Practical Ecommerce

SEO: To Buy Links, or Not to Buy Links?

If Google engineer Matt Cutts had his druthers, buying links would become an extinct SEO practice.

Cutts has addressed the topic of link-buying on a number of occasions on his blog and in blog comments elsewhere. He’s admonished webmasters who buy links for PageRank and encouraged webmasters instead to buy only links that have been “nofollowed” — in other words, where the rel=nofollow attribute has been added to the link so that the search engines do not count that link as a vote. He has stated in no uncertain terms that Google considers “buying text links for PageRank purposes to be outside our quality guidelines.”

Cutts outed the Berkeley college newspaper on his blog as a link seller. Cutts then warned that sites such as Dailycal.org that sell links may “lose their ability to give reputation.”

In other words, Google may revoke the site’s voting power — its ability to pass PageRank. That is of course disastrous for the link seller, but it is also bad news for the link buyer, who is unwittingly wasting money every month for that link.

In a comment on the O’Reilly Radar blog, Cutts revealed that “parts of Perl.com, Xml.com, etc., have not been trusted in terms of linkage for months and months.” His comments were significant: Google admitted it decreased the voting power of such excellent and useful sites as Perl.com and XML.com and downgraded the reputation value of some of the sites’ outbound links.

Beware of links?

The implication for the rest of us is clear: if you don’t want your site to suffer the same fate, you’d better tag your link ads as rel=nofollow so your advertisers won’t gain any PageRank.

How do you detect if a site has lost its ability to pass PageRank? Unfortunately, it’s not easy.

Cutts cautioned: “Remember that just because a site shows up for a link: command on Google, [that] does not mean it passes PageRank, reputation or anchortext.” There is, in fact, no way to know for sure — unless you work for Google on its Webspam team.

A link buyer can surmise the loss of the link seller’s voting power by a drop in his/her rankings commensurate with a drop in the rest of the link buyers’ rankings. Consider the case of link-selling California newspaper The Fresno Bee. At some point in time between 2004 and 2005, its reputation was rescinded by Google, as indicated by the hurried exit of nearly all the link-buying advertisers (which you can verify through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine).

When diagnosing whether a link seller still has his/her voting power, one tool I find helpful is the SEO-Links extension for Firefox. Simply hovering over the paid links allows me to quickly obtain rankings for the keywords targeted in the anchor text. The inference is that a site stacked with successful link advertisers is probably contributing to the rankings. If it weren’t, all those SEO-savvy advertisers probably wouldn’t be there.

What do SEO pros think?

Not surprisingly, search engine optimizers have a different view from Google on the issue of link-buying.

Christine Churchill, president of SEO consultancy KeyRelevance, describes the situation thus: “Search engines like to take the hard line and categorize things as either black or white. In some cases, they are actually grey. Taken to the extreme, your link from the local Chamber of Commerce could be considered link-buying.”

Indeed, a $300 annual directory submission to Yahoo! is, in effect, a paid link. But Google allows that one since there’s an editorial review process involved.

Personally, I think link-buying can be done legitimately, just like in the case of a Yahoo! directory submission. I don’t see the difference between a banner ad and a text-link ad — as long as you’re not intentionally trying to game the search engines and you expect to get traffic and brand visibility from the ads you place on websites.

To me, it seems unreasonable for Google to expect website owners to ensure that no PageRank is transferred in all the online advertising it facilitates. It is however, up to you, the advertiser, to ensure that all ads are placed on relevant websites and are not misleading, whether text-link ad or banner ad. It is then the publisher’s responsibility to screen all advertisers for relevance and ethical SEO behavior.

A site with paid links that span the spectrum of relevance — from casinos to mortgage brokers to pharmacies to jewelers to electronics merchants and all places in between — is certainly an obvious red flag to the search engines. Reputation should be passed only when the publisher can confidently vouch for the link ads and the sites to which they point (and to the sites to which they, in turn, point).

This is where a reputable and highly selective text-link broker, such as LinkExperts, can be invaluable, as you vet both the publishers and the advertisers.

Stephan Spencer
Stephan Spencer
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Comments ( 12 )

  1. Legacy User January 10, 2007 Reply

    Stephan, I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head. In my opinion, there are different ways to approach “buying links” all with different outcomes. Some of the ways are black hat, some are white, and some are grey; gambling sites on dailycal.org that is black. A fortune 500 enterprise technology company promoting servers on the enterprise technology page/section of a major publication that has been approved by the publication – that is white…and much falls in the middle.

    At LinkExperts, we ask ourselves with each and every transaction we help facilitate –does this help Google? Does this help the publisher? Does this help users of search engines? Does this create value in the Internet? If the answer is not yes to every question, we cannot move forward with this link partnership.

    Advertisers and publishers need to approach this topic with the same level of sensitively and dimensional analysis. The quick buck is not worth it to do it any other way.

    Like all markets, this will work itself out with Google’s invisible handle – the ability to determine and weight relevancy and trust – which over time leave the companies that ask the four questions in the clear and others left behind.

    – *Seth Besmertnik*

  2. Legacy User January 11, 2007 Reply

    I agree completely about the Yahoo Directory comparison, it is in effect buying a link, even if its reviewed, its done to influence the search engine results!

    – *omar*

  3. Legacy User January 11, 2007 Reply

    All right link buying is really a worthless excercise. It do not add any value to the end user experience. What about Google Adsense Publishing unrelated ads on websites?
    How can Google be so biased? webmaster – http://www.seotrends.in

    – *Sagar Kumar*

  4. Legacy User January 11, 2007 Reply

    The rating of a websites importance based on the amount of inbound links is patently ridiculous. It is a system that is primed to be defrauded IE: Link Buying.
    So much for quality content being the main ranking criteria….links > content = poor relevant results.
    I know Google holds 49+% of the search market, but lets be honest most of that is due to press hype. If you compare the current results of Google, Yahoo and MSN "Windows Live" both MSN and Yahoo return much better relevant results than Google currently returns.

    – *Rover*

  5. Legacy User January 11, 2007 Reply

    I am scratching my head…regarding this statement:
    "LinkExperts, can be invaluable, as you vet both the publishers and the advertisers"
    HOW HOW HOW HOW HOW
    Do you recommend this company(linkExpert) when it their network is very small. I am under the impression that it is very small because when I visited their site(after reading this article) I didnt really get many link options to come up in my search. Keywords: "gifts," "flowers," "gift baskets," "food," "chocolate," "candy," ect…
    Those are very popular keywords. Infact flowers is the biggest gift giving niche in the gift industry. Chocolate and candy revealed no results.
    Also, I dont think you would be able to get more than a handful of targeted links for any of them.
    Maybe I am missing something…I dont think so but would be very happy to be shown a different light.
    I think it is a great service idea and would have loved it if they were bigger.

    – *ScratchingMyHead*

  6. Legacy User January 14, 2007 Reply

    What it REALLY come down to is how can Google detect a paid link? Unless Google have direct access to my PayPal account, all they can do is make educated guesses, based on things like:
    - trigger words within the site suggesting they sell links.
    - page layout, paid links tend to reside in the margins.
    - links not relevant to the sites topic.
    Even if Google get really good at detecting paid links, itll just mean that SEOs and webmasters will need to mask what they do.
    This will always work:
    - No detectable mention of the fact you sell links anywhere on your site. You could use an image that says "want linkage, email me".
    - Place the link within the normal content of your page, exactly where you would place a non-paid-for-link.
    - Limit the practice to one unique link per page, and to sites that have content related to yours.
    The above would be un-detectable by Google unless they have staff manually checking sites, and they actually email you and ask about paying for a link.

    – *Rob Skelton*

  7. Legacy User January 11, 2007 Reply

    I got some answers to my questions(spoke with linkexperts).

    Benefits of going with link exchange:
    1) Sites that will be linked to you are screened.
    2) One way links are better
    3) Better Link Quality(page rank)
    4) Easier to find links

    Definitely interested in their services…hope their network GROWS.

    – *ScratchingMyHead*

  8. Legacy User January 11, 2007 Reply

    Hi ScratchingMyHead, we have several flower related clients currently using our services, I can definitely help you find a few sites within our network that would be relevant to your niche. If you like please email me at jeremy at linkexperts dot com.

    – *Jeremy Duboys*

  9. Legacy User January 23, 2007 Reply

    Great discussion here folks, which is exactly what I was hoping to spur on with my article. Personally, I favor link baiting over link building, and I favor link building over link buying. But thats just me. And your mileage may vary.

    – *Stephan Spencer*

  10. Legacy User August 8, 2007 Reply

    This is Agape blog site – Interesting blog.

    – *Agape blogs*

  11. Backlinks February 23, 2009 Reply

    The rating of a websites importance based on the amount of inbound links is patently ridiculous. It is a system that is primed to be defrauded IE: Link Buying. So much for quality content being the main ranking criteria….links > content = poor relevant results. I know Google holds 49+% of the search market, but lets be honest most of that is due to press hype. If you compare the current results of Google, Yahoo and MSN "Windows Live" both MSN and Yahoo return much better relevant results than Google currently returns.

  12. JoomlaSoftware July 5, 2009 Reply

    I am working for a SEO company, thesearchenginepros.com. I am also looking for similar services but not yet decided what I should have to…Looking forward to more about these tips.

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