Instant results are always the most appealing. When it comes to SEO, climbing up the SERPs can take a lot of time, effort and money.

A popular technique amongst some marketers for acquiring the inbound links that search engines like Google love has been to pay for them.

But getting results from this approach is increasingly difficult as Google becomes more adept and identifying paid links and penalizing those websites that are buying them.

Given that the logic behind Google's PageRank algorithm is that a website should be receiving inbound links because that website deserves them, Google's efforts to blunt paid links is not surprising.

Unfortunately, while an argument could be made that paying for links, when done appropriately, is a legitimate tactic, paid links have been on Google's radar for years now and have been discussed on Econsultancy in the past.

Yet recent discussions of paid links on Search Engine Watch make for interesting reads and highlight the fact that there's still a lot of debate on the subject, although Google does seem to be imposing its will quite effectively.

Search Engine Watch's Mark Jackson notes that while Google's wrath seems to come down on some while avoiding others who still profit greatly by purchasing links, he advises his clients to be very mindful of Google's stance on the issue and has seen firsthand the negative impact a Google penalty can have on websites.

In a recent post, Eric Enge of Search Engine Watch details a panel discussion that he participated in. Both white and black hat SEOs came to largely the same conclusion - don't risk too much if you go the paid links route; invest in building real results over the long-term.
And Jim Boykin of We Build Pages, previously a heavy buyer of paid links, recently announced that he was throwing in the towel on them, stating:

"Years ago I used to worry about Google finding my links through connections in their, I’d worry more about my competitors 'turning me in' to Google."

Clearly, the overall sentiment has shifted towards a growing consensus that paid links are risky, if not outright no-nos.

Personally, I have mixed feelings on the issue. Large-scale, indiscriminate purchasing of links, especially as part of an outright attempt to 'manipulate' SERPs, is worthy of contempt, but as Marty Weintraub of the aimClear Blog pointed out in June 2008, Google's stance is conveniently aligned with its financial interests, namely making sure that the only results that can be 'bought' are those that are purchased through AdWords.

But I also think there's another issue that doesn't get discussed much on this subject - the impact of Google's policies on publishers.

If a publisher sells a 'sponsorship' to a company, does the link that comes with it put the buyer's website at risk? It just might if that buyer has competitors who report the 'paid link' to Google.

Google's guidelines acknowledge that "buying and selling links is a normal part of the economy of the web when done for advertising purposes, and not for manipulation of search results" but goes on to instruct publishers to add a nofollow attribute to these links or to redirect links to an intermediate page that is blocked from search engines using robots.txt.

This highlights that despite all the amazing things Google's algorithms can do, it still wants and expects publishers to help it out.

For the many publishers and advertisers who don't even know about Google's guidelines, a lack of awareness could be very costly.

For those who are aware of Google's guidelines but don't feel like going out of their way to help Google do its job, the anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that erring on the side of caution is a prudent thing when it comes to paid links, even if it's not fair. In other words, caveat emptor.

Patricio Robles

Published 8 January, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (4)

Joe Friedlein

Joe Friedlein, Director at Browser Media

Interesting post Patricio.

As an agency, we have never really been involved with large scale link buying but, as I often find myself doing, I would make a comparison with 'traditional' PR and SEO.

A PR agency is very unlikely to hand over cash payments to a journalist to write about their clients but they will, over the course of time, butter them up with gifts / drinks / days out / etc.

Just as a PR agency would seek to help 'influence' the influencial journalists within any particular field, a successful SEO strategy will include identifying the most influencial websites within a field and devising strategies to get links from these websites.

Straight forward link purchases is one way to get these links but, as you say, this risks the wrath of Google.

There are, of course, other ways to incentivise these sites to link to you - just as you can help butter up the offline journalists.

Does giving a blogger a free video camera to review (assuming that your website sells video cameras) on the understanding that it is a favourable review and that you can have some say in the links through to your site constitute link buying?

It is a form of link buying but it would be next to impossible for Google to police this as they can't see what commercial agreements are going on behind the scenes.

The 'best' links are keyword rich text links on contextually relevant pages as these are often editorial in nature and more 'genuine' as a vote of endorsement (e.g. when compared to a link on a directory, for example).

Mass scale link buying is indeed under threat (thankfully) but I would not agree with anyone who claims that some form of incentivised linking is going to go away very quickly...


over 9 years ago

Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler, Director at VelocitySmall Business Multi-user

Some people spend more time, money and energy trying to scam Google than they do trying to serve their real, human audience.

The Google algorithm is supposed to reflect true relevance.  If it does, then the best scam is simply to become the most relevant site in your category.  Do that and no algorithm or policy changes by Google can hurt you.

over 9 years ago


Matt Davies

Like meta tag stuffing and hidden text before it, paid links will die as an SEO strategy when they stop being the extremely effective tool that they are. Look at the link profiles of the top sites for any competitive niches - almost invariably they will have indulged in a little link buying at some point. Only Google can make this happen by significantly changing their algorithm to reflect different ranking factors.

over 9 years ago


Forex signal trading online

Blogroll links are not really passing much as far as Google juice either. I’ve noticed they don’t mean much as far as Google goes. It’s seems their leary of the advertising potential blogrolls have.I wish we could get bacl to the old days of blogging. No nofollow, and free linking. There must be a way for Google to rank web properties other than focusing on links. Sure….links must count for something, but is there not a way to rank the page content more.

over 9 years ago

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