SEO 101 – Paid Links: To Buy or Not To Buy

Welcome to the latest installment in our SEO 101 series, where we attempt to weed out all the conjecture and give you a very basic understanding of the part of online marketing that we’re most comfortable with…mine being links. Lucky, lucky me. Now, the reason for my choice of paid vs. non-paid links as a subject for 101 is because I think that there’s a huge amount of misinformation about paid links out there, and, being public service-minded (not really), I view it as my goal to explain just what the fuss is all about. After all, if you’re starting to build links, you’re going to soon get into the whole paid vs non-paid debate, right?

Note: We’ve written several good posts about links (how to make irrelevant links relevant, what exactly constitutes a paid link, etc.) and I encourage you to read those, despite any nasty formatting errors.

What IS A Paid Link?

This isn’t as clear-cut as you think. Technically, a paid link is one that has been purchased. However, what about links that are given for some other non-monetary reason that’s really no different? The exchange of goods, for example, is one that’s bandied about as people argue whether that constitutes an actual violation of Google’s guidelines. The FTC has recently cracked down on bloggers who blog about a product without releasing the info that they have, indeed, been paid for it, but currently, that same issue isn’t affecting the buying and selling of actual links themselves.

Who Says Paid Links Are Bad?

What this all boils down to is, once again, Google. As you may or may not know, Google has decided that buying links is not a great idea, and it’s a violation of their webmaster guidelines. Thus, to remain happily in their index, you should not buy links, according to them. You’ll read link builders going on and on about how bad paid links are, but I’d honestly love to know how they’d feel if it didn’t constitute a violation that could get a site thrown out of an index.

How Are Paid Links Detected?

Some of them are just so glaringly obvious that it’s laughable. Some of them are so well-done, there’s honestly no way someone would know that the link was purchased. There are the give-away keywords like “Sponsored Links” or “Advertise Here!” There is my favorite, the link that is so obviously out of place, it’s just stupid. There are footprints, where you can find the same exact text surrounding a link, on 15 sites. Some site owners enjoy hiding paid links in text that matches the color of the background. Clever!! Very, very clever. OK it’s not. It’s not at all clever. If I see a link that’s hidden in that manner, I am immediately suspicious when, many times, I wouldn’t have been before.

Why Would You Buy Links?

If you’re working in an ultra-competitive niche, you honestly may not be able to rank well without buying links. All the competitors are doing it, and even though the “everyone else is doing it” argument isn’t usually one that I enjoy making, in this case…it’s true. As I’ve said before, if anyone IS ranking in the top 3 spots for ultra-competitive terms without buying any links, I’d love to hear about it. If you encounter a lovely site owner who wants to give you a great free link on a high-traffic site, I’d also like to know.

What Are The Alternatives?

Building content that attracts links on its own, using social media, and simply asking for a link in a very, very nice way. While these methods definitely work for the right niche, including some very competitive ones, nothing really seems to convince people better than cash. That’s kind of a sad social commentary all on its own, but hey, we live in a capitalist society don’t we?

What’s a NoFollow?

Nofollow is an HTML attribute that basically tells a search engine not to influence the link target’s Page Rank from that link. Thus, if you nofollow a link, you’re telling the engines that you don’t want that link to pass any link juice. Some people will only give you a nofollowed link, but if your aim is traffic and the link is in a nice spot, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Personally, I have become much less interested in nofollow over the past few months, as we’ve seen that nofollowed links are part of a natural link profile. Technically speaking, if you’re buying a link somewhere and it’s really, really obvious that you’re buying, you may want to ask for a nofollow so that you aren’t violating any engine’s guidelines. Since nofollow could really take all day to discuss, just go search and read about it.

Are Paid Links Right for Everyone?

Absolutely not. They may work for everyone, but that doesn’t mean that you should always buy links. A backlink profile for a non-profit that is full of nothing but crappy sitewide fashion blogroll links is just a waste of time and money and a damn good shot at getting a handreview that knocks you out of Google. Good luck cleaning THAT mess up…

Just as I think that there definitely are some sites that will never move up in the rankings without buying links, I’ve definitely seem enough sites where I think it simply isn’t a good idea for one reason or another. Basically, even though I pretend to be all anti-establishment, when it comes to certain niche industries, buying links is just stupid. This site, for example, has never bought a link and we’ve been able to generate a decent amount of backlinks for our troubles. We may not rank in the top 3 for massively competitive phrases all the time, but we’re doing ok. It just depends on what you want to get out of it, I imagine. We want qualified readers, not loads of people who hit the site and immediately leave.

Are There Some Cases Where You Should Never Buy Links?

Absolutely. In fact, if you would lose your shirt if your site got banned, you might want to steer clear of link buying. However, I’ll tell you that I have worked with clients who would indeed be up the creek without a paddle if they got thrown out of Google for buying links, yet they continue to do so in spite of the risk because their ROI happens to make them skip hand in hand with their bankers down the yellow brick road. That’s also an ethical dilemma for you as a link builder. My theory is that if people are aware of risk and still wish to do something, in this case, I’m ok with it. I don’t equate buying links to butchering babies or committing genocide, so I do tend to save my energy for getting angry at meaningful things, like the cashiers at Marshall’s who only open up another lane once I’ve waited 45 minutes and am next up, the bitches.

What Happens If You Get Caught?

If you get caught, which means that you’re turned in by some nasty horrible troll of a person, you’re hand-reviewed by Google, or something else, then you’ll be tossed out of Google’s index and you have to “clean up” your site before you can be reincluded. That’s a massive pain in the arse. It won’t affect you in the other engines, but if you’re dependent upon Google for the majority of your traffic, you’re fairly well screwed. I’ve spoken to people in this situation and it can take full months to clean things up. This isn’t like the days of cloaked sites where you could say hey Google, I’ve removed those redirects and then you’re back in. This involves going to other people who have linked to you with paid links, and either nofollowing them or removing them altogether.

So there you have it, on a very basic level. Paid links are all about risk versus reward (or just not getting caught) so proceed with caution.

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22 Responses to “SEO 101 – Paid Links: To Buy or Not To Buy”

  1. Simon Turner says:

    This is such an important debate, but one of those which seems to have no right answer. Risk Vs Reward seems to be the best way to look at it.

    The big frustration for me is being outranked by someone who is blatently buying all their links. If you refuse to buy links there’s little you can do to shift them (if you don’t happen to be best buds with Matt Cutts). Has anyone ever actually had any joy reporting a site for link buying?

  2. Lisa Myers says:

    Brilliant blgopost Julie and a great addition to the SEO 101 series, I think so many people have questions about paid links but don’t dare asking anyone as they are afraid it will flag them as a “dirty link buyer” in some Googlers “black hat” book :)

    I would also like to add something Aaron Wall said on twitter today: “if you pay for the traffic you are a saint. if not you are evil.” Basically Google are fine with money being exchanged when they benefit (AdWords, AdSense etc)..funny that. In fact I think affiliate and content networks are a bigger threat to the organic listings than a few paid links.

  3. Dan Harrison says:

    A great summary article that will definitely clear a few things up for people. I’ve got a question though Julie. What if you categorically do not use paid links, but either:

    1) Get flagged for using paid links when you’re not.. perhaps by a malicious competitor.

    2) Your competitor purchases paid links on your behalf, and then reports you for paid links. (I get asked this a lot and would like to know the answer).


  4. Julie this is a great post. We all know that there are some sites out there that buy all their links, and that quality and quantity are part of the evaluation; what is great is that you have put forward a reasonable position, when a lot of people are knee-jerk avoiding paid links altogether.

    What I personally think sucks is that Google can dictate a clear line…”Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines” and also that not all paid links are bad if rel=nofollow; however there doesn’t seem to be the corresponding commitment to action. Like Simon has said, extremely frustrating being outranked by someone blatantly buying all their links.

  5. What a great Blog post, its so refreshing to hear an SEO admit that paid linking is an avenue that may need to be considered.

    However, I may take on this risk by minimising it, in other words still applying the standard of relevancy from & to the sites in question.

    Now from a working basis this is fine as long as you have explained the risk (& this is accepted by the client) and make all attempts to minimise the risk as well.

    However, what about a site where the link equity is based upon historical paid links which you had no control over. Sure the site is benefitting from them now but you know that this is only a matter of time before a chunk of links will be removed.

    I have recently been told that any loss of historical links during an SEO contract (even when the dubious links were identified in our initial audit & the client warned of the potential outcome) is the responsibility of the SEO company!

    In the same way that if a contractor builds a house with shoddy foundations and years down the line another contractor comes in to repair the roof they would not be held responsible to fix damage casued by a previous contractor. The same should be applied to SEO.

    The reality is that almost every vertical is awash with paid links, so it’s funny that all of the big UK SEO players (whose clients do use paid links) specifically denie this type of link building, in fact you’d be hard pushed to find anyone admitting this activity or even admitting that they outsource this activity to others.

    Either we should all actively report every site we see selling links or using paid links or stop complaining about them, we cannot have it both ways.

  6. Julie Joyce says:

    @Simon Turner: regarding “Has anyone ever actually had any joy reporting a site for link buying?” I imagine that yes, several people have had joy in reporting a site for link buying. Some people have no problems whatsoever outing sites, unfortunately.

    @Lisa that’s a fantastic way to put it (Aaron’s tweet) actually.

    @Dan: those are excellent questions! Damn it. Now I have to think…regarding getting flagged for using paid links when you’re not, I remember someone (maybe Tamar Weinberg? not sure) saying that a site had been flagged when there actually were no paid links. I imagine this does happen a lot more than we hear about. My guess would be that if you are flagged and you’re NOT buying links, you should first look over your inbounds to see if there’s anything that could be a purchased link that you simply don’t know about. If you find that the profile is completely clean, I’d speak to someone at Google and see how you can prove your case. This is a weird one, though, since my point has always been that it can be almost impossible to determine whether a well-done paid link is actually a paid link!

    Regarding the other issue, of malice on the part of a competitor who buys paid links and points them at your site, I do have personal experience with this one, kind of. Nothing TOO horrible happened but the rankings fell off completely. The site wasn’t dropped from Google though, and the people responsible were identified, so it was a mess. In the event that something like that happens, I suppose the only option you’d have is to report it to Google. Ugh, I hate saying that, but if your site gets banned, you have to speak to them in any case.

    @Pete thanks for the comment, and I think many more people buy links than admit to it, certainly. I totally agree with you about minimizing the risks, though. Just because you buy links doesn’t mean that you should buy any crap one that comes your way.

  7. Simon Turner says:

    Thanks for the reply Julie – I take it from your comment you’re not a fan of reporting those buying paid links?

    For me it’s just too frustrating to hear Google preach one thing, but then as Nichola said, not follow up with a ‘corresponding commitment to action’. I’ve posed the question on my blog so i’ll report back if there’s any consensus!

  8. Julie Joyce says:

    Simon…I am not a fan of outing people in general, for whatever reason. That being said, I tend to work with ultra-competitive industries so it’s just the way things work usually. If I were making a living working with small mom and pop shops and I was the only one not buying links, I’d be pretty pissed off, too. I’d rather find a way to beat someone than to report a site for a violation, but that could be because I have a massive, massive guilt complex. Let me know how your post goes!!

  9. “maybe Tamar Weinberg?”

    Maybe, but I don’t remember it ;)

    Hi Julie!

  10. Julie Joyce says:

    Ha! Hi Tamar!! Damn, who WAS it??

  11. seoking says:

    I work in a very very competitive niche and 90% of my competitors (the ones that are all ranked above us) are buying links from the same review site. It so obvious…especially when you see the anchor text they use,,eg..”buy keyword”…this site also uses an image for “advertise here” to avoid detection from bots, they don’t use no follow on the links. Ive contacted them pretending I want to buy links and made it obvious, eg Do you sell those links down the side…I want to buy a text link with the anchor text…..???? for seo purposes to pass pagerank to my website…let me know the price etc…And the reply was yes they do and it costs so much per year, so OF COURSE I HAVE REPORTED THEM…

    I can’t believe some people think thats its like a witch hunt or you are some kind of supergrass or tell tale if you report them.

  12. Julie Joyce says:

    @seoking I can’t believe that you can’t do your job well without tattling on someone.

    Also, while I’m on my high horse I’d like to say that it’s pretty poor form to try and entrap someone. This is about buying links, not molesting children.

  13. seoking says:

    Yes, its about buying links which is against Googles guidelines, the same way taking drugs is against IOC rules, scratching the ball in cricket, fiddling the weights in horse racing….the rules are there to make a level playing field, to make a fairer society…and the outcome of someone breaking the rules is that those that are rightfully following the rules are cheated…therefore cheats should be exposed…like the USA relay team in Sydney getting stripped of their gold medals..Nigeria came second and without the drugs cheat Pettigrew they would have won, although they have been reawarded gold medals they don’t have the same sense of victory and achievement that these athletes trained all their lifes for. In the same way many businesses put a lot of effort and time into their websites only to be cheated !

  14. seoking says:

    Further more your reference to “tattling on someone”…this kind of thinking is what creates a society of selfish individuals rather than a collective society where bad behaviour is not tolerated…with those that do wrong conjuring up words like snitch, grass and tell tale to cohearse others into not exposing their wrongdoings….and rather than addressing their own behaviour they then use the influence of their counterparts to make out the practise of exposing wrongdoing is really the wrong behaviour….making society live in fear of justice.

  15. Julie Joyce says:

    Hi SEOKing…

    WTF does cohearse mean?

    Buying links can be against Google’s guidelines but they aren’t the only search engine out there. Some clubs may not allow black members. Does that mean that we should just accept it and not let black members into OUR clubs? I think that always playing by the (possibly asinine) rules is just as bad for your desired “collective society where bad behaviour is not tolerated” as going against the grain.

    Making society live in fear of justice??? We’re in advertising!!! I agree that it does seem unfair when businesses go about things in perfectly Google-friendly ways, only to get kicked in the teeth by sites who don’t play by the rules. However, this is still about what ONE search engine says is a bad thing to do. It’s not illegal, it’s a violation of guidelines. If they revise their guidelines tomorrow and say it’s fine to buy links, what will you whine about then? This company has more money than me and it’s not fair? There is always going to be some way that someone else has the upper hand.

    I do see, and respect, your point about a level playing field…I just don’t see that it’s truly a possibility.

  16. Jack Pumper says:

    Why feel bad about reporting? I don’t see any favors owed.

  17. Julie Joyce says:

    Hi Jack,

    Were you the kid who tattled on all the others?


  18. Donna Menner says:

    I never heard of nofollow links – but then I am a newbie at this. Just launched my first website and I find link building daunting. I am a drop-shipper and we were told at a SCORE seminar that we should get the manufacturers of my products to put me on their websites in the locations/where to buy. Trouble is, most only seem to offer a form or whatever where people search by zip code. This totally leaves me out because I am ecommerce only – no actual stores. I am talking to them about it but getting nowhere.

    I am finding getting quality inbound links to be extremely difficult.

  19. Vance Hill says:

    Geesh. The though of buying backlinks scares the piss out of me. I’ve never done it, but I have been tempted. The problem is if the site gets the Google slap, you get it to. Aside from standard link building whats the alternative? I’ve used complicated link wheels, but they take forever.

  20. [...]   Q3. Back in Dec 2009 you wrote a piece SEO 101 – Paid Links: To Buy or Not To Buy Is there anything you would change in 2013?   I am actually pleased (and surprised) to [...]

  21. Brian says:

    I don’t buy back links, never have. I make relationships with the owners of other sites or businesses and exchange links or services. Lots of people are afraid to call or email but the best link building involves networking with other people. That’s how you get you the best links that no one else can get.

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