Paid links have been and still are a popular SEO technique and it’s not hard to understand why: they promise instant gratification to those who can’t wait for results. Unfortunately, paid links are not in favor with search engines for obvious reasons and those who employ them today do so at significant risk.

As the importance of social media becomes more apparent to businesses both large and small, it’s no surprise that the desire for instant gratification is rearing its ugly head in the form of ‘paid friends‘.

Just as those who were incapable or unwilling to invest in proper link building found paid links to be an easy SEO solution, paid friends are an easy solution for those who want to take advantage of social media but don’t really want to invest in building a legitimate following through participation and engagement.

Yesterday, AdAge.com profiled USocial, a company that’s the social media equivalent of a paid link broker. For $654.30, USocial will deliver 5,000 friends on Facebook. Not good enough? 10,000 Facebook friends can be yours for a cool $1.167.30 According to USocial CEO CEO Leon Hill, “Facebook is an extremely effective marketing tool, as anyone with a large number
of targeted friends or fans can attest to
“. But building a following is hard work. “Which is where we come in,” he states.

USocial isn’t limiting itself to Facebook. It sells Twitter followers for as little as 11 cents a follower. It even claims that it can deliver 100,000 followers but may need a year to do so. Not surprisingly, USocial will also sell you votes on Digg, Yahoo Buzz, StumbleUpon and Propeller.

As with paid links, buyers should beware. Facebook’s terms of service, for instance, forbid the use of “personal profiles for commercial gain“, as AdAge.com points out. So just as a Google reserves the right to penalize those who buy and sell links, individuals who sell their social media souls potentially run the risk of being booted, as do the businesses that buy them.

Fortunately, I suspect that the demand for paid friends may not rise to the level of paid links. Paid links, however risky, can produce results. I know, for instance, of a company that uses/abuses paid links extensively and has top SERPs to prove it. For whatever reason, it hasn’t been caught or Google is turning a blind eye. And so long as it doesn’t find itself on the wrong end of a Google smack down, it profits immensely from its use of paid links.

Yet the ROI in buying friends is hard to spot. Social media, is, well, social. Your friends are only as valuable and useful as your interactions with them. It may look good to have 20,000 friends on Facebook, but if you didn’t acquire them by legitimate means, they’re not real customers or potential customers, and you’re not engaging with them, they’re worthless. Businesses that fall into the trap of believing that buying friends is a smart investment will learn the hard way that faux popularity doesn’t produce real profits.

Of course, just as there are plenty of willing buyers for paid links, there will surely be plenty of businesses willing to take a punt on buying friends. So get used to USocial and companies like it. They’re the new link brokers and they’ve got a bridge to sell you.

Photo credit: glennharper via Flickr.