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.

Tags: link buying, paid links, seo 101