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The Mirror should beware: it looks like it’s selling links to MoneyExtra

September 7, 2009 62 Comments

First, some caveats. There's nothing illegal about selling links. But Google is against the practice and can penalize websites who take part in it. And there's no evidence that the Mirror is accepting money for this (you can see all my newspaper paid link posts here). And it wouldn't be a problem if it was. Do you think that's enough caveats?

Anyway, mirror.co.uk wants to beware how its links look. Let's take a look at a few pages all of which share these characteristics - and wonder how they appear to Google:

  • All contain three links to the same MoneyExtra page.
  • All the links use different anchor text.
  • The text happens to be competitive search terms.
  • MoneyExtra isn't mentioned in the article itself.
  • They were all published in August.

Pages on Mirror.co.uk from August

Here they are:

Headline: Sorting out the best credit card rate

This page from 20th August contains three links to the MoneyExtra credit cards page, using the link text "best credit card rate in the UK", "best credit card" and "credit cards". There is no mention of MoneyExtra in the article.

Two of the three links to MoneyExtra

Two of the three links to MoneyExtra

Headline: Why do credit card providers offer credit cards with 0% interest?

This page from 20th August contains, er, three links to the MoneyExtra credit cards page, using the link text "credit card providers", "0% credit card interest rates", and "0% credit card deal". No mention of MoneyExtra in the article.

One of the three links to MoneyExtra

One of the three links to MoneyExtra

Headline: Best credit card transfer: Does one size fit all?

This page from 5th August for once contains, er, three links to the MoneyExtra credit cards page, using the link text "best credit card", "0% balance transfer rate" and "best credit card balance transfer rate". Again, no mention of MoneyExtra in the article.

Headline: Is it too late for debt management in England?

This page from 20th August contains, er, three links to the MoneyExtra debt page, using the link text "debt management", "debt" and "debt advice". There is no mention of MoneyExtra in the article.

One of the links to the MoneyExtra debt page

One of the links to the MoneyExtra debt page

Headline: What is 'government debt management'?

This page from 20th August contains, guess what, three links to the MoneyExtra debt page, using the link text "Government debt solution", "debt management plans" and "debt". There's no mention of MoneyExtra in the article.

Two of the links to the MoneyExtra debt page

Two of the links to the MoneyExtra debt page

Something a bit different!

This page is a bit different. It's from the 20th August, naturally. But it contains FOUR links to the MoneyExtra car insurance quotes page - and mentions MoneyExtra in the article!

Some other pages

Other pages from August (not the 20th this time) which contain three links to a specific MoneyExtra page but which don't mention MoneyExtra in the article include: this one and this one and this one (OK, that one's only got two links) and this one (as has that one) and this one.

It does know how to nofollow

The Mirror has a page on the MoneyExtra site offering debt advice. It's here. However, all the links to external sites are nofollowed, which is what google advises you to do with paid links.

The end

Whatever's going on, the Mirror wants to be careful how it appears. Maybe it could also let us know the logic of which sites get linked to and which don't on pages like this.

You might also like
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  4. Nofollow and internal redirects: sites that accept links – but don’t link out fairly
  5. BBC hoodwinks bloggers with promises of links

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62 Comments »

  • tom bartholomew says:

    Forward this by 18th September to advertisingandpricing at oft.gsi.gov.uk

  • Jim says:

    They're also going really agressive after peoples trademarks who they have absolutely zero relationship with.

  • Carps says:

    I've noticed something very similar in the bingo market - basically advertorial content distributed as real news and acting as a conduit to an affiliate site. Clearly, the 'news' ain't what it used to be...

  • David Towers says:

    I submitted this article to Sphinn http://sphinn.com/story/126606 but it was removed and my account banned! It's a shame as I think it would have been interesting to have had a discussion within the search marketing community regarding the trend that there is for established newspapers to sell paid links. The question beckons, if Google can't trust the long established newspaper sites, who can they trust?

  • john HILLES says:

    Malc,

    Who cares?

    Stop moaning like a kid with his lolly nicked and compete.

    You come across bitter.

    Plus no one likes a snitch.

  • Peter Young says:

    It may be worth noting Malcolm - You reference the Insider View article. This references MoneyExpert not Moneyextra - completely different organisation.

  • Peter Young says:

    It may also be worth considering the fact that the Mirror appear to be a MoneyExtra affiliate thus there is I would suggest there is more to this than just 'exploiting Google Algorithms and in real terms is little different from that of the FT/Moneysupermarket arrangement (see code on this page - http://www.mirror.co.uk/advice/money/ goes to http://www.moneyextra.com/?affilId=mirror)

    @davidtowers - sorry mate but loads of these deals on many of the big news sites. Comes down to monetisation at the end of the day, and I would suggst many (not all) are made with considerations other than JUST seo in mind.

    • Peter - yes, the debt advice page I mentioned above (the one with all the nofollows) is actually a moneyextra page.

      But these links don't look like affiliate ones - the pattern looks really similar and odd (same dates, 3 links, different anchor text, no mention of brand in story).

      The Mirror does have affiliate links with strong calls to action at the end of many of its stories. These ones look like ones for SEO reasons, even if they're not.

      • Peter says:

        I don't see who benefits from you outing this kind of activity.

        At the end of the day, so what if the Mirror are accepting paid editorial content? Newspaper's in general can't monetize their websites very well in the current climate, and at the moment there are many are at risk of (or have already) going out of business. If they have a company (such as moneyExtra) willing to pay them for some editorial promotional material - whether it be for SEO benefit or otherwise - fair play to them.

        • I don't think there's anything wrong with the Mirror accepting paid editorial content, having affiliate links in their copy or anything else - as long as they're transparent about what they do.

          Why should they be a transparent? Because they're a newspaper and this is the standard they hold everyone else to.

          I don't want to get on my high horse, but undeclared paid links (if that's what these are) aren't respectful to their readers/customers and aren't a long-term solution to their financial problems. It took me about 5 minutes to find all these - I can't believe Google isn't going to easily find them and, if it judges them to be an attempt to manipulate its rankings, penalise them accordingly.

          As to who benefits from me outing them. No one. Why does that mean I shouldn't do it? Again, not to sound all smug, who benefits from tabloids dabbling in the private lives of minor celebrities?

          Most people in the SEO industry seem to accept that this sort of thing goes on, but that if you get caught you get caught.

          Everyone in the newspaper industry has stayed strangely quiet on the subject. Maybe a case of 'don't sh*t on your own doorstep' or 'there, but for the grace of god, go I ...'.

  • john HILLES says:

    Who made you the internet Police?

    Its their content, they paid for it and they can sell it if they so choose.

    If a guideline from Google says they cant, then they take that risk.

    You are as bad as the tabloids.

    Selling links is endemic, not illegal and not really that much of a big deal.

    Miss, miss....Dave stole my rubber....

  • Matt Wardman says:

    Who made you the internet Police?
    >Its their content, they paid for it and they can sell it if they so choose.
    >If a guideline from Google says they cant, then they take that risk.

    That's about the size of it. And it's their content, you can read it, and you can report on it if you want to.

    >You are as bad as the tabloids.
    Huh?

    The people who are suffering here are the one's being pushed out of Google results (as we all know).

    If the Mirror is going against Google guidelines, then they can't really complain when someone points it out and if Google takes action. There are plenty of prominent examples around as to what happens.

  • John HILLES says:

    Matt,

    If you and Malcom and anyone else who spends most of their time checking out peoples back link profiles and what they are doing, concentrated on building your own sites (your own way) then I think it would not worry you so much.

    Its just really trite; we know that people buy links, we also know people sell them. Perhaps if we let Googles algorythm do its job we would hyave more time to attain our own SERPS?

    Winners do today what losers do tomorrow.

  • The newspaper probably isn't thinking about its website from an SEO's perspective (in fact, most site owners of authority and content heavy web sites - like newspapers - don't). This probably is part of an interactive advertising campaign that MoneyExtra paid of, and the campaign likely included text links within the content.

    Is MoneyExtra doing this for SEO benefits? Yes. Are the links paid? Yes. Does the Mirror realize this is an SEO violation? Debatable.

    Are they worried about the fact that their site - which has over 12 million indexed pages in Google UK and seemingly very high authority - could get slapped? Probably not.

  • Matt Wardman says:

    >Matt,

    >If you and Malcom and anyone else who spends most of their time checking out peoples back link profiles and what they are doing,

    I don't and I don't imagine Malcolm does, either.

    >concentrated on building your own sites (your own way) then I think it would not worry you so much.

    Who's worried? I think it's a good thing to watch for the level playing field. If we do it when watching for dodgy businesses wrt Trading Standards, I see no problem doing the same thing online. I really don't see why there's any issue with that? If they don't want to be exposed as sailing too close to the wind, then don't sail too close to the wind.

    The problem I do have is that your argument can be used as is to justify anything.

    >Winners do today what losers do tomorrow.
    Talking of trite...

    Said my piece, so I'm stopping there.

    Matt

  • john HILLES says:

    Malcom, do you buy links?

    Matt, do you buy links?

    I buy links. All my peers in the world of SEO, who are truthful do.

  • Matt Wardman says:

    >Matt, do you buy links?

    Too general a question. I buy Adwords, which are links. I buy "featured" links, which are links. I occasionally sell links, and reviews, and spots for viral vids. It is a basic condition that they are flagged and nofollowed. No nofollow, no sale.

    Would I advise a client to buy hidden or disguised editorial links? No; I'd advise them that as a strategy it was too high-risk.

    I should caveat that I am not heavily in the SEO business.

  • john HILLES says:

    Thanks for your honesty Matt.

    Malcom do you buy or sell do follow links?

  • Phil Green says:

    Its laughable that you are outing people on your blog when you are using shady linking practices yourself.

    A sitewide, anchor text link to a St Albans office rental site - please tell me what that has to do with SEO? Its a completely unrelated link. I realise you own or work for them, or have some connection - but that alone doesn't make it a legit link. I blogged about Ebay doing similar recently.

  • Matt Wardman says:

    >A sitewide, anchor text link to a St Albans office rental site - please tell me what that has to do with SEO?

    I think the operative word is "wife", but I'll stay out of that debate.

    • Close, Matt - it's my mum actually!

      Phil - what ARE you talking about? This is a personal bog. If I want to link to my mum in the blogroll, where's the issue with that? That is completely different to paying for links.

      Your eBay post is equally ridiculous. The link you've spotted on the ebay footer is one to a website that has 'an eBay company' as part of its logo. There's clearly nothing wrong with companies linking to other parts of the same group. (Whether google counts site wide links in a footer to a group company is another matter).

      eBay linking to itself and me linking to my mum are not violations of google's guidelines, and aren't really worthy of this much comment.

      • Phil Green says:

        The issue is, that its non-natural links, deliberately placed to game search engines - which is the exact same thing you are flaming The Mirror for.

        Its not different to paying for links at all. They are doing it for money, you are doing it purely to help a family member. Doesn't make either of them legit links.

        And I would say there IS something wrong with companies linking to other unrelated sites they own, although I realise you need to bash my Ebay stance since it parallels with what you are doing with your family links.

        Why should a property company Ebay owns outrank other property companies, purely because a parent company can feed it millions of unwarranted, unrelated, sitewide, anchor text rich links? I would say that they shouldn't. They should either rank, or not rank, on their own merit.

  • Newspapers have it tough in this economy and from the backlink profile of moneyextra, it's pretty to easy to tell they're doing it for SEO benefits.

    Almost half the sites in the top 10 for anything competitive are buying links because it works well...and ranking for anything competitive in the debt/credit niche at the moment will require big money and big paid links.

  • John HILLES says:

    Malcom,

    you are outing people for buying links and you are selling them yourself. Unbelievable.

    So we know you sell dofollow links but do you buy them?

    People in glass houses....

  • Matt Wardman says:

    >Its laughable that you are outing people on your blog when you are using shady linking practices yourself.

    >you are outing people for buying links and you are selling them yourself. Unbelievable.

    >So we know you sell dofollow links but do you buy them?

    I will weigh in now. Do some research guys FFS.

    The "St Albans Office" Business is run by one Marion Coles; check the contact email.

    Comparing a bloke linking to his wife's (?) business website in a blog sidebar to links sold in editorial by a national newspaper is just a touch desperate, don't you think?

    Where's the proof they were sold, John, and what for - an extra bowl of cornflakes in the morning, perhaps?

    • Phil Green says:

      Whether you sold them or not doesn't matter. Whether your wife owns the site or not doesn't matter - in fact that probably makes it worse. You're using an unrelated sitewide, anchor text rich link to game the search engines. Why should your wifes site get an advantage over other office rental sites, purely because her husband owns a blog he can put UNRELATED links in? If she owned a related site then great, link all you want.

      There isn't any real difference to the mirror doing it compared to you doing it - just the scale of it. In principal its exactly the same thing.

  • Phil Green says:

    edit - that should have said Malcolms wife, not yours!

  • Robert White says:

    The mirror isn't the only authority online selling links. I can tell you from personal experience as a link broker that even the most reputable media giant is going to sell a link in one way or another - from a link building perspective - radio stations, newspapers and magazines (especially trade magazines) are the best in a long list of reputable sites willing to sell text links.

    I think also that paid links in relevant content is not unethical. If the article in the mirror was lets say about seo and the mirror was just dropping some random link to a rental office site - then I would say yeah - not improving user experience. (just playing with the example).

    But seriously - a guy reading the article could benefit from the link - and if the mirror feels like "casting a vote" for that site - by not attributing nofollow - then that's their right. You don't have to be the webmasters son to give out a link! And giving out links has a cost so lets not believe that linking is only about charity.

    Bottom line: The links are NOT unethical; They are relevant and useful to readers (see Google's guidelines)
    - even if they get paid for it - so does Yahoo directory, business.com and many other online properties making money off paid links.

  • Richard York says:

    Malcolm,

    I know the housing market isn't great at the moment. But you might consider selling that glass house.

    You don't deny buying links in the comments here and then you have the "St Albans" link. Tell me Malcolm, would *that* be against the google guidelines, or not?

    • Richard - I did deny buying links up there where I said "no, I never have" in answer to the question "Malcolm, do you buy links?".

      There is nothing wrong (in any sense, including the google guidelines) with me linking to my mum's site on a personal blog. This switch to attacking me, rather than the practice of selling links, would normally suggest I'd won the argument and you'd all run out of other points ...

  • Yoshimi says:

    This is the most hilarious comment discussion I have seen in a long time. If I have this straight any link to a site that isn't completely on topic is just as bad as a paid link. OK so on my knitting website I'm not allowed to link to the shop where I just bought new shoes, because it's unrelated? On Leedsseo.com I wouldn't be allowed to blog about the palm pre because it's unrelated?

    A blog roll is just a list of blogs the author finds interesting, if he thiks his mums site is interesting that's his business.

    Saying there is something wrong with that is the silliest position I have heard in a long time and is a really desperate attempt to discredit an interesting post (sour grapes?)

    • Phil Green says:

      Oh please, someone with an SEO blog just happens to find his mums boring "rent an office" site interesting? I don't mean any offense to the office site in question, but there is no possible way any site in that niche could be deemed interesting.

      Its a bit of a stretch to call this a "personal" blog too - its an SEO blog, which magnifies anything you do with links as you can't later on claim you didn't know what you were doing, or it was a mistake etc.

      Anyway I've made my point, I've got a suitcase to pack and a holiday to go on so I won't be back commenting on this one. See you all in a week ;)

  • minifig says:

    What a weird little discussion. Surely no-one genuinely thinks that putting your mum's website in your blogroll is the same as selling links on a national newspaper website?

    What the Mirror are doing here is pretty underhand and, frankly, pathetic. Some of the comments in this thread are, if anything, even more pathetic.

  • Phil Green says:

    Minifig, you really don't get it do you?

    Neither of the people giving links are giving true editorial links - one is doing it for money, one is doing it because it is family. Why should Google trust either of those links?

    Just because one site is small and the other is large, doesn't mean they shouldn't be playing by the same rules.

    I use nepotistic links when I think I can get away with it, but I was just pointing out it was perhaps a bit silly to be flaming others for doing it when you're doing the same yourself.

    • Phil - the link to sabc.co.uk is under a heading called Blogroll. The intent behind the links on the mirror pages was not obvious. I don't know why there were there - but if they were paid for, then this is not obvious to the normal reader and therefore underhand.

      The difference is transparency - it is obvious (to most people) that links in a blogroll are there for a variety of reasons, and this should be born in mind when evaluating why they are there. The same is not true for paid-for links, which appear to be editorially chosen but aren't.

    • minifig says:

      Yeah, you're right, I really don't understand. Malcolm's right, the difference is transparency.

      I guess, if we're looking for some level of agreement, I would expect a blogroll to contain links to friends and family, but I wouldn't expect a newspaper to be nefariously linking to content to improve a company's Google standing. Maybe you would expect the latter of those two things, and maybe, over the years to come, I'll expect the same, but right now it seems out of order and underhand.

  • Peter Young says:

    Let me ask one serious question (and dont worry Malcolm - your mum isnt mentioned in this one.

    One of the links referenced above is for http://www.moneyextra.com/?affilId=mirror which is in real terms a straight link to the homepage with a dynamic parameter and does not go through tracking script.

    I understand your rationale as regards paid links however I guess the main issue here stands with the intent of the link and I would be interested in your thoughts if we had been talking about the following:

    - Link to canonicalised homepage with affilId above.

    I would also be interested in your thoughts as regards the FT links to Moneysupermarket which go through a 301 which would thus carry link equity from the FT through to the MS website.

    I am not condoning this, I am merely trying to highlight that such partnerships are often part and parcel of many online publications.

    Your thoughts appreciated....

    • Peter: in general, the spirit of the Google guidelines (and we should remember that's all they are - they're not the law, and I'm not suggesting they are) is about intent as you say.

      I'm guessing Google knows how to deal with obvious affiliate links (ie those containing referrers) - it may discount them, it may count them. Who knows. But it's obvious what they are. Google asks sites to nofollow them, but as they are obvious, it can probably work around sites that don't.

      The Mirror, on the other hand, seems to have added links to one site on multiple occasions for no obvious editorial reason. If it's been paid for them, it hasn't made this obvious - most of the links in question don't have affiliate IDs added to the URL. This is why the examples I've given seem like paid-for SEO links - all but one of the pages don't even mention MoneyExtra in the post.

      As to the FT example, got a URL so I can start poking around?!?

      As you may not have noticed, I've just published a post pointing out that the Mirror appears to be starting to remove the links in question ...:
      http://www.malcolmcoles.co.uk/blog/mirror-moneyextra-links/

    • And as to this question:

      "would be interested in your thoughts if we had been talking about the following:
      - Link to canonicalised homepage with affilId above."

      From a google point of view, as I say, it can probably cope. If they'd all been like that, I wouldn't have written this post.

      However, from a user point of view, I would say that a national newspaper ought to be declaring this sort of relationship, out of respect for its readers.

      It needn't make a song and dance about it with every link - a simple 'Mirror.co.uk has partnered with MoneyExtra to help you get the best credit card deals' at the end would be fine.

      • Peter Young says:

        THanks Malcolm - I was talking more from an ethical perspective - ie would we be here having this conversations should those links have had affiliate id parameters however still passing page rank and still in all likelihood the result of some form of 'arrangement'.

        I completely agree with your final point however in terms of declaration. I personally would love to see something like greater take up and expansion of XFN which would allow for better 'descriptions' of link relationships and potentially reduce the number of these types of conversations that are often had.

        Regards your feedback above, always good to have a debate on these things

        • Slightly at a tangent, but it's interesting to compare the lack of transparency in this case, with the guardian publishing a clarification over the weekend: "An article headlined New homeowners: 'Falling market helped us', should have made clear, in accordance with the Guardian's editorial code, that the journalist who wrote it is related to one of the homebuyers featured (26 August, page 7)."

          There was no benefit to the people interviewed from appearing, and whether they were or weren't related to the journalist doesn't make any difference to the story as far as I can see. The Guardian still felt moved to clarify it though.

        • Peter - one last point. The other thing to take into consideration is that newspapers are extremely mean about linking out in general. It's not a natural pattern of linking (unless you're wikipedia, grrrr) to suck up links and refuse to link out - doing so only when paid seems unethical to me. After all, it's not a zero-sum game - the people who get hurt are the sites who would have ranked given the spread of non-paid links.

  • Matt Wardman says:

    On the Malcolm/Mirror difference.

    Google quality guidelines say "don't participate in link schemes" here:

    http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=35769#3

    "Buying or selling links that pass PageRank" is explicitly identified as such a scheme here:

    http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=66356

    and request nofollow or redirection to prevent pagerank passing:

    http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=66736

    Summarised thus:

    "However, some SEOs and webmasters engage in the practice of buying and selling links that pass PageRank, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google's webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact a site's ranking in search results."

    and here's Goog Webmaster Central on blogroll links. No real problem unless they are sold or spammy links.

    http://www.youtube.com/GoogleWebmasterHelp#play/user/841CB8F9F31BF5D5/75/AqcfbSqYfJ4

    Think I'll write about this. Lots of tweets :-)

  • John HILLES says:

    I dont buy that Matt/Malcom,

    St Albans Offices is clearly there to pass PR and link juice. You know that and we know that.
    It is out of context for this site.
    Whether it was for money, love or cornflakes doesnt matter.

    What the Mirror did was exactly the same in my eyes (and clearly a few others).

    So, Iam afraid Im firmly in the your a hypocrite camp.
    (Although Im sure you a lovely guy)

  • OK, it's a personal blog, not an SEO one. I just happen to be interested in SEO (and I don't have a category called SEO, just a tag). I also review stuff, and pontificate about newspapers.

    That aside, I'm going to leave the last words to Phil and John in the comments they've just added. Phil - have a good holiday. John - I AM a lovely guy.

    And I'm now going to switch off comments on this post as I don't think anything new is being said. If you want to continue the discussion about something other than my mum's website, try the follow-up post here.

  • Own up. Which one of you just rang my mum and promised her he could make her number 1 in google?

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