A bit of debate going on between SEO compatriots. Just how much of a difference do certain inbound links make to a search engine ranking? Well it depends on a variety of factors, but there is some debate on whether (in the UK) a .ac.uk domain is “worth more to Google” than say your average .com or .co.uk.
.com and .co.uk addresses can be bought for a few dollars, whilst an educational or governmental domain cannot be just bought from your average registrar. As a result, search engines like Google place great merit on a link that comes out from such a domain. As a result (and opinions vary), an outbound link from an educational domain may well produce a higher ranking (by a factor of 10 according to some estimates) than that coming from a regular .com style domain. This is because a link from such a site is considered reputable and to have some significant credibility. Suddenly having a bit of real estate on a .ac.uk domain becomes an interesting proposition.
What does this mean for Blackhatters? Well – I can see an increased amount of persuasion by SEO specialists of .ac.uk domain participants to somehow link back to their own domains. As the participant in a number of .ac.uk domains (with the right to create content on public space on University web sites), I can imagine that subtle pressure will be applied to get me to endorse commercial propositions through linking. The same will apply to civil servants (some of whom earn the minimum wage), medical staff and other publicly funded employees with access to public web space.
I can see what people are trying to achieve, but there are significant numbers of people with access to space who do not realise the consequences of this. And when it starts to affects rankings between competitors, I imagine that a lot of whistle-blowing will occur. Someone fairly innocent is going to get a kicking.