The official Google Webmaster Central Blog has a very comprehensive post this morning about trafficking in links that pass PageRank, and why webmasters who want to do well in Google natural search listings should avoid it. There’s nothing new for those of us who have been following this for a while, but for those of you still interested in this debate, this post from Matt Cutts and Maile Ohye not only shows Google’s historical objection to the practice, but the fundamental reason for it. As we’ve been telling clients for a while, Google’s natural listings are fundamentally different from sponsored listings in the sense that there is no additional direct cost to entry for placement or ranking. Regardless of a site’s budget, then, all competitors in a Search Engine Results Page (SERP) with crawlable content containing relevant keywords and links from authority sites in their niche have the opportunity to rank in the natural listings. In the post, Google explains how paid links change this game:

Such links can hurt relevance by causing:

    – Inaccuracies: False popularity and links that are not fundamentally based on merit, relevance, or authority
    – Inequities: Unfair advantage in our organic search results to websites with the biggest pocketbooks.

I’d like to focus on this second point, because I’m not sure that webmasters really understand what this means. There are a number of complaints in the comments of this post, for example, that claim that small businesses don’t have the deep pockets that big businesses do, and need to buy links that pass PageRank in order to fix this inequity. I see this comment a lot, and don’t think that small businesses really understand the implications of this statement. Let’s say, for example, that the engines allowed paid links to pass PageRank. Do small business owners really think they’d be better off if this happened? Chances are, companies with large marketing budgets would just shift it into paid link acquisition, which thanks to the pleas of small businesses who feel cheated by their relative inability to compete, Google and the other search engines made legal. The number and quality of paid links that resulted from this shift would surely dwarf anything that sites with smaller budgets could acquire, making it impossible for small businesses to compete with their better-funded competitors.

Is this really what small business owners want? Essentially their own destruction? Probably not, which is why I have a hard time thinking of the paid links debate as anything but an attempt to game the system with a tactic that no longer works. There are better ways for legitimate sites to spend a small marketing budget—ways that don’t knowingly violate the Google Webmaster Guidelines. Investing in a good content developer or public relations firm are both good ways to increase the long-term visibility of your brand in search engines without breaking the bank or gaming the system. There are many others out there for webmasters with the creativity and initiative to look.

I, for one, am hoping that this post from Google helps turn the discussion away from paid links, and to more of these ways to legitimately promote digital content. Small business webmasters, it really is for your own good.