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The debate surrounding paid links

Posted on 10.31.2007
To Buy or not to Buy?

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Buying links to obtain better search engine rankings has been a part of website promotion for many years. And although legitimate businesses like Text-Link- pioneered the creation of a link buying marketplace many years ago, until fairly recently paid links remained a surreptitious activity. No doubt, the understanding that Google frowns upon the practice is keeping paid links from exploding into a larger economic force. However, with millions of dollars exchanging hands every month — including money from prestigious advertisers in the Fortune 500 — and with million-dollar investments in companies that facilitate the commerce in links, it has become difficult not to acknowledge that link selling has broken into the mainstream. But despite the popularity of paid links, the practice continues to be controversial. And anyone contemplating purchasing them should be aware of the inherent risks.

Search engines continue to be hostile towards paid links because they unnaturally affect their organic listings. But some argue that organic listings are already influenced by the wealthiest companies regardless of whether links are being paid for because only the deepest pockets can afford to promote their websites and attract the most links. However, it is absolutely true that paid links can tip the balance for a website by helping it rank higher and that’s something the search engines have taken steps to combat, with varying degrees of success.

Is link buying for everybody?

The typical link buyer ranges from a professional search engine manipulator to blue chip companies and everyone in between. Though the practice is fairly common, it’s important to know there are risks involved that range from the benign to a complete banning from search engine results pages (SERPs). Understanding these risks will help in making a better decision when buying links.

What, me worry?

It’s commonly understood that search engines have a difficult time algorithmically determining whether a link was purchased or not. While it’s not known to what extent Google is able to determine if a link is sponsored, the search giant has become extraordinarily proficient at detecting irrelevant links and causing them to pass little to no PageRank. It has also been recently confirmed that Google is manually graphing paid link networks and selectively devaluing link sellers. Prior to this, it had been clear for at least a year some paid links were not passing PageRank as they had in the past. So it’s important to verify the potency of any purchased links and drop them if you’re not seeing positive results within a reasonable time period. Often, the worst that can happen is that the links won’t work. A site receiving neutralized links will continue to rank how it would normally rank without the paid links. Drastically penalizing a site using paid links would open up the algorithm to competitive sabotage scenarios, so it’s difficult to visualize a situation where Google would penalize a site beyond not allowing them to receive a benefit.

Serious risk of penalties

Perhaps the most immediate risk to a website comes from its competitors. Google actively encourages webmasters to report link buyers and has made it easy via their Webmaster Tools website, as well as from search results pages. Once a search engine has removed a website from their index, it can be difficult to have it unbanned, especially with Yahoo. Unfortunately, once a search engine bans a site for buying links, the webmaster must clean up everything else on the site before the search engines let it pass a hand review — including extensive reciprocal link pages and other fairly common SEO tactics considered excessive. In essence, this means removing a significant amount of SEO previously performed on the site. Otherwise, it won’t pass a hand check and be readmitted.

Assessing acceptable risk: low profile vs. high profile links One common practice is to purchase inbound links from media websites, particularly those involved with news, television and radio. These links have proven effective for boosting a site into the top ranks for important keyword phrases. The downside to this strategy is these links are easy to spot. A simple backlink search will make those links stand out and possibly make your site a target for a spam report. This technique has to be weighed according to your personal tolerance for acceptable risk.

The lowest risk paid link strategy involves more work. The goal of a low-risk strategy is to obtain links that are not apparently paid or do not appear to be exclusively for boosting link popularity, such as a link in exchange for a charitable donation. The lowest risk links involve contacting prospects directly and negotiating an equitable fee for placing a link on their blog or website. Many sites accept advertising but it takes a considerable amount of time to identify the best prospects. On the upside, these links, when placed on quality websites that have substantial amount of backlinks from relevant sites, can provide an excellent boost across all three of the major search engines.

Evaluating paid links

A common method for evaluating a paid link is to use Google’s toolbar PageRank indicator. Unfortunately, this method is superficial. A better way is to check the backlinks of a website. A site that has several thousand backlinks from a variety of websites (and not just a few run-of-site links) is preferred, and natural citations from other sites are ideal. Look for a diversity of inbound links, not just links to the home page. Sites that have numerous inbound links to different articles or pages and will give a good return on your advertising expenditure. Similarly, a site with a large amount of inbound links from trusted websites, such as big brands, dot edu and dot gov top level domains are normally judged to be high quality. A low-quality site is one that is linked from other sites within a narrowly expanded network. It’s very easy to attain a PageRank of five, which is why I say that using the toolbar as a measurement of quality is superficial — it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Paid links are big business and it’s only going to grow. Attaining natural links is difficult and many find that buying them is an important part of their optimization campaign. Determine the appropriate paid-link strategy according your tolerance for risk, and the resources you have to devote to it, including time. Buying links is not necessarily a quick fix but, for many webmasters, paid links represent an important part of their link building efforts.

About The Author: Roger Montti, aka martinibuster, is a speaker at the Pubcon Internet Marketing Conference and moderator at WebmasterWorld where he moderates the AdSense, Link Development and Yahoo Search Forums. Roger is currently accepting clients for Site Reviews, Link Development Strategy Planning and SEO Strategy Development.


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