When is a Link a Paid Link?

The current and perennially hot topic of PAID LINKS has had me thinking since the summer about the nature of payment for a link and how all links might be paid links.

I work in the media sector. As such, I get some freebies from the journalists or am sent things directly for review. I also go to drinks events, launches, conferences and other events as part of my job.

It was at the Moo Summer party that I began to wonder – if I blog about this party and link to it, is that a paid link? YES and NO.

YES it IS a paid link because with several thousands being spent on food and booze, any links were clearly bought. Even though specific links were not solicited at the party, packs of free Moo stickers, free alcohol and free food a paid link doth make.

NO it ISN’T because this was a traditional PR party event.  Sure it was a PR event for bloggers but none were directly compensated for the link.  The money spent went to pay for the party and no one at the party had to link to Moo.  Anyone who did link to Moo (like me – I LOVE MOO!) did it because they wanted to – not because a request was made.

That’s nice and clear like mud. But let us look at the traditional PR party.  This event is usually held somewhere nice – a gallery, a swanky office, a nice hotel.  The event is catered and complimentary alcohol flows freely.  These events cost thousands to run and the people running them expect payment in some form – an article, a link, a favourable connection.  These parties are a way of paying for exposure.  Are links they receive through the year paid links?

I think what we may be seeing with Matt Cutts’ comments is Google’s recognition of the gaming of the system.  There may be a desire on the part of Google to make links a less important ranking factor because of the gaming, but they need to find relevance beyond the on-page content.  Links are votes and while I have always been an advocate of links for traffic, Google also counts links as a big part of rankings.

Google’s Matt Cutts says only editorial content should have “follow” links because it is the only content that would exist without payment.  I’m saying from inside the news industry that the news is paid for.

Agencies, PR machines, and companies themselves are showering journalists with gifts of concert tickets, hampers of food and drink, technology and more.  The so-called editorial content is paid for with food, drink and gifts.  Those editorial links are paid links.

Looking beyond the direct compensation of people, I can begin to make waters muddier still.  Is exemplary service purchasing a link?  The time required to provide the service has a cost attached.  Is getting a free gift with purchase paying for a link?  The product has a cost.

There is too much room for Google to interpret things any way they wish.  I can argue that almost any link has been ‘paid for’ somehow and would not exist without that ‘payment’.

This debate will rage on and on.  I’m cynical and evil and exist only to cause suffering and pain so I throw this out to you all – ALL LINKS ARE PAID LINKS.  Somehow, somewhere they have been paid for in service, freebies, parties, networking, community contributions, or whatever.

Perhaps instead of trying to castrate existing link love, Google needs to better filter weighting of links.

What do you think?

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21 Responses to “When is a Link a Paid Link?”

  1. Julie Joyce says:

    Fantastic post Judith…and I completely agree with you. Nothing is devoid of motive in this industry and payment takes the form of many things other than a credit card.

  2. g1smd says:

    It was daft of Google to let the gaming of links go on for long… they now have a problem that can’t easily be put right.

  3. Julie Joyce says:

    They built the system…I fail to believe that they did not anticipate this.

  4. I agree that Google needs to filter better, but I’m not sure they can. Judgement calls are easy for people, but tough for computers.

    For example, I have a page that lists more than 500 names, phone numbers and web site addresses. Google’s spiders would look at that and say “Must be non-organic, look how many there are, it’s a link farm! Should use nofollow.”

    You’d look at it and say, “Oh these are all Unix and Linux computer consultants and the rest of the website is full of Unix and Linux stuff – these are legitimate and valuable links! Should not use nofollow.”

    I think it wil be hundreds of years before spiders can be smart enough to see that on their own.

  5. Julie Joyce says:

    Anthony…you’re right. Nicely put.

  6. Absolutely right Anthony.

    I think the problem comes in when the degree to which ranking depends on such things as links in to and out from the site is greater and the ability to game high.

    They had to do something though and it was only a matter of time before it was gamed.

    I’m still holding a torch for traditional marketing though :)

  7. Absolutely correct. Money makes the web go round. A large chunk of it would not exist if not for this money. From that alone you can conclude that a fairly massive portion of links are in some way paid/compensated.

  8. SEMSpot says:

    I agree that most links are paid for in some way. Maybe not through a link broker or paid review, but by the sending of gifts, shirts, or whatever just to get a small writeup/review and a link. It might not have been bought through a broker, but it was more like a bribe with gifts and not cold hard cash.

  9. Avik says:

    Google needs to improve their algo and should shift their focus to the content of the site instead of finding out the paid links they bought. Sites with quality content should not be penalized whether they buy paid links or not. Otherwise the surfers will be more deprived than the webmasters.

    Recently British Airways have bought thousands of directory listings thru a well-known seo company. So what’s your take on that Mr Google? Will they be penalized for buying PR?

    Google got trapped within their link-mechanism. Hope they will come out soon.

  10. sem4u says:

    Great post Judith, but I don’t agree that “ALL LINKS ARE PAID LINKS”. I have given away and received links absolutely free. I also feel that I may have a PR penalty for one of my sites for linking out freely to sites complete with anchor text. Time will tell if the PR comes back.

  11. @SlightlyShadySEO – so very true. Without money, the internet would still be black with white or green text :)

    @SEMSpot Exactly my point! Getting to the nitty-gritty of good service equalling paying for a link just goes to show how silly Google looks trying to police paid links.

    @Avik – I think the problem is that links are now abused because they are used as a big ranking factor. There needs to be a new and different way to rank relevance or the way links are treated needs a more sofisticated bit of math. Who knows when they will escape the trap… I too hope it is soon.
    I doubt it matters with BA – their brand must be more important for conversions than web rankings.

    @sem4u – You may be one of the only people not motivated by something which can be equated to money – good service, a freebie, a drink down the pub, goods, etc… Good service, a great website, etc… these all cost money. Time is money – that’s part of my argument – but goods are also money. Most links come as the result of something… some event or experience. I gave it a lot of thought and could reduce those down to money.

    My big point in the blog post was that Matt Cutts was arguing that compensation should dictate a “nofollow” link. He implied that only editorial content could justify a “dofollow” (to steal a term) link in the money argument and I argued that editorial content is compensated – just not through direct cash payment. Spending thousands on hampers, booze, food, etc… may not be giving the journalist direct cash in hand but it is still a bribe.

  12. dzver says:

    So seo-ish. I run a blog, which does not have a single paid link, except adsense (http://dzver.com/blog/ – in bulgarian).

  13. Elise says:

    Don’t forget there’s 3rd-party payments and internal investment. I may not have a link on my blog posting that’s explicitly or implicitly paid for by someone else, whether they’re a customer or not, but I may have a link on my blog that I’ve paid for, myself, in terms of investing in the business. By writing the posting, linking to the community/partners/client targets/whatever, I’m investing some of my own time and reputation in the interests of building or running my online money-making enterprise.

    I’d submit that there’s very few blogs out there that are purely altruistic affairs, with absolutely zero intention of personal or collective end-state monetary or “in-kind” gain at the end of the road. At least blogs that the Google PR machine is interested in.

  14. Doug Heil says:

    Nice post and thoughts; but splitting hairs comes to mind.

    Your best idea is just to weigh ALL links coming in a lot less than they are now…. although I’ve always contended that incoming links are not as important as the SEO types say they are. Of course; that’s my take on things from ten years experience with this stuff.

  15. mattstoddart says:

    Until there is some intuitive, clairvoyant WP plugin that can automatically embed links, you have to assume that there’s motivation behind every outbound link on a site. And clearly the strongest motivation is always going to be cash or free stuff or whatever. Sure, there will ALWAYS be the editorially given links to other articles/resources but it gets real murky when you try to assume that Google could even attempt to tell the difference.

  16. Strong statement Judith but my cynical little heart agrees – all links in some way paid for.

    Even in the supposedly not for profit world of academia ‘links’ or rather citations are fiercely fought over. The levels to which certain institutions, facilities and even individual academics would go to would surprise you – PR parties, book launches, ‘special’ tours and schmoozing galore. This only increased with the rise of the now defunct RQF (Research Quality Framework – designed to guide higher research funding). It has long been a problem in bibliometric circles about how many citations are in fact valid and stem from pure hearts (it is believed that only approx 30% are). How many are vanity citations? How many are in fact really related to the article being presented? How many citations are made only for the purpose of having your work cited in return? How many are made to other researchers in the same faculty? Just swap citations for links and Google for citation indexes – same game, different field.

    As long as ‘citations’ are the main factor in determining funding and tier ranking, payment – in some form or other – for them will always occur.

  17. geri says:

    Yes, all links are paid… some just not with money.

  18. @Doug – It’s the only way out of this dilema but it screws their ranking algo because of the onpage manipulation, links were a great way of measuring something more. Early on it was fantastic but now, it’s just gamed. Links have to be discounted but there isn’t anything else to take their place yet.
    I’m also evil and a big fan of traditional marketing.

    @Trisha – nail… on… head! Brilliant analogy!

  19. Nick Wilsdon says:

    Well said Judith. Payment is there in some form or another. Personally I don’t think Google foresaw the amount people would be prepared to spend on links, or that it would come to threaten their own advertising programs. They moved the balance of power to links to avoid on-page spam which was effecting the user experience, techniques such as KWD stuffing were making the web unreadable.

    Still I’m sure they are working on ways of returning the balance to the content without, as you say Judith, moving us all back to onpage spam. It was very interesting to talk to Bill Slawski at PubCon concerning the patents on ranking of page ‘sections’ rather than ‘documents’. In the meantime, Matt will work on the social solution, lots of FUD and some tactical bannings.

  20. Julie Joyce says:

    Since Nick brought him up I’d like to take the chance to say that everyone in SEO should read Bill Slawski’s blog and talk to him. He is seriously brilliant and just as charming as he is intelligent. I am going to begin stalking him now…

  21. Ya Nick I so agree. It’s a difficult bit of math and figuring out they will have to do and frankly I don’t envy them the task, nor do I believe I could do a better job. Anything I can think of, I can think of ways to game.

    I enjoy SEO by the SEA and hope folk do follow him (he he – get it? do follow? *teeheehee*). I love the patents and wonder what we’ll be talking about in a year :)

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