The Truth About Paid Links

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A friend of mine (Mark from Beyond Big Marketing) who does great web design and who I collaborate with on SEO asked me an interesting question today.  “What’s the deal with paid links?”

Ok those weren’t his exact words, but he was asking about paid links.  He wanted to know more about how Google finds and classifies links as paid or non-paid and what the result of that classification is.

He was wondering because he’s been asked by clients if, by purchasing links, they could be penalized by Google.

What are Paid Links?

The phrase “paid links” is a broad one because it covers many different types of links.  The most obvious version of a paid link would be one that is found on an ad, such as an AdWords ad.

AdWords, in case you didn’t already know, is Google’s form of advertising online.  AdWords accounts for over 90% of Google’s revenue.  Without AdWords Google wouldn’t be what it is today.

But there are other online advertisers as well.  Yahoo! has an advertising platform as does Microsoft.  Plus there are many other smaller players.  And then there are banner ads and other forms of “preferential” placement on websites.

For example, have you ever gone to an online directory, such as Yellow Pages?  Many times the top listings found on their websites are paid listings.  In effect, the business owner is paying the site owner a fee to get their website found at the top of that website or directory.  This too is considered a paid link.

But there are also links which are paid for which aren’t as obvious.  Some link building firms employ the practice of buying links on other websites as part of their service.  And this is where the confusion comes in.  Because technically these too are paid links, but from Google’s point of view most are not classified as paid links.

Using Paid Links as Part of Your Link Building Strategy

The fact is, as a website owner, you are likely going to have to purchase some links to help your website succeed online.   And while Google does frown on paid links, the truth is there is it is difficult if not impossible for Google to identify most of the paid links out there.

For example, take the links at the beginning of this article to my friend’s website.  Are they paid or unpaid links?  Maybe 1 is and 1 isn’t? If so which?  If you can’t tell as the reader of the article, how is a piece of software supposed to know?  (FYI neither are paid links).

That’s the point I’m trying to make here – most of the links you see on most websites may or may not be paid.  How are you to tell?  Unless it is obviously flagged somehow by the site owner there is no way to tell if it has been paid for.

Are Paid Links Bad?

As I have illustrated above, there is no foolproof way to tell if a link is a paid link or not, unless it’s been somehow marked by the site owner.  But Google has said in their Webmaster Guidelines:

“Any links intended to manipulate a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site, or outgoing links from your site. Manipulating these links may affect the quality of our search results, and as such is a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.”

So what does this mean?  If I buy links I will be penalized, maybe even banned from Google?

The short answer is no.  Your site will NOT be affected by this clause unless you do abuse it by obviously trying to manipulate your rankings.  Notice the emphasis on obviously.

If you are careful and follow industry best practices for link building, having some paid links as part of your link profile is not bad.  In fact they are helpful because in the grand scheme of things it makes your link profile appear more natural, not less.

You read right – paid links can actually help you if done properly.

Think about it for a second.  If paid links really were enough to get a site penalized or even banned by Google, and they were easier to identify by Google, then your site wouldn’t exist in the Google rankings anymore, nor would mine.  Because our competition would be buying paid links and pointing them to our sites. 

And similarly, if it was that easy I’d just spend a few hundred dollars to wipe out my competitor’s rankings by buying links and pointing them to their sites.

But What About Those “Unnatural Linking” Message Google Sends Out?

Ah yes, the dreaded “Google Webmaster Tools Notice of Detected Unnatural Links” warning.  That is scary for sure, but is it an indicator of paid links?  Definitely not!

Remember when I said above that “Your site will NOT be affected by this clause unless you do abuse it by obviously trying to manipulate your rankings?”  Well this message is an indicator that you were obviously trying to manipulate rankings – whether it was through free or paid links.  The type of link doesn’t matter here.

Most likely if you’ve gotten a message like this it is because your site either grew links too quickly, or Google noticed a trend where your links were coming from “questionable” sources.

So what makes a link source “questionable”?  Well that’s difficult to define as Google hasn’t told anyone.  But if you read the article corresponding to this that I’ve written you may get an idea.

Any Link is a Good Link – With Caveats

The truth is most any link should be considered a good link, whether you have paid for it or not, because whether you have paid for it or not, Google has no way of easily identifying ALL the paid links online.  It would just take too much computing power to try and figure it out.  And even if they did, the guys that run these sites that sell paid links would figure it out and change their tactics so that Google would again not be able to detect them as paid.

The key to any effective link building package is consistency.  Don’t blast out a thousand requests (or buy a thousand links) in a month and stop.  You must maintain consistency in both the timing and quantity of link building to ensure it appears the most natural to Google.

And be prepared to lose some.  Google is always tweaking its quality algorithms.  Sites you got links from 6 months ago may not be considered “quality” sites in Today’s Google, just as some links you get today could be devalued 3, 6, or 9 months from now.

Link building, even though frowned upon by Google, is a necessary SEO task that MUST be completed on an ongoing basis to help you achieve and maintain high rankings in Google.  After all that’s what Google is built on – links.

When Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page first developed Google as a university project they determined that sites with the most links were probably the most trustworthy sites on the web.  They then devised a ranking algorithm called “PageRank” which analyses those links to find out which sites have the most.  The algorithm has gone through many changes since its inception around the turn of the century but at its core it is still the same.  Therefore Google, at its core, is also still the same.  In other words, the site with the most quality links tends to rank at or near the top of the search results page for searches.

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