In the early days of SEO, paid links were one of those tactics that fell into the gray area between the saintly white hats and the diabolical black hats. It was a quick and easy way to give a website a boost in the SERPs, and certainly a lot easier than attracting merit-based links from “legitimate” sources. However, the major search engines (Google, Yahoo!, and MSN) have long been outspoken against the practice of buying links. In particular, Matt Cutts (who heads up Google’s Web Spam team) has insisted that paid links manipulate and pollute the search results. In 2007, Cutts threw down the gauntlet to link sellers with a blog post entitled “How to Report Paid Links.” Ever since then, Google has continually tweaked its algorithm to take the juice out of paid links, even going so far as to state outright:
“Buying links in order to improve a site’s ranking is in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.”
Paid Links Are A Risky Proposition
So paid links are risky. You may see an initial bump in page rank, and if you’re lucky enough to escape notice, you might even be able to enjoy a nice little run near the top of the SERPs. But Google seems to be getting better and better at spotting inbound links that have been purchased. In most cases, their algorithms will kick in and penalize pages using paid links accordingly. Occasionally, the folks at Google may even take corrective action against a misbehaving website to speed things along.
Case in point: J. C. Penney
J. C. Penney had some pretty impressive rankings on Google, hitting the number one slot on Google’s SERPs for a number of popular search terms, such as “bedding” and “dresses.” The department store even ranked higher than Samsonite itself for searches on “samsonite carry on luggage.”
But recently, Google finally figured out that J. C. Penney was using paid links to boost their SERP rankings. Google claims that its algorithm detected the issue, and that J. C. Penney’s rankings were already starting to fall. However, Cutts and his antispam team decided to step in and manually remove J. C. Penney from the top search results.
Are Paid Links Worth the Trouble?
A lot of SEO experts are reluctant to give up paid links just because Google says they should. However, there’s no way a traditional link farm is going to get past Google’s detection algorithm. So the only recourse is to somehow “legitimize” the paid links by embedding them in relevant content that would pass a human inspection, and making sure the content they link to is relevant.
But frankly, once you start going to that much trouble, you’ve lost the quick and easy advantage that made paid links so attractive in the first place. If you’re going to work that hard, why not simply create interesting and unique content to draw inbound links to your website? Or if you’ve got your heart set on paying for your links, why not invest in legitimate advertising, rather than trying to game the search engines?
Google does make the distinction between ads and link farms when it comes to paid links:
“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.”