Reality Check: Are Paid Links a Smart SEO Investment?

Not many SEOs like to talk openly about paid links,
at least not anywhere other than behind the safety of closed doors.

There’s a stigma associated with paid links and it’s often paired with negative connotations. HubSpot called it the Steroids of SEO. Just blogging about it even feels a little weird. Nonetheless paid links are as real as any other component of SEO and can’t be ignored. Some think of it as a dark art, while others might say it’s just another aspect of the game. Despite your own feelings on the subject, it can be argued that anyone who hopes to further their education as a student of SEO is bound to run into paid links head on sooner or later.

Over the past week I spent some time researching the potential benefits and downsides of paid links in hopes of getting a better grasp on how the SEO community at large approaches the subject. After talking to a handful of SEO professionals and combing through a large collection of articles, ultimately this post isn’t a declaration of Sparkplug Digital’s or even my own personal stance on paid links, but rather a guided exploration of the issue at hand. It’s my hope that the information presented can help you reach your own conclusions.

Starting with a definition: what constitutes a paid link?

Here’s a cut and dry explanation of a what paid link is straight from the horse’s mouth:

Google and most other search engines use links to determine reputation. A site’s ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to it. Link-based analysis is an extremely useful way of measuring a site’s value, and has greatly improved the quality of web search. Both the quantity and, more importantly, the quality of links count towards this rating. However, some SEOs and webmasters engage in the practice of buying and selling links that pass PageRank, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.

For the purpose of this discussion a paid link is the exchange of payment in return for a link back to a site. In the eyes of Google links that are paid advertisements should use a nofollow attribution and everything else falls into a grey area and risks being classified as an attempt to manipulate search results. The definition can get fuzzy, as Johnathan Ledger points out in his excellent article on the topic, because of the often overlooked fact that syndicated blog posts and affiliate links aren’t exactly considered to be violating the rules. There are a lot of ways around the paid link conundrum.

What are the risks?

Matt Cutts has made it clear that those who choose to buy or sell links are at risk of being punished. Getting caught isn’t fun and can lead to sites being penalized or even removed.
JC Penny and Forbes are two examples of high profile companies that fell under the guillotine this year for engaging in such practices. Make no mistake about it, if you choose to buy links and get discovered you will end up regretting it.

But what about those that don’t get caught?

A survey held earlier this year by Search Engine Roundtable revealed that most SEO’s believe there are penalty proof links.

53% of those who responded said there are risk free paid links.
26% said there is no such thing as a risk free paid link.
20% were unsure.

The informal survey shows that over half of SEOs don’t see any risk in at least a small portion of paid links.

Use your imagination and it’s not hard to picture many scenarios in which there is little or no risk involved. If I’ve spent years building up PageRank and inbound links on a site that discusses healthcare news and happen to have a friend who has a site that sells healthcare products, we could easily setup a paid link arrangement and the powers that be over at Google wouldn’t have the slightest idea as to what was going on. I could continue on in a similar manner by carefully arranging the same type of deals with others who wanted a link and carry on almost entirely risk free. JCPenny, Forbes, and others that get caught usually end up in that situation ultimately because of carelessness.

Is the risk worth the reward?

SEOmoz conducted a controversial experiment last year in which they purchased paid links and were able to find success through their efforts. Although the experiment yielded positive results, SEOmoz still maintains a relatively no compromise anti-paid link stance and stated that the risk isn’t always worth the reward and more importantly that those type of actions violate their commitment towards transparency. It’s hard to not admire companies that choose to take the high road, however the fact remains that paid links do work if done with care. Links are bought and sold every day and it’s safe to say that a large portion of it goes unnoticed.

If you choose to hire an agency, outsourcing company, or any individual that offers to gather hundreds of inbound links for a cost, it could serve as a huge red flag. Buying paid links in bulk, especially with a middle man, can be a huge risk if the links aren’t gathered organically.

Is it wrong or unethical?

This is the question that I struggled with the most during my research. Paid links are largely considered black hat and thus shunned upon by SEO purists. The fact though is that paid links will never really go away. No matter how stringent a search engine is when it comes to fighting those who break the rules, paid links will always be around in one form or another. SEO is by nature highly competitive and as long as the tactic works there are people who will use it. I tend to agree with people like Ross Hudgens who think it’s wise to talk about paid links in relation to disruptive links vs non-disruptive links. Some will continue to swear that there’s nothing wrong or abnormal with intelligent paid link acquisition and still there are others who want nothing to do with the practice. It’s up to you to decide if paid links are going to be a tool that you rely on once in a while or something that you avoid all together. Only you can make that decision.

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