The hullabaloo was mainly initiated by New York-based advertising agency, MediaWhiz, launching a new product, namely Inlinks. The functionalities of the product are fairly outright, it enables advertisers to purchase advertisements on specific keywords. The product is essentially a smooth-functioning paid text link service that makes it extremely hard for Google and other Search engines to detect the paid links.
Inlinks seems quite successful in its primary objective of bringing together bloggers and advertisers in a paid-link arena. Once an advertiser searches the keyword, or anchor text they want to be linked to, on the application's tool bar, it (the tool) goes through its database of content looking for blog posts with that particular text and gives a listing of all such posts arranged according to Alexa score, PageRank and date of post. The advertiser can then select the blog post and rent the links at the price quoted. The starting price for many of the links is around $10/month. These links aren't ghost links, but full blown links without any quotation mainly for SEO purposes.
Matt Cutts has been heading the Google army in lashing out against this tool. When TechCrunch reported on Inlinks, Matt Cutts replied to them via e-mail. Here's what he said:
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Google has been very clear that selling such links that pass PageRank is a violation of our quality guidelines. Other search engines have said similar things. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has also given unambiguous guidance on this subject in the recent PDF at http://www.ftc.gov/os/2008/03/P064101tech.pdf where they said: Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Consumers who endorse and recommend products on their blogs or other sites for consideration should do so within the boundaries set forth in the FTC Guides Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising and the FTCĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s guidance on word of mouth marketing,Ă˘â‚¬Âť as well as Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“To date, in response to this concern, the FTC has advised that search engines need to disclose clearly and conspicuously if the ranking or other presentation of search results is a function of paid placement, and, similarly, that consumers who are paid to engage in word-of-mouth marketing must disclose that fact to recipients of their messages.Ă˘â‚¬Âť
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Oh, but you say your blog isnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t in the U.S.? Maybe itĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s in the UK? Then youĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ll be interested in 'http://www.opsi.gov.uk/si/si2008/uksi_20081277_en_5#pt11' which covers unfair trade practices and specifically mentions Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Using editorial content in the media to promote a product where a trader has paid for the promotion without making that clear in the content or by images or sounds clearly identifiable by the consumer (advertorial).Ă˘â‚¬Âť
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“But youĂ˘â‚¬â„˘re not in the UK? I believe many of the unfair commercial practices directives apply through Europe, e.g. 'http://ec.europa.eu/consumers/rights/index_en.htm' to prohibit misleading or aggressive marketing.Ă˘â‚¬Âť
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“The reality is that accepting money to link to/promote/market for a product without disclosing that fact is a very high-risk behavior, in my opinion.Ă˘â‚¬Âť
The whole comment made it quite obvious how Matt Cutt, and apparently Google on the whole, is more than just displeased by this tool and its functionalities. But what seemed particularly surprising was Matt stressing on FTC's (Federal Trade Commission) 'guidelines'. Surprising because these quotes are 'FTC's suggestions and in no form guidelines or requirements and moreover, no where in these 'suggestions' can we see a single word on the aspect of 'paid links'.
As far as Matt's seemingly morally perfect stand on how 'promoting a product without disclosing that fact is quite unacceptable' goes, it just does not seem in sync with Google's own methodologies. How come then Firefox is not required to display that Google is paying it billions of dollars to be the default search engine on every search? In fact, Google has been so discreet about the same that even many Firefox developers aren't aware of the same.
Such hypocritical statements from Google's top executives really show the reputed company in poor light. Google really can't talk about ethics and morals in advertising on the Internet, when it has itself indulged in some of the most deceptive advertising methods ever seen. One can point out that there's been no dearth of Google Adsense advertisements that have not been labeled as advertisements.
The problem for Google is that there's absolutely no way it can detect inlinking advertisements if they are done properly and Matt Cutt's statements concede this fact. If it would have been any different then Google would not have called for the help in the form of paid link forms that were meant to catch hold of people who pay for their links. It seems unlikely that Google wants to itself live in accordance to FTC's 'guidelines'. Matt's comments seem anything but a ridiculously lousy joke to cover up for their helplessness.