An insanely dangerous path? Google, accidental and incidental links

I find myself deeply worried by yesterday’s drama over incidental links.

The SEO echo chamber thought they had spotted Google buying links. They hadn’t.

They had spotted a campaign to promote a video and, as a result of that and against the quality guidelines put in place by the people running the video campaign, one link was generated that accidently missed out the nofollow value on the relationship attribute. One single link. Just one.

Google has responded. Matt Cutts, head of web spam and who is technically on holiday, explains on his Google+ page that the Chrome page will receive a penality.

Google was trying to buy video ads about Chrome, and these sponsored posts were an inadvertent result of that. If you investigated the two dozen or so sponsored posts (as the webspam team immediately did), the posts typically showed a Google Chrome video but didn’t actually link to Google Chrome. We double-checked, and the video players weren’t flowing PageRank to Google either.

However, we did find one sponsored post that linked to in a way that flowed PageRank. Even though the intent of the campaign was to get people to watch videos--not link to Google--and even though we only found a single sponsored post that actually linked to Google’s Chrome page and passed PageRank, that’s still a violation of our quality guidelines, which you can find at

In response, the webspam team has taken manual action to demote for at least 60 days.

In some ways this is a very smart move by Google.

They’re showing that their intentions are that no one, not even big brands, are above their own quality guidelines. This is designed to silence critics who suggest that Google too often turns a blind eye to dodgy links when it suits them or when the brand is big enough.

In fact, I’d argue that if you were to dissect the motivation of some of the SEO echo chamber then you’ll find the intent to embarrass Google in the weird hope that the engine would somehow abandon its current position on paid links.

Fears for the future

In some ways this is a very worrying move by Google.

A web page has been penalised because just one link was created as the result of a media campaign even though the intent was never about links.

What does this mean?

I worry that that what is acceptable and not acceptable is now horribly blurred. I worry that many genuine and common place forms of media buying could result in accidental and incidental links.

I’ll try and articulate these concerns through some questions and scenarios.

Does this mean if you pay for and run an advert on TV and that, as a result of this advert, bloggers discuss your brand and link to you – that you have committed a similar mistake?

Perhaps Google’s problem was that individual bloggers had been approached and offered money and a media asset to promote?

Would that mean if the same outreach had been attempted without the financial incentive that the “nofollow” value would not have been necessary on any links produced? If that’s the case then blogger outreach and relationship building will soar in popularity.

Of course, the latter would still allow for paid-for video seeding. The goal would be (as it always has been) is to use the paid media to ignite the fires of interest and inspire many other bloggers to re-use the video and discuss your brand.

On the other hand, if you invite bloggers to your conference, giving them free tickets as part of a social media campaign – and, as a result, your conference is written about, with links, have you committed the same mistake?

Google, via Matt Cutts, used to say that if you had no intention of generating links then any links that the engagement created where safely incidental. Intent mattered. The company frequently gives away Android phones to developers and bloggers for review.

It’s a scary world if a single, accidental, link created off the back of a digital marketing campaign can result in a penalty.

Best practice for the future

In November, for Econsultancy, I speculated on four ways the SEO industry could rule the world and suggested that SEO is your digital strategy.

If this incident is illustrative of the digital direction for 2012 then I may be right.

This means that all your branded content, social media and PR, all your asset creation must take oversight and direction from search savvy digital marketers.

I’m not suggesting the SEO boutiques must be the lead agency on digital work. I’m suggesting that digital work is led by strategists with expertise in the digital media landscape.

I fear I’m also suggesting that almost all digital marketing work, pre and post-campaign, will need to be checked by people with enough SEO skill to ensure that nothing accidental has been triggered by the work that might have included a PageRank passing link. I can tell you now that that the world is full of brands and agencies, busy with effective digital marketing campaigns, who don’t have the expertise or organisational structure to do that.

What do you think? Is this incident just a one off? Or does it herald a new and somewhat scary future?

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