Are Paid Links Evil?

Aug 21, 2007 • 8:43 pm | comments (9) by twitter | Filed Under Search Engine Strategies 2007 San Jose

Search engines, especially Google, say don't do 'em. But some search marketers say paid links work. Are paid links subverting search quality? Or are they simply a fact of life, here to stay? We explore the issues, in this session. Moderator:

* Jeffrey K. Rohrs, VP, Agency & Search Marketing, ExactTarget


* Michael Gray, President, Atlas Web Service * Matt Cutts, Software Engineer Guru, Google Inc. * Todd Malicoat, Independent Search Engine Marketing Consultant, stuntdubl * Greg Boser, President, WebGuerrilla LLC * Andy Baio, Founder, &

First, they showed a really cool link at Rentvine. Here it is. It totally rocks.

Matt is up first. Are paid links evil? He says that this is the wrong question. But the right question is - Do paid links that pass PR violate search engine quality guidelines? The answer is yes.

The FTC has said that you must disclose whether you are being paid to market. Disclosure on the web: the web is used by both people (surfers) and machines (search engines)

What is adequate disclosure on the web? It is understood by both machines and people.

Make a clear disclosure: this won't pass PageRank - - Redirect URL blocked by robots.txt - redirect through URL that does 302 - JavaScript - nofollow - Meta tag with nofollow

Some people say that Google says that you can't buy links. That's a common misconception. You can buy within search engine guidelines: AdBrite, Quigo, IndustryBrains, adCenter, YPN, etc. But we do have a problem with links that are used to pass PageRank.

He shows an example of a type of link that is a Linux site that has a bad neighborhood linked on the bottom with unrelated links. Furthermore, there is a sponsored links tag but it's an image and doesn't get larger when you resize the font.

It can be difficult to buy links - think about this: - Buy for a limited time? - Buy run-of-site links? Buying links on every single page? - Buying links from sloppy sellers? - Checking if a link seller cloaks? - Can a competitor spot your paid links?

How do we tackle paid links? Google uses algorithms and also detects it with humans. Recently, Rand Fishkin posted about paid links - and detected all but one link algorithmically. Google is willing to take strong action against PPP links.

Then Matt gives us a bunch of links and we clap.

Michael Gray is next. He's wearing a Google shirt. He says that Matt paid him $100 to wear the shirt (in the interest of disclosure).

His first firm statement is that "Google is not the government." It's just a corporate message. Google is not the covernment.

Google developed an algorithm based on links. That is flawed. They expect you to change your business model and implementations to compensate for flaws in their algorithm. Last quarter, Google made 1.12 billion dollar. They want you to sacrifice your profits to keep them profitable. They want you to do that for free. (The audience is going crazy.)

nofollow was implemented to combat blogspam, but Michael says that it hasn't helped. 3 months later, Google changed the rules. Google then took advantage of this to keep them more profitable.

What constitutes a paid link? Google has linked to people. If you blog about the Google dance and blog about it, you're giving Google link love. There's no way to tell if these links are paid or not.

Why Google is opposed to paid links: they work. It's nearly impossible to rank in any competitive SERP without paid links, except if you're Wikipedia. Google runs a competitive advertising product and they want to keep it profitable.

Creating Fear Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) - Google tries to convince you that by buying or selling paid links, you are breaking the law or unethical. Google is not the government. They cannot pass the laws and cannot judge your ethics. (audience adds: "yet.") - Google creates fear by losing your ranings and traffic.

Google has overstepped its bounds. Its mission statement is to organize the world's information. They do not have the mission to tell you how to set up your site. They do not have a mission to buy or sell advertising. They do not have a mission to tell you how to run your business.

Thank you.

The audience ROARS.

Todd Malicoat covers 7 reasons why he's a link libertarian: 1. Semantics: Michael has great points - when is a paid link paid? Every link has a relative value and cost. 2. Incentive-blame the algorithm: In 2000, we had those PageRank pixels that showed you how much you should pay for links. They help your rankings. Top rankings are costly. The algorithm encourages linking. Off-page relevance detection was lacking. 3. Economics of paid linkings: the indifference principle - all else being equal, someone should benefit from a marketplace like this. Efficient markets hypothesis. 4. Transparency and Relevancy: advertising has never been fully transparent. As a consumer, I like it. As a marketer, I love it. As a SEO, it's not my responsibility. Paid links help with traffic. Bill Gross proved paid advertising was more relevant. 5. Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt vs. Transparency 6. Competition is Good: AdSense needs a competitor. A note on buying links - places to buy links - Wholesale, Text Link Ads, Google, YSM, Text Link Brokers 7. There is such as search thing as Search Engines. - Trade links with sites that benefit your users - Buy links to increase visibility of site - Never use nofollow becasue it wouldn't exist.

If you are convinced that paid linking is viable, know your competitors are going to do the same thing - so link costs may rise. You may incur a manual review or a penalty. The invisible nofollow - you think you're getting PR and you're not. Size matters. Big brands = strategic media placement. Small brands = link buying. When is black really white? When your brand is big enough and you will go through the fallout unscathed.

Caution to buying links: intent and extent: don't fish with dynamite. Stay under the radar.

Why I will never report paid links: my competitors teach me a lot. I doubt much would get done. I buy links too and think it's okay.

A modest proposal: links should not hurt. Sellers should not be responsible. FUD should not be spread for short term gain. Let the market calibrate itself.

Takeaways: stay relevant, don't talk about it, don't make it obvious, disclosure from FTC was an opinion, understand what works and why, and understand the risks

Todd Friesen talks and says that there's a middle ground that is being presented. Google will say "all paid links are evil" but he illustrates the harder competitive over-the-top industries like online casinos. Are you going to research your links or not?

The egregious stuff like online viagra does ruin the web. But you need to also be relevant and compete. If you follow all the rules, you might not compete. Stay in your space.

Todd's point: if you do this, do it with your eyes open. In the worst case, you're flushing your money down the drain. Outside of the buyer and the seller, there's nobody knows who bought that link and if it was paid for at all.

Greg Boser is next. He says if he's really late, he'll drive really slowly in the carpool lane. Matt mentioned the pollution of the web, but Todd pointed out that Matt's example is very extreme. Google should stop rewarding sites that does the Digg effect, etc. It takes Google away from contextual relevance. Siteowners should be responsible for good quality links that won't pollute the web.

The Yahoo directory is filled with a bunch of crap. There's a lot of affiliate spammy sites. Yahoo is taking your money to "evaluate" your site to see if it's worth being added ot the directory, but the quality isn't there.

Let the siteowner make good judgments about who they do business with and make it contextually relevant. Stop rewarding anchor text to the degree that you do and it will go away on its own.

Last is Andy Baio who is the founder of which was acquired by Yahoo. He thinks that quality links are not polluting the web. It's closer to the extreme cases that Matt was illustrating.

He wants to let people know he's speaking on behalf of everyday users, not Yahoo. Everyone wants the web to be usable and they all have a stake. It's a question of ethics: are you making the web better or are you making it worse? Some people don't realize the implications of this form of advertising. Most brokers won't resort to email spam or comment spam. You don't do it because it's unethical.

You shouldn't trick search engines and do shady operations. This alters the results in an unnatural way.

Google is not purging some sites from the top of the SERPs because these sites are not as good. Link spam is still effective in a lot of categories.

Popups were novel once but they impacted the quality of life online eventually. Paid links seem innocuous but may go in the same direction.

Matt Cutts adds:

If you want to have a long term impact in the SERPs, you want links that stick in the long term. Look for whitehat ways to get editorially chosen links.

Previous story: Fun with Dynamic Web Sites


Sam I Am

08/22/2007 08:26 am

Excellent write up and I hope Google takes this to heart. The fear now is causing a worse situation than has ever existed....


08/22/2007 09:25 am

Great writeup... I appreciate this not being able to sit in the auditorium for this show.. cheers christoph


08/22/2007 10:20 am

Great capture. I could almost feel the heat of the atmosphere during the session while reading. And I'm glad there is plenty of argumentative opposition to Google's point of view on this issue.

Michael Martinez

08/22/2007 06:06 pm

Google is not going to win this one. They need to back off on the anti-linking campaign and focus on improving search results quality. Links don't determine quality.


08/23/2007 09:50 am

Surely by penalising paid links in such a way, Google is opening a door to SEO sabotage? Doesn’t this make it so easy to just buy links to competitor’s sites that will ruin their rankings? And if the competitor site owner denies that they purchased the paid links (once they have been reported) will they then benefit from the resulting link popularity, if Google decides not to penalise them? Or do they have an answer to that? And if so can’t that answer be applied earlier on in the process?

Doug Heil

08/25/2007 01:27 pm

The underlaying theme in your little SEO community seems to be the idea that Google should not be able to tend to their own website, but should let the SEO community dictate to Google what they can and cannot do. Is this the way it appears, or maybe I'm just a little naive design/seo firm who has no clue? Google does not care one bit how you build your site or if you buy and sell links. They "never" have cared about it. Google gives "all" of you the opportunity to use their "free" tools anytime you wish. They give you the freedom to read their webmaster guidelines and do as "you" wish in building your own site and acquiring your own incoming links, and linking to any other site you choose. Google does not care how you do any of that. Please understand however; if you decide to not follow any of the free advice Google is giving you, don't expect Google to sit idly by and allow the SEO community to exploit anything and everything they can to get the "free" traffic that Google offers as well. Google has spam fighters who's only job is to "protect" their SERPS. The ONE thing that could bring down Google, and that could allow another search engine to take over the "king of the hill" would be the allowance of "some" in the SEO industry to buy and sell links as they please, and to do so with the idea that it will help them manipulate the Google search results. Now tell me please; would allowing you all to do all of this with no repercussions whatsoever be in Google's best interests? I don't think so. You have to use your God-given common sense. I'll say it again; Google does "not" care what you do with your sites, and how you do it. They do Not care if or how you buy and sell links. Go ahead and do it if you want to do it. Implement it any way you wish. After all; it's your site and also your client's sites, right?


09/11/2007 12:24 am

I was at this session, great job writing the summary. It's been a few weeks since the show, but this article brought back a lot of the details for me. This session alone was worth the price of admission by itself, it was definitely the highlight of SES for me. All the speakers were great and presentations were exceptionally well done.

Ryan Critchett

02/13/2011 06:30 pm

Interesting stuff. It's like.. it's a double edge sword. If your competitors are crushing it on the engines, and they're buying links doing it, do you wait around until Google catches up with them? That may not be a good idea. Blackhat (not saying this is blackhat) so paid links, are a great short term strategy. It's a temporary thing. Ultimately, the traditional organic ways of building links rule.

Greg Fowler

03/18/2012 04:17 pm

Why is it that I see so many using Paid links, I found one such company and they are world renowned doing SEO for coke and the like?  So they got to the top of the mountain with their links?  

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