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May 07, 2007

Paid Links Debate - The Experts Weigh In

By Li Evans

Links A few weeks ago, Matt Cutts stirred a great big pot of controversy in our industry.  I weighed in and asked our audience "Would You Report Paid Links?"  Matt's post raised a lot of questions and tempers out  in the forums, on ThreadWatch and in other blogs.  It is likely this will probably still be stewing after Matt gets back from his vacation.  There are obviously very strong opinions from all different sides of this debate.

I'm not here to say buying links is right or wrong.  I'm also not here to say selling links is right or wrong either.  We live in a world of free choice, and with that choice comes the realization there could be consequences for the choices that are made. 

Google has marked their line in the sand.  The other search engines have been less vocal on this front, so does it matters to them as much?  Perhaps that's another question for another day.  What matters is that as marketers we are well aware of all of this and we keep our client's well being at the forefront.

A week or so ago, I approached to some of my colleagues in the industry who I consider to be well versed in this area.  We can call them the Gurus, the Experts, the Great Ones - which ever the title you'd like to bestow them, lucky for us, they agreed to share their opinions with the Search Marketing Gurus Audience.  I posed two questions to each one I asked:

  • What is your opinion of buying links for clients?
  • What is your opinion of sites that sell links but do not indicate they are paid?

This post is rather lengthy, but I promise I've made it worth the read.  There's quite a few people who's weighed in, so lets find out what they think about buying links for clients:

Lee Odden, TopRank Online Marketing Blog
As far as link buying for clients, I've never got on board with that tactic. Not so much because I think it's unethical, but because it's advertising and we focus on pretty much every aspect of online marketing other than advertising, i.e., organic SEO, blogs, online PR and social media vs paid search, paid inclusion or other types of online ads. 

I realize lots of other prominent SEOs play in this area and we've simply been satisfied with using our public relations centric methods of link building. When we acquire links, we want them to be long term and permanent without being tied to any form of ongoing payment.  If other SEO's want to buy links, then that's their choice. Buying links outside of directories is just not something we've been recommending to our clients.

Shari Thurow, Grantastic Designs & Search Engine Visibility Book
I have very mixed feelings about purchasing links for both long- and short-term link development. In most cases, I feel that if you must purchase a link, objectivity is lost.

For example, I don't have a problem with the Yahoo directory or Business.com. The submission fee is a submission fee. You are paying for the time it takes for a Web directory employee to evaluate your site and, if it meets the directory's terms and guidelines, to add it to the database. There is no question that there is a submission fee.

When money is involved, including partnerships, I question the objectivity of link building, and I think there is a large portion of the SEO industry that is completely unethical about it. The word I keep emphasizing is "objectivity." Once that is compromised, the link value decreases.

The idea of citation and co-citation is partially based on scholarly writing. When a source of information is outstanding, authors cite that information source in their bibliographies. The citation is given for the quality of information -- no payment involved (at least this is true in an ideal, objective situation).

As much as I admire all of the commercial Web search engines for incorporating link development into their algorithms, I am a bit stunned that the creators did not have enough forethought to see that: (1) most people do not think and cite information like scholars, (2) people lie, and (3) monetization often ruins objectivity.

Greg Meyers, Commerce360 & SEM Geek
When I propose link buying for a specific client, I have to carefully evaluate a number of variables before providing them with a strategic plan as well as the ever-popular “setting the expectation” of how, what and why they will benefit from it. I also have to emphasize that Link buying is only a part of an SEO plan and there have been genuine instances where it did not make sense to pursue. However, if a client does qualify for a link buying plan, I make it very clear to them that this is a very methodical process of execution which entails having a strong level of relevancy from the url to the number of link and relevancy of the site in which the links are located.

When identifying a potential candidate for link buying, I look at the following before making a recommendation:
• Client’s SEO competition
• Size “critical mass” of the website
• List of all Product/service categories
• Keyword evaluation (volume, saturation, etc…)

Andy Beal, Marketing Pilgrim
I think buying links for a client has its place in any search marketing campaign. However, I would avoid buying any link without first conducting extensive research to determine if the link will truly benefit a client's site. What other links are on the page, what is the theme of the page, can I find evidence that the page is passing PageRank? These are all important questions to ask. In the end, I'd want a link from a site that was highly relevant to that of my client's and with that in mind, I don't think it matters whether money exchanged hands or not.

Chris Sherman, Search Engine Land
As long as the client knows that it's a paid link, and as long as the link drives traffic, no problem.  Buying links to boost rankings is a gray area - but again, if the client understands the potential risks it's probably OK. After all, Google's primary business model is selling links, if you think about it!

Christine Churchill, Key Relevance
If I have a client and there is a site in the same niche as the client but not a competitor, it makes good business sense to pursue a relationship.  In the brick and mortar world that is doing business.  On the web, developing that business relationship may involve a link because that is the language of the web, but it is more a side affect of expanding the business relationship than the goal.

If you read Google's Webmaster Guidelines, they clearly spell out that it's good to submit your site to relevant directories like the Open Directory and Yahoo.  Unless you're a non-profit, you have to pay to be considered for the Yahoo Directory, so technically that's a paid link.  Chambers of Commerce and Professional Business organization sites often provide links for "paying" members.  So, in a way Google is advocating buying links.  I think that the key is that the link is a natural extension of the business relationship.

Frank Watson, Forex Capital Markets
I think buying links is all relative. You risk wasting your money if Google wipes them out, but if someone has them I don't think Google will blacklist you for it... too arbitrary and others can buy links and have them pointed to you and get you blockede... so not likely. The other angle of this issue is why would bought links be any different from links you talk people into giving to you. You are paying with your time and effort to get those links - many cases more than what a link would cost to buy.

How can it be O.K. for me to hire a person to call web sites and talk them into giving me a link (just another form of buying links) but if I go to a site and buy one I risk wasting my money.

Anne Kennedy, Beyond Ink
Buying text links from a broker for the sole purpose of improving rank for a given query is a short-sighted and ineffective way to spend marketing dollars. Chase customers, not algorithms. The well of link sources is virtually bottomless . . . vendors, suppliers, local organizations, trade associations, reviews, social networking sites, vertical directories. Some cost nothing, some cost time, some cost money. The act of buying links is not the issue; rather, the real question is whether the links are relevant and useful to visitors.

Bill Slawski, SEO By The Sea
One of my co-workers in an office I worked within was a media buyer.   She would carefully consider the needs and audiences of clients and hunt down web sites and newsletters and other locations where our clients could pay to have their banner advertisements and link ads placed.  The practice seemed like one that was advertising as usual, except instead of finding advertising opportunities on radio or television or print publications, her focus was the online world.  The Web is a medium, just like those other means of communication.  Buying links for clients isn't any different than buying print ads in the newspaper, or adspots on TV or the radio.

Debra Mastaler, Alliance Link
IMO, the real question here is - if you know Google is openly against paid links, will you still pursue them?  Since I've never had an issue with this advertising tactic my answer is yes.  Most, if not all links are paid for in some way whether it's financial remuneration or implied promise.  If you try to argue that co citation has no cost involved I'd urge you to look at the process behind it and the unspoken expectation in the front.  I don't buy site-wides or pay for links placed in sponsored areas so I've only had to tweak what I do a little since Google has become vocal about paid links.  I don't think their displeasure with this form of advertising will stop the trade as much as it will drive people underground.

Now what about those sites that sell links but do not indicate they are paid?

Lee Odden, TopRank Online Marketing Blog
I think publishers should be able to sell advertising inventory whether it be banners, side bar ads or text links as they see fit. If the search engines aren't smart enough to disallow the affect these kinds of links have on search rankings, then it's their problem, not the publisher's.  Also, in the case of paid reviews on blogs, I think it's a good practice to disclose those that are paid because that transparency fosters more credibility with the readership, not because it has anything to do with search engines.

Shari Thurow, Grantastic Designs & Search Engine Visibility Book
I am waiting for that bubble to burst. The place I am waiting for it to burst is on a news Web site. Maybe it will be on some other type of Web site.

I am not ignorant enough to believe that news sites are objective, as that is the image that the news media wants to project. News sites need to make money in order for the site to continue its existence. An ad rep only sees that he/she needs to make money. So text-link ads are sold regardless of Web site quality. Monetization often ruins objectivity.

What is going to happen is that the general public will eventually figure out the link fraud. And it is fraud. I have done some informal usability testing on paid links within news sites. Credibility is considerably less when usability participants are told that the text links are ads. The expressions on their faces are amazing. They feel they are being lied to.

Then again, isn't that the whole point of marketing and advertising in general? "Don't let people know that this product placement in a TV show is paid for." This attitude is certainly applicable to Web sites.

Meaning? There is plenty of room for other search engines to emerge in this industry. Monetization should not sacrifice objectivity.

Greg Meyers, Commerce360 & SEM Geek
I believe that these websites should keep themselves anonymous because honestly, they have earned their right in this market to profit from all of the work that it took them to get to that level of organic rank. I say if Google has the right to constantly change algorithms as well as have the audacity to ask us for this information, we as the general audience, have the same rights to take advantage of their algorithm(s). Were not asking them for the details of their algorithm(s), we are simply using our own collective knowledge and constant “trial & error” to get the most out of it for ourselves and our clients.

Andy Beal, Marketing Pilgrim
I try to avoid situations where I impose my own principles on other web site owners. That said, I don't see why any web site owner should feel compelled to disclose paid links on a per link basis. I have links on my own site that are clearly of the "paid" variety - while still being highly relevant - but I wouldn't label every link that had been bought. Why would I? I wouldn't have done so before Google came along,  so I'm not about to start. I think the gray area is when you start discussing or endorsing a company that you have a business relationship with. In those situations, I disclose the relationship.

Chris Sherman, Search Engine Land
It depends on the site.  If the site claims some sort of authority or neutrality, it needs to have disclosure. A personal blog or non-authoritative site needn't worry about it.

Christine Churchill, Key Relevance
In keeping with my interpretation of the spirit of the guidance provided by the Federal Trade Commission, I practice full disclosure on any ads shown on sites I own.

As for Google wanting us to report sites that don't mark links as paid, I don't see that as my job and quite frankly, I find it very distasteful for Google to ask webmasters to be tattletales.  Google is trying to make it easy to report sites that don't comply with their wishes in an effort to raise the risk to sites that sell links.  If it becomes dangerous for sites to sell links (or if even if there is an appearance of it being dangerous), then fewer sites will participate in paid linking networks.

I have several concerns about the policy Matt Cutts announced.  It's conceivable that companies will report their competitors as violators.  These may be totally innocent sites where the site may be simply listing links to sites they thought useful for their readers.  The question is: where is Google going to place the burden of proof?  I would hope Google would practice an "innocent until proven guilty" approach, but on many sites it may be hard to tell.  Sadly, one casualty of this new Google crusade may be that sites become afraid to link for fear of being accused of the links being paid.  That goes against the spirit of the web and sounds like the perfect ingredients for a witch hunt.

Frank Watson, Forex Capital Markets
The sellers that hide are doing it not only for themselves but also the purchasers.... if it was known then the possibility the links are negated hurts both seller and buyer.

I have always been a believer in the expression "Fair exchange is no robbery".... links need to be looked at that way. The spam sites are still the spam sites... real sites competing against them have to try some things that while not black hat can be called questionable. You are not doing your clients or company a service by ignoring methods that work because they may eventually get dropped.

Anne Kennedy, Beyond Ink
Websites that sell links without indicating they paid are beneath contempt, like all deceptive practices that benefit vendors at clients’ (often uninformed) expense.

Bill Slawski, SEO By The Sea
The Federal Trade Commission has published a set of guidelines regarding advertising that apply to advertising online, and advertisers and publishers of advertisements should be aware of those guidelines.  They are located at: Dot Com Disclosures Advertising and Marketing on the Internet: Rules of the Road

Are links that don't endorse products ads if they are paid for?  Are they references or are they endorsements?  Is the act of including a link on your page to a site that offers products or services one that is considered to be advertising?

In Tim Berners-Lee's article on Links and Law, he states that linking on the web is predicated upon the notion that a link by itself is to be considered a reference, with no implied meaning, and not an endorsement.  But he does go on to note that the way a link is presented may be construed to hold more meaning:

So the existence of the link itself does not carry meaning. Of course the contents of the linking document can carry meaning, and often does. So, if one writes "See Fred's web pages (link) which are way cool" that is clearly some kind of endorsement. If one writes "We go into this in more detail on our sales brochure (link)" there is an implication of common authorship. If one writes "Fred's message (link) was written out of malice and is a downright lie" one is denigrating (possibly libellously) the linked document. So the content of hypertext documents carry meaning often about the linked document, and one should be responsible about this. In fact, clarifying the relative status of the linked document is often helpful to the reader.

I have a website that focuses upon the community that I live within, and in the sidebar on that page, I link to all of the local restaurants and shops near the center of town that I could find links for.  None of those links have been paid for, and none of them make claims about the places listed.  Are they references or are they advertisements? None of them make claims about one business over another.  If they were paid for without endorsing any of them, would I have to include a disclaimer?  It's a good question.  I'm not completely sure of the answer.  I'd be tempted to include one.

Debra Mastaler, Alliance Link
Shouldn't come as a surprise that I have no problem with this.  Companies co-promote offline all the time and no one points fingers or feels duped.  If you honestly believe McDonalds offers discount coupons via their tray liners to Busch Gardens out the goodness of their hearts - I have a bridge to sell you. 

If a blogger I read regularly wants to incorporate a paid product review into something she's written, that's fine.  If it's relevant I'll probably read along and if it's off topic I'll ignore it.  Continue with the off topic posts and eventually I'll stop reading and take her off my blogroll.  When that happens she's lost more than I have.

Cameron Olthuis also weighed in by pointing me to his post entitled "Buying Links? Make Sure You Have a Well-Rounded Link Profile" to explain what his thoughts are on this issue, too.

So, there you have it, several opinions.  I think it just goes to prove, it's your client's welfare that needs to come first when treading into this murky area of SEO!


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Nice post!..
Practically speaking. The rich get richer theory applies here. To start of a blog or site is very difficult these days. You need links to get links. Even if you're the most brilliant writer in the world. You've got to be seen to develop your credibility.. Google has made it so that inbound links are a way to be seen.

So... do I purchase links initially so that my site rises and I get some exposure.? I'll be that many of my competition have purchased links. So I might have to as well.

How does it make a difference if I state that these links are paid or not?

I think Matt Cutts is going to have a tough time with this. The internet is based on the economics of things.. It's ALL paid links!

Google is going wrong path here. I agree with Monty you need links to get Google traffic which allows you to get more links, but how do you get the initial links? This is circular reasoning and the reason why on almost all things a search in Google is simply returning sites from old well linked sites no matter how irrelevent they may be for that search term.


News papers sell adverts, advertorials and quite often articles and whole issues for the right buck. Google needs to wake up from their dream state. Organic search is as commercial as any other form of marketing.

Rules are welcome but Google is leading organic search to death. And this is normal. If you had their power and traffic wouldn't you be a little unhappy about distributing it freely? And how about the fat cat investors behind the company? They are after squeezing every last penny.

Google doesn't like people making money, despite it being the biggest money making machine there is.

To me it is the same as the Yahoo directory and the rest of the confounded paid directories.

Some think it is bad just because it is currently tricking Google's (GOOG) wonderful algorithm.


And it has to be done properly anyway to be most effective.


spammy search results...

At one time Franchising and Pay Per Click were seen as unethical. No one is impartial or unbiased when talking about this topic.

When I read an article like this, I wonder who taught these people to write. SEO was not defined up front. I also wonder, what are they really saying?
As far as links that are payed for, hopefully they are defined as such. Then they can be knowledgeably used or ignored. Anything else is just a lie.

Michael -
I would answer your question with, why does that matter?

I asked these people their opinion in a very casual manner, and this is how they answered. Their point came across loud and clear, unlike understanding what you mean by "SEO was not defined upfront."

Unfortunately, I don't think anyone understands what the point is you are trying to relate, so could you please clarify?

Paid links will always exist, and if Google is not very careful with this marketing schema they may end up devaluing their own paid links [adwords, adsense]. People are not stupid and free seo quality links will then be doled out through hardcore seo renegades.

I find it hilarious that someone finds not disclosing paid links as beneath contempt. A paid link is absolutely no different than product placement in a television show. Is it beneath contempt for the networks to not digitally insert a "PAID" logo over all of the products seen on a show?

Nice to hear words from professionals. Thanks!

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