in their organization, I’m also interested in whether they have to say something about this discussion as well.

  6. BrewGinBy BrewGin on 7 March, 2008

    I’ll buy beers all-round the day that startpagina’s stop outranking websites with actual content.

    I hate them. Hate them, hate them, hate them.

    Apologies :(

  7. PromoMastersBy PromoMasters on 7 March, 2008

    I took a look at http://www.startpagina.nl and all Links except the first 5 are rel=”nofollow”. So there only can be 5 URLs which get great Linkpopularity/Pagreank – the rest just gets visitors. So whats the big problem? Google will not sue anyone who just shows norel Links. All the ones got in troubles have sold Linkpopularity/Pagerank Links as far as I know.

  8. André ScholtenBy André Scholten on 7 March, 2008

    @PromoMasters: that’s only the homepage, check one of the theme pages: http:/onderwijs.startpagina.nl

  9. Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 7 March, 2008

    @sint agreed, and let me be clear: AdLantic is doing great stuff in providing people with quality traffic and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    It’s just they should not “sell” their links with the claim of them working for the search engines too.

  10. PromoMastersBy PromoMasters on 7 March, 2008

    @Joost – you are absolutely right – site:startpagina.nl shows up 28.800 pages fully loaded with links. Sorry – I only have been looking at the Startpage.

    Maybe Google will sue them now as more and more people are unhappy in the seo community. I remember the blogposting companys which also got sued after webmasterradio has been talking about them. We all know – there are so many links on each page, the single link is not worth paying for it.

  11. SintBy Sint on 7 March, 2008

    @Joost: That note I think is very important. It makes your criticism more specific and let’s hope they will listen. As their activities are still valuable to advertisers and moderators.

    @PromoMasters: This debate is not about startpagina’s in general, but only the fact that buying a link might influence Google ranks in a positive (or when penalized, negative) way, which is unethical (according to Google).

    Startpagina.nl and its network are one of the most popular sites in The Netherlands and this has nothing to do with search engines, but mainly with Startpagina being a valuable resource for finding websites about various subjects. It is different from link farms because all subdomains are moderated by volunteers who are experts at the page they edit.
    I believe there is no interest in this company and its community to be evil (some moderators might though, but these are just individuals), so it would seem logic to me that the criticism of Joost and others is taken seriously. Like I said, I’m more interested in how Startpagina thinks about this matter than what Matt Cutts/Google say.

  12. PierreBy Pierre on 7 March, 2008

    Well folks,

    I’m the prez of Google, and we are busy with owning the internet. So please stop selling our land. Better make sure you know the internet belongs to Google.

    We will buy that company in the Netherlands and then that problem is over.

    Google more folks!


    Note from Joost: this guy is trying to impersonate Matt Cutts from Google, but he isn’t. He’s actually on the university of Maastricht :)

  13. Case StevensBy Case Stevens on 7 March, 2008

    Got you Joost.
    Thanks for the explanation.

  14. Matt CuttsBy Matt Cutts on 7 March, 2008

    Joost, I’m with you. The litmus test is whether the paid text links pass PageRank, so I would definitely disagree with the statement the company made on MarketingFacts. I’ll ask whether someone on our webspam team who speaks Dutch can stop by that url and clear things up right at the source–and in Dutch.

    Best wishes,
    Matt Cutts

  15. PromoMastersBy PromoMasters on 7 March, 2008

    As I said in my posting before – sometimes a SEO Blog or Webmaster Radio FM talk pulls attention to things which go funny since a long time and everyone thought that they will continue until the end of days. Not all outgoing Links which follow to a company are “evil” – but some are. We will see.

  16. MarcelBy Marcel on 8 March, 2008

    Google is always operating from the user point of view. If a link is relevant in the context, this link will be placed without paying for it. So Google opinion: Paid Links are Bad and give a wrong view on pagerank popularity.

  17. zakenlinksBy zakenlinks on 8 March, 2008

    I was a sincere believer in the google policy on paid links untill i discovered the official googleblogspot,asking them and the notorious Matt Cutts about linking to voelspriet, a PR7 site that offers paid dofollow links ended up in removing my comments and ignoring my mail..

  18. Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 8 March, 2008

    @Matt Cutts: thx for dropping by!

    @Marcel: and in the end that’s a good thing for everyone who’s not a spammer

    @zakenlinks: Well, voelspriet is the site of a friend of mine, Henk van Ess, who has been talking and writing about the search industry almost as long as Danny Sullivan as. He is an admirable guy, doesn’t make huge amounts of money on his site, and, in my opinion, has earned that link.

  19. Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 10 March, 2008

    @zakenlinks and btw, that link is nofollowed now.

  20. Henk van EssBy Henk van Ess on 10 March, 2008

    @ myself: shoot me! @zakenlinks: Missed that error, corrected it right away.

  21. HenriBy Henri on 10 March, 2008

    Nice discussion. It would be nice to change the title “De onmogelijkheden van tekstlinks” (The impossibilities of textlinks).

  22. zakenlinksBy zakenlinks on 10 March, 2008

    @Henk van Ess: nice of you to comply to the Google paid links policy, never the less by ignoring my remarks complete, Google toke a dive on my trustworthy scale…

  23. Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 10 March, 2008

    @zakenlinks: Voelspriet’s PR dropped a few hours after you made the comment here… Coincidence? :)

  24. Henk van EssBy Henk van Ess on 11 March, 2008

    @zakenlinks: yup, I agree. Google sees paid text links as spam , unless the’re placed in a relevant context. (I find out the hard way). But what is relevant and what are the criteria for relevance?

    I accepted a text link of a sponsor on my non-commercial site, because it helps me to pay the servers of Voelspriet. But credibility is more important for me then money, so yes, I complied to Google’s policy, ended the sponsor program and started a discussion about my public humiliation in my own news letter to enlighten other people.

    It makes me wonder though:

    1. What about people who yell ‘their thing’ from the roof?

    What would happen if I placed a text link to another non commercial site f.e. about the vaccination of Swedish yellowbirds? So on every page there is a small text link to a great site about ornithology, but it has nothing to do with my theme, search engines? Will I be penalized for that?

    2. Arbitrariness

    My paid link was from a cell phone company. Say I would write an article about the search possibilities of cell phones, would it be ok then to have ‘no follow’ since the ad is relevant? Wow, if yes, it invites semi-authors with black hats to do their tricks..

    3. Feedback

    This is an old one, but someone who doesn’t know about the no follow policy (and lived under a rock, like me) should be able to call a human. In Holland I can call Google to ask why certain information is IN the index, but not why it’s OUT. Where is the safety net for those webmasters who don’t run sex sites, casino’s, affiliate schemes or linkfarms? It’s like waiting on a train station: just tell me what’s the problem and I don’t mind waiting. I would love an automatic warning from Google like:

    “You probably noticed that your Pagerank dropped from 7 to 4. This is because you didn’t comply to (bla bla, linkpolicy). Please understand we want to give our users the best search experience as possible, including you.”

    I know, black hats will love such details and will try to outsmart Google with the information, but is it in the public interest to educate webmasters? And is it in the public interest to punish companies because one individual screwed up? The Dutch news paper Trouw has it’s IT outsourced with Pink Roccade. Someone from that company tried some black magic, but was spotted right away. The consequence: Trouw was removed for weeks from the index from Google and therefore the public eye – although the newspaper is regarded as a fine product.

    I’m not that father who slaps my child first, doesn’t answer any questions even after the child has regrets and only refers to a manual in the kitchen drawer; ‘if you want to be educated, RTFM’

  25. Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 11 March, 2008

    @Henk: “Google sees paid text links as spam , unless the’re placed in a relevant context.”

    There is something wrong there, it is as easy as this:

    Google sees paid text links as spam.

    No exceptions AT ALL.

    Regarding your questions:

    1. Why would you do that? How relevant is that? The link would probably not count for much.

    2. No, if it is paid for, it should be nofollowed, no matter what the context is.

    3. You’ve got a fair point there. At the moment, the only option is to have an SEO who knows whom to call within Google, and / or submit a reconsideration request through the webmaster portal. I know Google is trying to reply better, and to communicate better, but they’re not there yet.

  26. Henk van EssBy Henk van Ess on 11 March, 2008

    @1 This one is about honest people who just link to irrelevant stuff because they like to, but Google thinks it’s a paid link. My attempt at irony.

    @2 Most webmasters don’t know nofollow. I happened to have a room full of them at a conference today. Out of 45 webmasters, only 1 knew the impact.

    @3 It’s all about credibility. If people don’t understand why they dropped in ranking or index, they start guessing. The most asked question I get is: can you give us phonenumbers of Google employees?

    Still puzzled by the whole concept of no follow. How can you be sure that a link is paid? Is the link on Free Vintage Knitting( http://purlyq.com/) to Rad Apple (http://radapple.co.uk/) paid? (random example)

    How can I know? How can Google know?

  27. Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 11 March, 2008

    @1: heh, sorry, missed that.

    @2: I know, I keep explaining it to people.

    @3: a. yeah I know, would be nice if Google just TOLD you somewhere.

    b. you can’t be sure that a link is paid, but this is not a court, they don’t have to be absolutely 100% sure.

  28. Henk van EssBy Henk van Ess on 11 March, 2008

    In a digital world there are only 0′s and 1′s. I want to be sure. Suggestion: let’s make a GPCWm a Google Policy Checker for Webmasters. Enter your site name, and Google tells you if you comply to their rules. If not, you can change your page into the right format. Just like Zeal did once to maintain there policy for link editors…

  29. NewSunSEOBy NewSunSEO on 11 March, 2008

    Hello Joost, Ive found this article very informative on many different levels. However, Ive also learned a lot from just reading all of the comments you and the other readers have posted. It is best for people who are new to this field that they read up on the do’s and dont’s so they don’t get penalized.

  30. Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 11 March, 2008

    @Henk: yeah.. would be cool, we’ll see if it ever happens though :)

  31. Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 11 March, 2008

    @NewSunSEO: thx, and absolutely true, don’t **** up.

  32. Henk van EssBy Henk van Ess on 11 March, 2008

    @all: my personal case study of using ‘no follow’ has a happy ending for me, Google just restored my PR to a 7.

  33. zakenlinksBy zakenlinks on 12 March, 2008

    @Henk van Ess: I hope this not effects (to much) your present rankings.I have no personal conflict with you, nor any (commercial)interest in harming your site.
    I wanted to confrontate Google with their own policy and their linking strategy on googleblogspot,that’s all.
    I agree that they have a too strong zero tolerance policy, they just execute without any warning.
    @Matt Cutts: your war on paid links is like the war on drugs, nothing to win,just moving it to the darker alleys.Most of the reported paid links locations are brought to you by people who have (commercial) interests in doing so,since almost nobody even understand the meaning of nofollow.
    So the next step would be forcing irelevant links into a nofollow, regardless any sign of paid link advertising onsite?

  34. André ScholtenBy André Scholten on 18 April, 2008

    And here we go again with TradeTracker CleanLinking.

  35. Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 18 April, 2008

    Yeah… Blogged about it here (in Dutch).

  36. MaleisieBy Maleisie on 21 April, 2008

    From what I understand is that startpagina has ties with Dutch engine Ilse, …on a wild guess here, it might very well be that a foothold within the industry could give them enough leverage over other sites when it comes down to the final results?

  37. tkikBy tkik on 21 April, 2008

    We also have just a week ago been target for a punishment for not having had the rel=nofollow. Alain from SEOGuru pointed this out in his blog and google has promptly reacted on that before we were aware of our mistake.
    We have reacted and added the nofollow, but it will probably take months before google takes time to regard our reinclusion request. By the way, up to recently, i only knew the nofollow attribute as a way to control links in comments. I did not know that not having that attribute wil get you a punishment. Google in the meantime has changed this and now forces you to put that attribute on any link.

    What we delivered up to now can be compared to services as PR web, we publish articles written by our journalists and sometimes written by customers and up to now we allowed links in these articles.
    PR web has lately even be named as LEGAL way to build up links by the MSN Webmaster Teams, see here

    “Press Releases – if your company has a significant event, consider doing a press release through a site like http://prweb.com/.”

    PR Web offers its clients to publish press releases plus SEO Services as including links :

    see here

    “Search Engine Optimization (SEO) – $175

    To maximize your reach online, an editor will use SEO research tools to analyze the key words and phrases in your release. We will enhance your news release by placing search-optimized language that will drive increased traffic to your news release. We will also build links on the news release to relevant content on your Web site to help boost your Web site’s ranking in major search engines. This service requires a minimum of two business days as well as an initial consultation via phone or e-mail.”

    The links in PR web’s press releases do not contain rel=nofollow, a fact MATT CUTTS is aware of as he stated it in his own blog in this discussion.
    PR Web is allowed to continue as before without punishment, their site still shows a nice PR 7, and i know at least 20 more services that do alike.

    We have cleaned up and trained our sellers to definitly tell the customers that our links will not pass pagerank.

    So i ask myself if there are 2 measures taken here, one for big companies like PR Newswire and one for smaller ones like us or voelspriet or alike?
    Also i want to express my deep concerns about the time google takes to react on reinclusion requests. It takes them 1-2 days to punish sites as reaction on spam reports, but it takes them several weeks to react on the webmasters reactions. Dont they earn enough money to put more people on that team working on these requests? Honest Webmasters which are punished for having unknowingly done something wrong are pulled out the market for 2-3 months this way, and if these companies cant make money anymore, honest people that work for these companies will propably loose their jobs due to this long time. There is a long tail of suffering behind these punishments, not all websites are hobby websites.

    Henk van Ess might have had special contacts to google so his reinclusion request has been reacted on so promptly.

    SEO’s, if you claim that somebody has done wrong on a site, would you please FIRST tell that company/webmaster and give them a chance to act BEFORE you file a spam report to google ? If you fight spam as you find it unethical (like i do!), you should also find it unethical to not first inform the responsible webmaster so he might take action to something he perhaps did not know about.
    The same goes for google imo.

    I find it also arguable that google uses punishment by removing companies websites from the index for fighting a market they created by themselves. Its the way their algorithm works that made a superficial market for buying/selling links on high PR sites. And to my opinion it should be their algorithm that needs to be changed to get that fixed. It seems their only idea against it was that links now suddenly needed a nofollow whenever there is any kind of payment involved. But that throws the responsibility for detecting paid links to the webmasters and suddenly destroys a lot of previously absolutely correct business models. Instead, google should put their programmers to work and think about a better algorithm that is NOT influencable by webmasters like pagerank and everybody would be happy.

    I can only advise ANYBODY to just put this attribute to ALL links, no matter if paid or not, just to be sure to not get punished.
    If everybody does so, google would stop functioning and would be forced to think about a better algo.

  38. Keesjan DeelstraBy Keesjan Deelstra on 23 April, 2008

    @Joost great post. Let Matt Cutts also have a close look at

    M4N, TradeTracker, AdLantic en Cleafs, affiliates that promote bying links yust for PageRank.

    In a post back in 2007 on
    Gogle will punish paid text links I warned for this already.

    Joost, just curious, one of your sponsors is ‘sponsored reviews’ that allow non gloved links in paid posts. Don’t you see this as paid links? In my opinions when you ask a blogger for a genuine review with is not forced positive, can have non gloved links in it. Whats your opinion on that?

  39. Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 23 April, 2008

    @Keesjan: thx for dropping by, as for your question: I’ll always nofollow any link in a sponsored review, just because grey is so hard to explain…

  40. MaleisieBy Maleisie on 1 May, 2008

    So ok, tkik You say Google requires the nofollow tag on ANY link? Or should that be any external link? Begs the question, doesn’t this go against the very basics of the web, linking, be linked… isn’t that why they call it a web, because you can go from one site to another? If all (external) links require a nofollow tag, what’s the use? Would it not be easier for Google not to award any values/penalties to those kind of links instead of sitebuilders across the world filling up their websites with nofollow tags? I always thought that if you use these tags, you’re linking to non-trusted site or you’re trying to hide something, which also not be a good thing. I use it on selected links only, …payed links have to be relevant to the theme of the site, so no harm and added value for the advertiser who spend good money on a mentioning. Keesjan Deelstra In regards to payed text links, how does Google determine a text link is payed or not? Is there a threshold?

    Just a thought here, isn’t Google not out to step by step control/change the workings of the web to their likings?

  41. Alain SadonBy Alain Sadon on 1 May, 2008

    Hi Tkik,

    I think this dicussion is not the right place for your issue.

    The core of my article about your company was not about not having added a rel=nofollow. It was about a very misleading email that you sent out to companies (and explanations by telephone from your salesteam). The mail suggested that your company was able to claim positions in the Google-SERPs:

    “De zoekterm ERP Consultancy is vrij en kan door één bedrijf geclaimd worden. Wat kunnen wij voor u doen? Wij kunnen uw website beter vindbaar maken in de zoekmachine. [...]“

    I showed you in my article that a paid-link service to bring up websites in the search-rankings can’t work (anymore) since Google demands a rel=nofollow link in paid link situations.

    So the problem in my opinion was not that you didn’t have the rel=nofollow, but that you offered a seo-service that couldn’t work in the long run and that it would harm a lot of companies (because of two-year-contracts with firm yearly contributions) and therefore harm the SEO-business.

    Soon after my publication Google seems to have given your website a penalty. In respons you’ve added the rel=nofollow and wrote a new mail for your customers. Although I don’t understand the ratio behind your new service, I don’t see anything wrong anymore. It’s not a seo-service anymore.

    Your service is now about generating traffic to the websites of your customers. But still for the same firm and fixed price as before, still with two-year contracts and with no guarantee of the amount of traffic they will receive. But this is up to the companies to decide if they are interested in a service like that. Not to Google, anymore.


  42. Keesjan DeelstraBy Keesjan Deelstra on 3 June, 2008

    Update: PageRank http://www.startpagina.nl was 6 now 4 and http://www.startkabel.nl was 5 now 3.
    So i think Google read this blog or the PR punishment is a coincidence?
    This will harm a lot of paid and non-paid link campaigns in the Netherlands that are fully dependent on these pages.

  43. Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 3 June, 2008

    @Keesjan: there’s been an ongoing discussion between myself and a few other people inside and outside Google about the value of these pages for the Dutch web, which has, as it seems, resulted in diminishing the strengths of these pages in Google. It will indeed harm a lot of link building campaigns, but it will only hurt those link building campaigns that had been poorly executed anyway.

  44. WeedureautuatBy Weedureautuat on 12 September, 2008