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When and How to Report Paid Links to Google

If you suspect that one of your online competitors has purchased links and is ranking higher in search engine results because of it, then you can report them to Google for investigation. First, however, you need to make sure that the competitor really is abusing the system.

Reporting paid links is different than reporting spam. It isn’t as clear-cut a decision, for one thing. Some people in the Internet marketing industry say you should not report paid links at all — they feel that buying and selling links are a natural part of Internet commerce, and there shouldn’t be anything unethical about paid links. Others argue that because it violates search engine guidelines and manipulates the ranking algorithms, paid links are wrong.

The different search engines view paid links differently, too. Although none of the major search engines want Webmasters to buy links for the purpose of increasing their rankings, only Google has been adamant about it, even providing a form for reporting paid links. In interviews, reps for Yahoo! and Microsoft Live Search have explained that they’re much more interested in how valuable a link is to users than whether it was paid or unpaid. They don’t encourage paid links, but they call them a “gray area” and don’t share Google’s hard-line policy against them.

Keep in mind that your links could be reported to Google, as well. That’s not a deciding factor if you don’t have paid links, but if you have any questionable ones, it might make you think twice about reporting someone else. You can see whether anyone’s reported your Web site to Google through your Webmaster Tools account. Google courteously notifies you about any violations that have been reported or found on your site. In fact, if you don’t already have a Webmaster Tools account, as soon as you do sign up, you see any previous reports or violations, as well.

Before you decide to report a link that you believe is paid, first confirm that the link is set up to pass link equity. In other words, you want to see whether the site is really trying to get away with something. Otherwise, you could be reporting someone who’s not breaking the rules.

You can look at the Web page’s source code by choosing Source or Page Source from your browser’s View menu. Find the hyperlink (an A tag) for the paid link and see if it includes a rel="nofollow" attribute. If it does, everything’s above-board — the Web site is not trying to pass link equity through that link.

To see nofollow links more easily, you can install a free plug-in for the Mozilla Firefox browser called Search Status (currently in version 1.27). (The Firefox browser itself is available free.) As you look at any Web page, links with a nofollow attribute automatically show up highlighted in pink. This is only one of many useful SEO features that this plug-in offers, by the way. Here’s how you can get and use Search Status:

  1. In Mozilla Firefox, go to Quirk.biz’s SearchStatus page.

  2. Click the big Download SearchStatus button, and then scroll down a bit and click the Firefox icon.

    Complete the installation procedure. After it’s installed, you see some new icons in the lower-right corner of your browser window.

  3. Right-click on the Quirk icon to open the context menu for options and select Highlight Nofollow Links.

If the suspicious link doesn’t have a nofollow attribute, it may be reportable as a paid link. However, the Web site might be blocking a search engine spider from following the link in a couple of other ways, and thereby complying with Google’s guidelines:

  • Robots text file exclusion. Look at the Web site’s robots text (.txt) file and see if that page or the page’s directory (the folder where the file is saved) has been blocked to search engine spiders. If it has, it's in compliance with Google guidelines.

  • Meta robots exclusion. Another way the site might have blocked search engines is with a noindex or nofollow Meta robots tag on the specific page. This tag is not needed if they’ve excluded the page in their robots text file. But if it’s used, you see it near the top of the page beginning with this code:

<META NAME="ROBOTS" CONTENT=

After you’ve satisfied yourself that the paid link is indeed shady (in other words, that it’s trying to pass link equity), you can report it to Google, if you choose.

Google provides a simple form to report paid links.
Google provides a simple form to report paid links.

To report paid links to Google, go to the Paid Links page. Be sure to sign in to your Google account. Then complete the form and click Submit. You can see Google’s form in the above figure.

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