Paid links and the BBC
There was an accusation today that the BBC was selling links - adding links on its site in exchange for cash in order to influence Google's results.
The Editor of BBC Sport emphatically denied this was true. I believe him - there's no chance that the BBC is doing this officially. But:
- Why were so many people quick to believe this?
- Why do so many SEOs think you can buy a link off the BBC website? And
- Even worse - why isn't the BBC's external linking policy having enough of an effect? I examine that issue in a second post.
What's the accusation - and what's the problem?
Google counts links to a webpage as a measure of its importance. The more links a page has from other sites, the more important it seems to Google - so the higher up Google's results it appears.
There's a black economy in paid links - paying people to link to artifically boost a site's importance in Google's eyes. It's not unlawful - but the practice treats ordinary web users with contempt (they think the links are naturally added) and isn't something the BBC should be doing.
Readers of this blog will recall my various posts on paid links on newspapers. I no longer out these (not least as they're usually leased on a short-term basis these days - although if you're stupid enough to list them all, it's hard to resist the temptation).
Anyway, the suggestion was that the BBC's TV & radio page included links that shouldn't be there - unless someone had paid for them to be there.
What do paid links look like?
It's usually easy to spot a paid link. Some of the key characteristics are:
- The anchor text (the text that's made into the link) uses the search terms that the linked-to site wants to rank to (as opposed to the site's name, "click here", or some general text).
- The links aren't obvious - they're there, but they're not flagged in any way and may be slipped in next to some non-paid links.
- Often the pages linked to look a bit, well, crap.
- It's not clear why those links are there - and not some more obvious ones.
The links in question on the BBC fitted all these characteristics. They used anchor text like "watch sport online" but linked to domains like www.getsport.tv. They were interleaved in other links to pages on the BBC site. They linked to some pretty odd looking sites. And if you're going to link to sites about watching sport online, why not link to Sky, ITV, Virgin etc directly?
What did the BBC say?
The BBC was unequivocal in its response. Lewis Wiltshire, BBC Sport website editor, left a response on the original blog saying:
None of the links to external websites from the BBC’s UK-facing website are sold [Comment by me: Interesting caveat!]. All of them are editorially selected because we believe they offer useful onward reading for our audience.
We are certainly not attempting to hoodwink Google, or any other search engines, or our audience, and I would be grateful to you for clarifying that issue.
He followed up that comment by saying about the links in question:
The links were editorially selected a while back. That page is a TV & Radio Schedule page so, in accordance with our objectives for linking out, we featured websites that offered schedule information for a range of broadcasters.
In order to be as fair as possible to the market, we linked to a range of them. One of those links was clumsily worded, and appears to have ended up going to a 404 – we’ve deleted that now.
Following this, the BBC page in question was amended to make the links clearer and to remove the broken link (which was actually only broken because someone had left the http off the front - CMSes FTW) .
Why do people think the BBC is selling links?
Even without Lewis's intervention, there is no way that the BBC is officially selling links to influence Google's results.
But rogue employees can be a problem. When I was editor of Which?, we had a massive manual migration exercise (ie copying and pasting 10s of 000s of pages) for a new CMS. One of the temps doing it dumped a load of links to his MP3 download site onto our pages ...
And there are SEOs on Twitter who think that individuals at the BBC will, in exchange for money, add links to your website. Gavin Mitchell pointed me to http://twitpic.com/1wpawe - a screenshot showing a keyword-rich anchor link on a BBC news story - now not visible on the page.
He wasn't the only person suggesting some admins at the BBC could - if not now then in the past - be paid to include a link for SEO reasons.
The BBC is not selling links. Are some people inside the organisation? I don't know. Today's story doesn't show this one way or the other.
This is all a side show, though. As I argue in my next post, the BBC is not living up to its stated aim of linking out more to directly relevant sites in a fair way.