Are Paid Links Evil?

Aug 21, 2007 - 8:43 pm 9 by

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.


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