Friday, December 10, 2004

Is Power Linking Cheating?

Over the last few weeks I have come to the conclusion that exchanging links is a waste of time.

I get far too many requests from people who either have junk websites, or sites that are completely unrelated to any of mine (gambling, for instance). There is no point trying to explain why you don't want certain links. These people simply don't care. They're just engaged in a relatively pointless numbers game.

Add to that the fact that almost all of these link exchange pages — including my own — have no Page Rank. What that means is that exchanging links this way is worthless. Worse, it is a waste of time.

Is there an alternative?

Whether right or wrong all of us in the website game are held captive (to some degree) by the Page Rank system. And the Page Rank system is based on links. This is why absurd activities like "link exchanges" were invented in the first place.

So we all need links. Especially those of us who are relatively new to the game. Are there ways of getting legitimate links without feeding on the bottom for two or three years while you wait for somebody to notice your brilliant website?

Yes, there are. They are called "Power Linking Strategies". But before just assuming you know what I am talking about I want to put Power Linking in its rightful place, and tell you why I think it is not SPAM and not cheating.

Why do we do this? Some background

What has spawned the current link exchange frenzy is the fact that Google puts such a high value on inbound links (links pointing at your site). The entire "Page Rank" system was set up at Stanford back when the founders of Google were post-graduate studends there. The system clearly mimics the egg-headed academic reliance on "citations".

Academics (university professors and researchers) publish papers in academic journals to show they are actually doing something. The importance of a given article is eventually rated based on the number of "citations" an article has. If Professor Schwartz has 5 papers published in a prestigious academic journal and other scholars quote or refer to those papers, say, 30 times, then Professor Schwartz becomes that much more important and likely to get tenure or a pay raise, or whatever it is these guys get.

As far as it goes this seems like a fairly decent system. It is a system based on "merit". If your research has merit as judged by your peers, it will be referenced. So the more citations your research gets, the more valuable it is judged to be.

I have no idea how often academics try to abuse this system. Imagine a professor going out of his way to plant spurious references to his previous papers, or colluding with another researcher to trade citations with him. Or even better, paying someone to refer to this or that paper whenever he or she publishes something.

That kind of abuse would be a pretty serious challenge to the merit system, and I think would be pretty obvious in the stuffy world of academia. And there would be relatively simple ways of controlling it — if they really wanted to control it*.

But as with most things, when applied to the internet this system soon proved to be the object of all kinds of abuse. Webmasters very quickly learned how to manufacture bogus links. One way was to generate thousands of pages of jibberish and plant them at different places on the net. Another was to create forum posts and blog entries -- again with no real content other than a bunch of keywords strung together in semi-sensible order and punctuated with correctly formatted links. Still another was joining hundreds of "free for all" link directories.

Exchanging links is another example of this type of abuse. The Page Rank system assumes that Webmaster A links to Webmaster B's site because he likes what he sees (reads) on Webmaster B's site. But what if they just agree to swap links with no regard to content? That becomes an abuse of the system.

The first line of defence for Google is to label this kind of thing SPAM and then simply disallow links from such sources as counting. Sometimes the target sites of these bogus links are even penalized with a negative score, or banned from (free, not paid!) search results.

Is the Page Rank System too restrictive?

In the next segment I discuss whether the Page Rank system as most people understand it is "fair". Two things immediately come to mind...

First, a system based on "citations" will favor "the establishment". A cite which has been around a long time will have "momentum" and lots of citations. It is like tenure. Once you have it nobody is going to take it away from you. In the world of internet commerce that would be a tremendous disadvantage to the new guy on the block, no matter how good his or her product was.

I also ask how Google could possibly reconcile advertising with a pure Page Rank system? We don't normally dole out billboards or TV ads based on "merit". If you want a billboard and you have the money, you get a billboard (assuming your ad meets certain basic standards of acceptability). Google themselves are a perfect example of their willingness to modify the pure PR system if money is waved in their face. I'm talking about Google Adwords here.

And then in the third segment I put "power linking" into the mix. If the Page Rank system is viewed in an overly moralistic way, certain types of Power Linking that seem fine to me might be considered cheating. I try to describe what I mean by an "overly moralistic" view of the Page Rank system, and I argue against it.

Stay tuned for Segments 2 and 3.

NOTE *I don't mean to sound naive here. I am aware that many academic studies are now paid for by corporate interests, and that the results are correspondingly tainted. This really supports both of my main points. Point 1 is that in the world of academia the merit system is relatively easy to police. Point 2 is that as soon as you leave the ivory tower environment things get a lot messier.


Rick Hendershot is a marketing consultant, writer, and internet publisher who lives in Conestogo, Ontario, Canada. He publishes several websites and blogs, including Trade Show Tips, Web Traffic Resources, Marketing Bites, SuperCharge Your Website with Power Linking, and many more. He is also a closet philosopher.