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Paid links are something I've written about lately as the possibility of Twitter data being incorporated into the Google and Bing search indexes has raised the spectre of a much more complicated situation vis-à-vis paid links.

In the case of Google, the rules are clear: paid links are bad. If you get caught buying or selling them, you could find yourself in a world of hurt. But just how good is Google at detecting paid links? If the example I'm about to give is any indication, it's not good at all.

Before I begin, I should make it clear: I'm not going to reveal the identity of the website in question. It's not my place. I'm not a competitor in any shape or form, but even if I was, when it comes to the SERPs, I've found it's far more fruitful to focus on improving your rankings than on sicking Google on your competition. So here we go.

The website in question is an online retailer with the top organic spot on Google for a one-word, plural dictionary keyword, and the second organic spot for the singular version of this word. It's not run by a big brand and we're not dealing with an exact-match domain. The homepage of this website has a PageRank of three, which is worth pointing out because, for the plural word, it beats out a website with a PageRank of six. A decent example of how PageRank isn't everything.

It's not too hard to find out how this retailer is doing so well in the SERPs. A quick look at the site's backlinks reveals a ton of links, generally from rinky dink blogs, many hosted on Google's free blogging service, Blogger. One of these blogs even states:

This blog is a sponsored blog created or supported by a company, organization or group of organizations. This blog accepts forms of cash advertising, sponsorship, paid insertions or other forms of compensation.

Of course, none of the links on this blog are nofollowed.

According to Alexa, nearly 30% of this retailer's website upstream traffic comes from a pay-per-post service that pays bloggers to post ads for its advertisers. And Alexa sees over 40% of the site's traffic as coming from Indonesia, India and the Philippines, locations that the retailer doesn't even ship to.

It's not too difficult to do the math. For those not wanting to rush to judgement: many of the blogs that link to this retailer's website on with anchors placed on precisely the keywords referenced above are written by people who disclose that they live in these countries. One even has a 'review' of the retailer which notes the retailer doesn't sell in the author's country.

All told, there are lots and lots of backlinks all coming from the same sort of blogs and websites, all with the 'right' keywords linked to the retailer's website. Some date back several years, while others are brand new. Clearly, this is a concerted effort that has been going on for a long time and isn't stopping anytime soon.

'What about legitimate backlinks?' you might ask. In my survey, it was hard to spot more than a few that were legitimate. The retailer in question does run an affiliate program, but interestingly few of the backlinks have affiliate IDs, making it clear that payment for links, not affiliate popularity, is what's driving the linking.

By any stretch of the imagination, Google should have detected this 'bad behavior' by now. After all, it has a lot to go on. The vast majority of backlinks come from no-name blogs, I didn't see a single blog that was closely related to what this retailer sells, and almost all of the links I've found have the same 'perfect' anchor text - all linked back to the retailer's homepage, usually multiple times on a single post/page. And this pattern appears to have existed for several years. In short, if Google can't detect that something fishy is going on here, one has to ask the question: is Google really capable of detecting paid links and webspam?

Of course, the most cynical would point out that this retailer purchases ads on Google through AdWords. As I write this, has the top spot for the two keywords mentioned above. These probably aren't coming cheap. But I don't buy the notion that Google is letting shady operators slide if they spend lots of money on AdWords. The separation of paid and organic has been settled in my mind.

So back to what's really going on. To be fair to Google, I think there are two problems:

  • Just because a website is relevant doesn't mean it isn't using paid links and webspam. It's hard to deny that Google's results are generally pretty relevant. After all, if they were filled with irrelevant junk, searchers would go elsewhere. But take the retailer mentioned here: it does sell the product for which it has top SERPs. So its presence in the SERPs for these keywords isn't 'irrelevant'. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the rest of the web has legitimately voted for it as the most relevant result either. Unfortunately, unless the irrelevance is obvious, there's nothing else to go by.
  • In some markets, there just aren't likely to be a whole lot of quality backlinks. Here, the retailer in question isn't exactly selling a type of product that people are going to scream at the top of their lungs about (we're not talking iPhones). So it's likely that there are few competitors with massive legitimate backlinks from authoritative sites to look at. That doesn't help Google.

When all is said and done, a handful of examples of top-ranking sites that are clearly using paid links and webspam to boost their position in the SERPs make it clear to me at least that Google is surprisingly bad at detecting this junk, especially when the junk isn't used to rip off consumers or spread malware. I'll leave others to speculate on the implications of this, if there are any. In the meantime, there's no reason to believe that paid links and webspam are going anywhere because right now, they're clearly still very effective.

Photo credit: dannysullivan via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 27 October, 2009 by Patricio Robles

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

2353 more posts from this author

Comments (29)

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Vincent Roman

Patricio, yet again a nice little analysis of an interesting situation.  Spot on! I suppose it highlights the on-going battle that all search engines are facing and that is one of increasingly less relevance in a changing online world.

over 6 years ago

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manoj

To start of first thank's for opening such an critical and essential discussion Patricio, i 100% agreeing what you said i right. Google says about paid and irrelevant link exchange in tonnes and tonnes of places but still i can still see many high profit niche site uses these ways to rank on top in SERP's As you said Google surprisingly still shows the same results even months after months. Now the question is how long this is going to continue?

over 6 years ago

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Jonathan Stewart

It's the age old debate - you'd rather they didn't work, but there's lots of evidence to suggest that they still work very well, and there are lots of people relying on the tactic and still doing well off them 2/3 years since Google declared war against them.

Personally I think Google are getting better at detecting paid link activity, but there still don't have a flawless solution in place.  Perhaps this is what they're trying to achieve with Vince update - move away from relying so heavily on link data, and instead start looking towards user data for signals of quality.

over 6 years ago

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Polly Pospyelova

It is a very interesting analysis of an old and sensitive topic.

I agree with Jonathan and think Google are getting better at detecting paid link activity and I would expect Google to catch up in not too distant future. It is like criminals running away from police – eventually they get caught.

Right now however I see lots of evidence suggesting that paid links and webspam are still working very well for many companies. Based on my experience so far 90% of companies who rely on this questionable tactic are doing well off it.

over 6 years ago

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Search Analytics

Your analysis on that particulay website and the keywords is good. Even i have come across a few of websites which are ranked well in Google for their smart tactics. However i would say that sometimes it may take time for google to detect such odd websites and punish them. But, we should not take granted that Google isn't going to find them and punish them. If that website is once found by google as employing fault tactics, they will be severely punished by them wherein, later it may be a daunting task for them to get back to normal results onto Google.

Finally conclusion is "Never take Google Easy" ;) :)

over 6 years ago

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seo firm

I am Sure Google is capable..Thay are having supereb algorithams.. :)

over 6 years ago

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WC Murray

I am beginning to think that Google is depending more and more on the fear and squeal factors. Not really a solid model. It doesn't mean that it won't work and doesn't mean that Google will not dole out its punishment upon the link evil doers. It just means that if the rewards for paid linking are great enough, the game of "Catch me if you can" will continue.

over 6 years ago

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Doktor Thomas

Google is both over-rated and under-rated on its activities--conceptions which are fallout from methods that are proprietary in nature and not going to be shared any time soon. Under all of the buzz of what Google may or may not be doing, it is a hugely profitable business. As long as Google is not furthering illegal activity, it can make money on any/every business situation and probably does. If the proprietary mining software incidentally favors businesses that pay high adsense rates, that is not necessarily unethical. Engineering that into the software Google uses might be. Observation, a rather unscientific methodology, seems to support the incestual suggestion in Robles' article: high paying adsense customers get better page rank. To repeat, that is only observation, not meticulous research and study. And may be a fluke of experience.

While logic and Google's PR suggest the high import of backlinks, if you have a site that 25,000 users want to view daily it is going to get most of that traffic no matter what Google does with page rank or backlink punishment. If it is a high traffic source, Google is more likely to be on board than in opposition to that site. Why? It makes business (dollars) sense. If you have a struggling site with less than 200 per day visitors, negative Google activity might well be fatal. However, Google literally has nothing to gain by dealing with that site--negatively or positively (which may appear as punishment rather than ordinary ignorance which it might be).

It seems to be popular to grant Google all kinds of mythical powers; thousands of self proclaimed SEO gurus are making living at "knowing" that which Google will never reveal. Even when Google talks about its "system" that should be taken with a grain of salt; patent law strictly forbids revelation of proprietary information. If one does let the proverbial cat out of the bag, Google's billion dollar money machine goes into the public domain. You are kidding yourself if you think ANYTHING from that generator will ever be divulged in your lifetime. Dream on about being on the inside track.

The point is, if you run a straight up business, most likely you do not have or employ paid backlinks. If your business offers value to users, it will fly and find success at some level. If you business is gaming the system (and hence users) the future is short, whether Google or some other power pulls the plug on your tryst with the unethical.

As for the g-spiders uncovering the paid backlinks, or other nefarious activity, it might be possible to root out the most obvious (and to Google's advantage to use a few as examples). But think about how the spider samples pages in its cataloging routine; it necessarily has limits. Any limitation will result in some gaming of the system not being uncovered. However, we are not dealing with the simple minded. The real question is how many thousands of g-spiders are there at work? And, what besides search engine content are they cataloguing? Therein is the unclear answer to why a particular site may not be caught with its backlinks exposed... today is not the future; stay tuned for the next episode.

over 6 years ago

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Steve

There's no possible way for Google to detect every single paid link.  Unless Google can prove that someone actually paid for a link, it's all speculation.  Unfortunately, when speculation happens, some innocent people get hurt in the process.

over 6 years ago

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craig

@Doktor Thomas

I think you've pretty much nailed it.

over 6 years ago

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craig

and i would add the following:

if paid link detection were accurate, policed and penalized, it'd be dead eay to sabotage your competition. would gg want to see that happen on a widespread basis?

over 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Doktor Thomas,

I agree with a lot of what you said, but I also disagree with the statement "The point is, if you run a straight up business, most likely you do not have or employ paid backlinks."

The retailer I referred to in this post has the top SERPs for 'product' and 'products', and it does sell product. Therefore, a consumer who searches for 'product' and clicks to this site because it's the top result isn't likely to know that the retailer gamed its way up the SERPs, and he doesn't care. The consumer is just going where he's being led and since he's sent to a legitimate retailer that will sell him product, why should he? It's a positive feedback loop: retailer games the SERPs, consumers are led to retailer, retailer converts and makes lots of money, continues to invest in gaming the SERPs (and throws some money into paid search as well), retailer continues to profit. It doesn't say anything about whether or not the retailer is naturally competitive in the market. All we know is that the retailer does sell a product and to the uninitiated, doesn't raise any suspicions with top SERPs.

You say:

While logic and Google's PR suggest the high import of backlinks, if you have a site that 25,000 users want to view daily it is going to get most of that traffic no matter what Google does with page rank or backlink punishment. If it is a high traffic source, Google is more likely to be on board than in opposition to that site. Why? It makes business (dollars) sense. If you have a struggling site with less than 200 per day visitors, negative Google activity might well be fatal.

This assumes that you're dealing with some sort of site that can attract visitors organically. But people who are looking for a product, for instance, aren't just magically going to show up on some retailer's website. How many content sites do you know of that talk about computer desks or spark plugs?

Furthermore, traffic is relative. In some markets, 200 visitors per day can generate six and seven figures worth of business a year while a semi-popular content destination with 25,000 visits per day can't top six.

The bottom line is that Google's capabilities to detect paid links are clearly overblown. Legitimate, successful companies are using paid links. And many of them acquired that legitimacy and success based upon their top SERPs.

over 6 years ago

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Twitter Backgrounds

these is no passiblge to the point is, if you run a straight up business, most likely you do not have or employ paid backlinks.

over 6 years ago

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free payroll software

It is a very interesting analysis of an old and sensitive topic. I am sure that google is capable since they are good with algorithms.

over 6 years ago

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fax from computer

There's no possible way for Google to detect every single paid link.  Unless Google can prove that someone actually paid for a link, it's all speculation.  Unfortunately, when speculation happens, some innocent people get hurt in the process.

over 6 years ago

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ORCA Franchise

I personally can't see any sustainable and reliable strategy Google could implenent to stamp out paid links. There are some obvious and blatant link purchasing examples, like the example which are easy enough to deal with. I think Google could act on this particular site with little doubt that they have been buying links, as it seems to have been going for so long.

However, lets take another example. Someone reports a website for purchasing links, and Google finds a large amount of very suspicious looking links on that website. Should they act on this - How can they be sure that a competitor hasn't simply purchased those links themselves and reported them to Google to get them knocked out of the rankings? How do they ascertain this information without following an audit trail, which they have no access to any?

Anthony

over 6 years ago

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Andreas

@Anthony re "Should they act on this - How can they be sure that a competitor hasn't simply purchased those links themselves and reported them to Google" Thats surely possible, since someone (potentially a competitor) was able to purchase links, this site was obviously selling them, so google would have a reason to penalize the site based on this report. Also since they still utilize their 'manual site reporting' function, it shows you that they do not have sufficient algorithms in place to automatically detect paid links. They can filter out lots of links like links that have been placed sometime after the content has been indexed by a g-spider but still these could be added by the site owners themselves linking to relevant resources (based on a vote for that resource), so ultimately there is no automatic detection possible that covers many scenarios.

over 6 years ago

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Zonnga

Chrome is currently the easiest web stranica.Dosta Opener is good and IE8 64bit.Dali know when someone will be a Google operating system released for download?

over 6 years ago

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Home Based Business

Most definitely Google can gauge trends and view patterns, but they can't flawlessly detect paid ads unless there is online tracking. 

over 6 years ago

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Jack Strawman

You started your post with the following statement: "If you get caught buying or selling them, you could find yourself in a world of hurt."

You cannot get punished for buying links.  The only thing that can happen is that these links will give you no benefit. 

Otherwise, people would be buying obviously paid for links for their competitors.  Then they would sit back and watch that site get spanked. 

I agree, however, with selling links.  Only you can sell links on your site. 

almost 6 years ago

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ELS

It's not too hard to find out how this retailer is doing so well in the SERPs. A quick look at the site's backlinks reveals a ton of links, generally from rinky dink blogs, many hosted on Google's free blogging service, Blogger.

over 5 years ago

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Teddy Bears

 I am glad you took the time to share this article here! It was a brilliant read.. Thanks!

over 5 years ago

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Toenail Fungus

According to Alexa, nearly 30% of this retailer's website upstream traffic comes from a pay-per-post service that pays bloggers to post ads for its advertisers. And Alexa sees over 40% of the site's traffic as coming from Indonesia, India and the Philippines, locations that the retailer doesn't even ship to.

over 5 years ago

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Commercial Estate Agents

It's not too difficult to do the math. For those not wanting to rush to judgement: many of the blogs that link to this retailer's website on with anchors placed on precisely the keywords referenced above are written by people who disclose that they live in these countries. One even has a 'review' of the retailer which notes the retailer doesn't sell in the author's country.

over 5 years ago

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Redmill Marketing

It's a dog eat dog world out there, some people will do anything for a backlink. They're even dim enough to just cut and past a section from the article and post it back in the comments box on the same day at the same time... looks upwards (ahem).

But it is a bit sad and I am beginning to doubt that Google has the wherewithal or the skill to do anything about it. There are an awful lot of junky, spammy backlinks creating high SERPs ratings for rinky-dink (great word) companies in very competitive industries. Just Google "Car insurance" and took a look at the link profile of what you find on page 2. Utter junk, sad thing is that it works...

over 5 years ago

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Seo Services

A well thought out analysis, this has been going on for years, I could mention several well know websites in the gambling industry doing exactly the same, they have the money to do it making it virtually impossible for any hardworking company without the founds to compete.

over 5 years ago

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air horn

Well this is very interesting indeed. Would love to read a little more of this. Great post. Thanks for the heads-up. This blog was very informative and knowledgeable

over 5 years ago

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Pallet Wrappers

Google's algorithms have been defined and developed by a really smart team. After the Panda update, Google has banned nearly half a million website. That speaks for itself.

almost 5 years ago

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internet fax

Agreed. The Panda updates have done a great job of cleaning up webspam and garbage serps for everyone. I for one applaud our Google overlords.

almost 5 years ago

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