Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Advertising Rules and Search Engines

Much has been written about the rules that Google and others have when it comes to advertising. The fear of many web site managers is that any paid advertising on their site will have dire consequences when it comes to their search engine rank or their Google PageRank value. While I have no idea what the exact rules are for the algorithms behind the search engines, what I do know is that the policies of Google, the biggest player in the search engine world, seem to allow many types of advertising.

Recently, while reviewing the polices of their Google AdSense policies, one paragraph about competitive advertising and services states that "In order to prevent user confusion, we do not permit Google ads or search boxes to be published on websites that also contain other ads or services formatted to use the same layout and colors as the Google ads or search boxes on that site. Although you may sell ads directly on your site, it is your responsibility to ensure these ads cannot be confused with Google ads."

There continues to be a fear among many web site owners that Google and others will punish sites for any kind of advertising, or that a "nofollow" attribute would have to placed in any kind of text link ad. I have yet to find any policy statement within Google's AdWords or AdSense that states this, though the belief that such a policy exists is widespread among site owners and managers.

There are cases where Google and others may punish a site, and I agree with sanctions in some cases. For example, if a site is clearly designed to game the system by artificially getting a high search engine rank and the site's content consists mostly of paid text links, then having the site ignored by search engines is in my opinion in the best interest of the consumer.

This doesn't mean that companies like Google that make their money in part from advertising enjoys competition. My interpretation of Google's policies, based in part on having conversations with Google representatives at industry meetings, is that although they would like to discourage links that exist mostly for the purpose of enhancing a site's PageRank value, and that there may be sanctions for sites that have a large number of these kinds of links, that they are not interested in punishing every site that has text link advertising.

The fear for many site owners is that they could be playing fair and seemingly within Google's rules and still get punished by having their PageRank reduced or having a drop in their search engine results, and to have these things to happen without notice or chance of appeal. This is a scenario I worry about on occasion. I currently manage about a dozen sites and blogs, and I also place significant content in places like YouTube and Facebook, This content is often closely related, and at any given time I may have dozens of relevant links connecting blog articles, web pages, online videos, and other resources. While a person looking at this collection of sites may be able to easily see a relationship, a search engine algorithm may evaluate designed to look for and punish paid link type relationships may not be able to do so.

My argument is that search engine companies are free to do what they wish when it comes to their search engines and related tools, and I think they should sanction activities that clearly undermine their usefulness of the search engine. While search engine companies may want to discourage advertising that they don't control, punishing sites isn't in their best interest and will likely not be an issue for most sites.

The following example may make it plain. If a set of sites for a particular subject area were consistently in the top ten results the major search engines and drew substantial traffic, it wouldn't be surprising that advertisers would want to work with those sites. If one one search engine decided to punish all sites with advertising, then the ten best sites on a subject, which happen to attract lots of advertising, would suddenly not be at the top of that search engines results for that subject area. The competing search engines that don't punish these sites would still have the best sites on the top of their results, which would provide their users with a better search experience.

If an search engine were truly putting sanctions on all sites that advertise, it would be pretty obvious once the top sites were no longer in the top results. In the past several yeas, I have not seen any pattern that suggests that this has been happening for Google or for the other top search engines.

I'll make no predictions about the future advertising policies of Google or any other search engine, but based on my experience, I believe sites that use dishonest or misleading advertising will be punished, but sites that use honest advertising that provides value to the site's visitors and that doesn't try to manipulate search engines will be treated fairly.

No comments: