Birth Of An Industry: Backlink CertificationBirth Of An Industry: Backlink Certification

The recent Google-JCPenny ranking controversy only highlighted what has been apparent for some time: Google and the other search engines are less effective at suppressing link spam than they are given credit for. I believe part of the problem lies with AdWords, which makes attempts to match the relevancy of keywords to landing pages. In fact, if you attempt to use wildly inappropriate keywords for your landing page searches, Google will jack up you CPC to the point where it's unprofitable to use those keywords.

Why Didn't Google Recognize JCPenny LinkSpam?

If Google can evaluate keywords, why didn't it identify JCPenny link spam, forum spam, blog spam, etc? There are, I believe, two answers: (a) Google isn't as good at detection as it claims, and (b) for various reasons, Google wasn't motivated to apply what knowledge it had. Ultimately, the reasons really don't matter; the fact remains that as long as Google uses its current system of ranking websites based on number of backlinks, there will be plenty of opportunity for abuse.

In light of the JCPenny scandal, what should the search providers do? The most extreme reaction is simply to ignore backlinks. Talk about throwing out the baby and the bathwater! What would be the replacement proxy for popularity?

I propose that search engines separate popularity from authority. These are two different concepts and should be handled as such. Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme was very popular....

The Proposed Model

The bond industry has a relevant model. Companies like S&P and Moody's rate bonds so that the market can properly evaluate bond prices. Yes, I'm aware that the bond ratings scandals in 2008 helped propel us into an enormous economic mess. The solution was to remove the conflict of interest in how the rating companies were paid, certainly not to abolish ratings.

Let's extend the model to the backlink business. First, can we hypothesize that, say, 100,000 backlinks to a single site is suspicious. How about 10,000? 1,000? At some point, the sheer number of links should become a negative. Second, let's agree that an automated webcrawler, can quickly determine if a backlink is "real" in the sense that the linked entities associate related content. Thus, our model is a company with a realistic number of proven backlinks that wants the search engines to reward them for having "good" links.

In this model, five certified links to Sears would have outranked 10,000 bad links to JCPenny.

Backlink Certification

Cue the backlink certifiers. Imagine a dedicated phalanx of webcrawlers whose sole job is to evaluate the legitimacy of links; it certifies the honest ones and assigns them serial numbers. The serial number data would be made available to all subscribing search engines. The search engines would now have a new means for ranking websites rather than just relying on unevaluated links. Only quality links would be used to rank websites -- a practice that would have exposed JCPenny. To keep the certifier's honest, set up an industry watchdog to look into abuses and deal with bad actors.

One may ask: why not just let each search engine do these link evaluations? Well, first, I don't trust them. They are in a conflicted position as witnessed by JCPenny, which is a large paid advertiser. Second, uniformity of results can only arise if a common mechanism is employed. Third, cover - the certifier would take the heat from parties disagreeing with its judgment, shielding the search engine companies from some of the direct pressure.

I can hear the pessimists now: too costly, too time-consuming, won't work, will be gamed, etc. To them I say: establish a pilot project. Let's put it to the test. Let the search engine industry support an institute for link certification, and apply to it all the lessons learned from the bond-rating industry circa 2008. The industry would be encouraged to contribute its various link content evaluation algorithms to assist in differentiating good links from spam.

Keep it Private

The search engines, especially Google, right now are facing a credibility crisis, so they are under pressure to do something. If this proposal works, black-hat SEOs will be faced with a new challenge to overcome. If it fails, at least it was tried, and whatever costs involved can easily be absorbed by Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!.

A few caveats: leave the government out of it, maintain a low price tag for a link certification and agree beforehand on all the rules for evaluating the appropriateness of a link. For those who think it's too expensive, how much money would JCPenny's competitors have paid to expose the underhanded behavior before they lost millions in online sales to JCPenny?

The demand for a new link evaluation paradigm is real. Anyone care to fund it?
by Eric Bank
References and Bibliography
Based in Knoxville, Tenn., Eric Bank has been a freelance writer of business-related articles since 1985. He holds a Master of Business Administration from New York University and an Master of Science in Finance from DePaul University. Eric freelances through http://ericbank.Com.
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