So I hear there is this thing going with Google not wanting people to buy links from other people and lowering their toolbar PR, taking away their ability to pass link juice through links. Terrible stuff! There are even frightening reports of adult SEOs getting lumps in their throats at conferences while Google reps are crushing candies with their bare hands in the back row.
So where is it all going to end ? Who is going to win ? Is the paid links model going to survive ? Is Google going to prevail and eradicate paid links as a method of promoting sites in their precious SERPs ? No one knows for sure. So being both an SEO and an (aspiring) scientist, I turn to science to try and predict how this struggle will end.
First, let’s try and see who the main players are: there are the SEOs – they are trying to get their sites to the top locations. Let’s be simplistic and for the purpose of this comparison assume that the only way to achieve top locations is by purchasing links. Google on the other hand is trying to prevent SEOs from artificially influencing the SERPs and, again taking a simplistic approach, they will fight back by PR reduction and by abolishing link-juice-transfer-powers. So we have two forces, trying to prevail and have it their way. If Google prevails, there will be no more paid links in SERPS (which will open the doors to the next technique). If the SEOs prevail, Google’s SERPS may become less authoritative and relevant.
So it happens that this kind of situation is happening in nature all the time. The predators are trying to outsmart the prey and the prey is trying to hide/outrun/scare away the predator with all their might. The smarter the prey gets, more pressure is on predators which are thus forced to evolve into more efficient hunting machines. Two powers, competing against each other, where the prevailing of one signals the demise of the other in what is known as evolutionary arms race.
Now we turn to science. In Population Ecology, there is a theory called ESS – Evolutionarily Stable Strategy. It states that when such a struggle (as described above) occurs in nature, the winning strategy on both sides will be the one that will preclude a new strategy from replacing the existing one. Since the last sentence does not mean much to nonscientists, I will illustrate by example:
Imagine a bird’s nest with several chicks. They have just hatched and are hungry. They all chirp for food which their mother promptly brings to the nest. However, when she arrives with a worm in her beak, she must decide which one of the chicks gets fed first. She cannot remember who got fed the last time. So she gives it to the one that seems the hungriest – the one that is screaming the loudest. For chicks, it turns out that it is worth their while to scream as loud as possible, since that will increase their chance of getting fed and subsequently surviving to become mature birds. Conversely, a nest that produces so much noise will certainly attract the tree-top skimming hawk or a wandering snake. So the louder they scream, the more they increase their chances of having a rather short life span. This is called “the begging conflict” and is seen throughout nature as a problem in communication between parents and their offspring. The Nature paper on this topic, with mathematical models and game theory application to the solution of the problem can be found here (subscription needed, if you want to get a copy of this PDF, leave a comment and I will get it to you)
Let’s analyze how this situation is copied into the paid links vs. Google situation. SEO’s are obviously the chicks. They will try to get as many relevant links as possible in order to promote their clients. The more relevant links they offer their customers, the better. On the other side is Google – the snake or the hawk, whichever suits your current feeling about them. They will be attracted to the sudden surge in links, changes in rankings, unprofessional websites ranking for brain tumor-related searches. So whichever SEO sticks out/ which ever link/post selling service advertises itself the most – gets eaten alive / its PR gets taken away.
How was this problem solved in nature ? Chicks need to eat. Mother birds need to decide who to feed. Hawks and snakes are looking for prey. One possible solution would be for all the chicks to be silent. That way they would reduce to a minimum the chance of being eaten by the local predator and at the same time make the chance of being fed, equal among all of them. However, this strategy would be very short termed. When the mother lands on the nest with that delicious worm and all the chicks are silent, one smart-ass chick will undoubtedly chirp and with one clever move, swipe the worm away from his otherwise-cooperative siblings. Soon enough, others would understand that silence is self-defeating and the screaming will begin again. That is why this solution is not considered to be an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy (or Solution) – it will quickly be replaced with another strategy – one where there is a loudly chirping chick. So the ESS solution would be for all the chicks to chirp moderately. Not too loud, so as not be discovered by the predators and not too quietly so they would not encourage their clever sibling to start screaming. Nests that adopt this kind of strategy are the ones that have a better chance of survival than the ones that don’t and this strategy gets passed down the generations in higher percentages than other strategies, due to higher rate of survival of the ESS adopting nests.
Back to paid links. One possible ESS solution would be to abolish paid links concept altogether. Websites would stop selling links (or prevent paid links from passing link love by no following them), link sale mediating agencies would stop functioning due to the massive abandonment of potential clients. Everybody turns to organic linking and Matt’s department gets back to trying to discover invisible text. However, and this one is even more obvious than in the chicks example, in no time there will be the smart-ass chick that starts selling links and another smart-ass SEO that starts buying them. Since all of his competitors are sitting quietly in their nests, waiting for their organic content to roll in by way of natural links, he has the immediate advantage over them. Other SEOs observing the sudden rise in locations of link purchasing websites quickly understand that in order to compete with them they have to purchase links themselves and, wham, in no time, the link purchasing frenzy is back.
The ESS solution would be not to stop buying links/reviews. It would be to do it in moderation. This way, everyone would benefit from the advantages of the paid links moderately and the relative success would be distinguished by the ability of the SEO to correctly identify the relevant website from which a link should be purchased.
Now the question is, how to enforce the “moderation in links purchasing strategy”?
There could be many ways that this can be achieved – one of them is for the link selling agencies, such as TLA or PPP, to limit the number of links/posts a single advertiser can purchase. Over the time equilibrium would be reached between the ability of SEOs to buy the links in great numbers and the wish/ability of Google to actively seek and destroy such marketing efforts.
There could be other possibilities of reaching this state of equilibrium, although none come to mind at present. However, I do think that it is inevitable that some kind of equilibrium must be reached. Any other solution would perpetrate the evolutionary pendulum between the search engines and the SEOs and reinstate the whirlwind of link purchasing-website punishing we are seeing right now.
Hattip to my friend Tzvika whose paper on SEO-Search Engines relationship as an example of evolutionary arms race, serves as a continuous inspiration for understanding both search engines and evolutionary mechanisms of population dynamics.