Buying Links: What is it?

February 13, 2008

Topics: Search Marketing.

It’s a commonly understood fact that having a prominent web site requires strong links pointing to your site. If you want your site to receive traffic, you have to convince people that your site is worth visiting — and worth pointing a link towards.

So, naturally, a market is born. There’s no questioning the correlation between links as a factor to judge the value of a web site and the existence of a market to sell those links. Obviously, the immediate gut reaction is something along the lines of:

“But that’s like…prostituting your site!”

Well, that’s perhaps a bit strong. After all, when it all comes right down to it, it’s just another form of advertising. However, unlike most traditional advertising, it’s a method of advertising which has a direct and measurable impact on the success of your business.

Thus you have a conflict of interest between search engines, who want to judge your web site on the basis of the quality of it’s content while using the interest of the general public as a measuring tool, and business owners who would like inflate the quality measurement by exercising the dimensions of their wallets.

It’s a complicated difference of opinion: advertisers and publishers see no reason they shouldn’t be able to purchase advertisements of whatever form they choose from whatever site is willing to sell them. However, if search engines prefer “pure” results, then they will pursue whatever means they can to negate the value of links they identify as purchased.

But how do I know when I’m purchasing a link?

To a high-level search marketer or professional web developer, what constitutes a link buy may seem obvious. Search engines have clearly targeted the underground market of reciprocal link sharing, link brokering, and text link advertising. They very specifically want to target links or advertisements which are capable of passing ranking value.

The average web user or beginner web publisher, however, may be less certain when that line is being crossed.

Purchased Link Scenarios

Scenario #1

A friend and business owner offers you a free meal at his restaurant if you’ll write up a review on your food blog. Your friend doesn’t specify any requirements for the review: positive, negative, whatever. You write it up, adding a link to the website for the restaurant, and go on with your life. You didn’t mention that the meal was free, because you didn’t want to give your readers the impression that maybe you were biased, even though you wrote a very fair review. You also didn’t mention that the restaurant owner is a friend of yours, for the same reason.

Did your friend buy that link from you?

Google’s official stance on paid links states:

Not all paid links violate our guidelines. Buying and selling links is a normal part of the economy of the web when done for advertising purposes, and not for manipulation of search results. Links purchased for advertising should be designated as such. This can be done in several ways, such as:

  • Adding a rel=”nofollow” attribute to the a tag
  • Redirecting the links to an intermediate page that is blocked from search engines with a robots.txt file

Why should I report paid links to Google?

You didn’t mark the link as “nofollow,” nor did you redirect the link. After all, you’re just an average blog author — you didn’t even know that Google had guidelines on this. On the other hand, you weren’t exactly paid to provide the review…but seriously, that’s just arguing semantics.

From Google’s perspective, yes, that’s probably a paid link — although it’s entirely likely that none of the parties involved knew it. On the plus side, it’s pretty much impossible for Google to detect any exchange like this. There’s no online trace for a personal interaction like this which would throw up any suspicious signals.

Scenario #2

You’re an independent consultant in the construction industry. You become aware of an organization you are eligible to join which maintains an online list of members and provides links to their web sites. It costs $50/year to join, and you’re really not very interested in the organization overall, but you figure that $50/year for a link to your site is pretty worthwhile — and perhaps the organization will come in handy at some point.

Did you buy that link?

Well, on the one hand, you just joined an organization pretty much specifically to gain a link to your site. Yes, you purchased that link. On the other hand, what are these organizations for? Many organizations exist partly to promote their areas of industry and their members — so you paid a fee to the organization, and they are promoting your interests. That’s a legitimate business relationship. But is promotion of members via a link equivalent to having members purchase a link? Hardly. It seems ludicrous to expect every professional organization to add “nofollow” to their membership listings, after all!

Scenario #3

You’re looking to promote your site, and you get in touch with somebody who tells you that, for $500, they can get you 15 really great links to your website. You don’t ask any questions, pay the money, and later find a handful of new links to your site.

Did you buy those links? Oh, hell yeah. You so bought those links. Are they trackable? Maybe, maybe not. Depends on the link broker (since that’s basically who you’ve just gone through.) The big question you should be asking right now is “Why didn’t I ask any questions?”

If you just pay some money and end up with some links, you should assume that you could be crossing the line. Basically, if you don’t know the process which led to your having these new links, you probably shouldn’t have purchased them. You’re simply running risks that you can’t readily quantify.

Scenario #4

You’ve just paid $299 for a review by the Yahoo! directory. The deal is pretty simple: you pay them $299, they’ll review your site within 7 days — and if they like it, they’ll add it to the directory. Oh — only for a year. You’ll have to pay them every year if you want it to stick around.

You’re not actually buying a link, in this case: you’re buying an opportunity. They may or may not include your site, so really you’re taking a risk, gambling that your site is what they want. You’re safe, from a search engine perspective.

But…

You may not be safe if you take this same logic and apply it to just any directory on the web. The Yahoo! directory is big, old, very public, and (of course) run by company that also happens to own a search engine.

Even if a directory actually states that you’re paying for a review and that inclusion is not guaranteed, you should probably take a gander at the actual contents of the directory. If you see a generally low quality directory, filled with sites out of their appropriate categories, with misleading descriptions, or with very poor quality content, it’s entirely possible that what they actually mean is “we’re trying to make sure that people keep submitting to our totally useless directory by claiming that we use some kind of quality control.”

And, finally, if a directory does NOT state that you’re only paying for a review or guarantees inclusion, just run away. You don’t want to be there.

In Summary

Is there really an answer to the question “what is link buying”? It depends on context, intent, and detectability. It depends on who’s looking: a search engine or a human. Link purchases can encompass a broad variety of real and legitimate business arrangements. What should you be particularly nervous about? Any service which:

  1. Doesn’t allow you to control what links you purchase/sell.
  2. Will sell/buy links on a bulk basis (“10,000 links IMMEDIATELY!”)
  3. Requires you to disclose your business relationship with them.1
  4. Asks you not to disclose your business relationship with them.1
  5. Will not disclose any information about their methods.

Differentiating between purchased and legitimate links, in most cases, actually comes down to intent. At some level or another, almost every link to any commercial site on the web is likely to have some kind of business exchange behind it. The question is more on the nature of that exchange. But this is, of course, something which is 100% untraceable by any search engine. They’ll never know why you chose a particularly link.

Unless, that is, you’ve used some kind of system which leaves a trace. This, of course, is a reason to be careful when picking who you’ll work with to help build links to your site: be sure that you trust them not to waste your money or damage your site’s success.

Notes:
1. This is a complicated point: it’s not the disclosure itself which is negative — it’s the fact that it’s required. You need to think that if disclosure is required, there may be something questionable about the activity itself. However, if disclosure is expressly forbidden, then you’re really in trouble! Return to text

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3 Comments to “Buying Links: What is it?”

  1. @Binny

    I don’t think the first scenario is a paid link. If it has a review with it, its a link relevant to that page. Even if its a paid review, I don’t think the associated links can be said to be paid links.

    And here’s where Google would disagree — they consider a paid review (and any links within) to be paid links. (Google Watching Paid Review Blogs)

    That particular scenario was really intended to set up an external ethical dilemma: are you selling a link if you’re unaware of the concept of link selling. (It’s not an ethical dilemma for the imaginary participants; since ethics require knowledge of the scenario…)

    Thanks for your comments!

  2. All are nice tips and are helpful. Thank you and expect more on link exchange tectics.

    [name edited]

  3. I don’t think the first scenario is a paid link. If it has a review with it, its a link relevant to that page. Even if its a paid review, I don’t think the associated links can be said to be paid links.

    Disclaimer: I am not a Search engine expert – just an ordinary web developer.