Build Great Content So You Can Buy Paid Links

by on June 16, 2011 | posted in SEO Theory

It’s beginning to feel a lot like summer – so what that means is a lot of pasty white internet marketing skin is beginning to see some darker shades. I’m hoping that means that some of those white-hat, white-skin marketers will begin seeing the world from a different viewpoint – one with a little more equilibrium and reason.

On many opinion-impacting search blogs, there is a frequent ideology that a website’s backlink profile can be identified as “white” or “black”, and rarely a blending of the two. Websites identified as “white hat” are also those synonymous with “great content” – it is rare that the public sees a site that can be identified as containing “great content” and still have a “black” backlink profile.

If you’re catching on with my onslaught of quotation marks, the answer is that many “black” backlinks for “great content” websites exist, and if savvy and brooding enough, they are frequently used by the websites that rule the SERPs and don’t get destroyed by Google for overbearing campaigns.

A few months ago, the debate between Kris Roadruck and Rand Fishkin drew much public attention. Naturally, Rand’s post was hailed with adoration and in many respects I agree with a lot of what he said – of course, hearing “white hat” and reading that in the title is something I can never agree to use as a serious part of my venacular. Besides being another accessory to a continuously droll white vs black hat debate, what made the post particularly noteworthy was Rand’s explicit notifcation of those websites he identified as “white hat”.

Quickly after posting, Joe Hall acknowledged that one site Rand had listed was guility of some kind of link farm. Shortly thereafter, I stumbled into multiple instances of clear paid links for another site that Rand had identified as sparkly white hat (and many others would also quickly admonish for being “white hat” as well). I did no more research into the websites Rand listed (and I don’t suggest you do either – that would help push things into the “outing” category, which you will see following that I am not a fan of) – but the fact that Hall could quickly identify one site clearly bleeding into the “black” category — and I could also — shows that when even someone many would consider the greatest SEO in the world can’t readily identify the black versus white hat dichotomy, it shows clear signs that the dichotomy does not exist.

Many of the websites most heralded for their white hat campaigns have the advantage of a cover-up. If done with intelligence, depth and awareness of a comb soon coming from an intelligent algorithm, it isn’t that difficult to blend in “black hat” links into an otherwise sparkling profile – just as these previously heralded “white hat” websites had done in Rand’s post. Not to say that Rand couldn’t identify them at depth – but if we imagine Rand as the same Google Engineer (or New York Times reporter) who manually combs a website, it would be extremely difficult to acknowledge – or flag – these websites for tactics that could elsewhere be described as white as the clearest cloud. And if a website can be hit for what could be described as competitive sabotage  – for only having a mild dribbling of these “black hat” links – then that would open the flood gates for a waterfall of improper penalties.

“Impossible is Something” – Adidas

Justin Briggs noted in his presentation at SMX Advanced that Distilled had noticed high value, branded links can easily create pumped up rankings when combined with “lower value link building tactics”. Distilled might describe this as article or link directories – others would describe this as paid links. All would describe it as links that pollute the web.

I can confirm (and Aaron Wall I know has been on record stating similar – if not long in the past) that my opinion aligns with Justin. My opinion is that low quality anchor text links can vault up domains when combined with the high authority, branded links that give the domains most of their strength. If we think about this identifier, combined with the potential for a small amount of the “black hat” lower value link building tactics to create a huge part of the value, we approach an annoying dilemma where the balancing beam of a) low quality links creating a huge rankings improvement b) heavy need for Google step-in to prevent this, and c) potential for easy competitive sabotage based on a low volume of manipulative links needed — happens to coalesce so beautifully that it throws the entire concept out of whack, to the point that is literally impossible for the three to align appropriately – especially in a way where we can think of things as “white” or “black”.

In this situation, we are set back to a scenario where the simple title of this post remains true – “Build Great Content So You Can Buy Paid Links”. Clearly, you’ve earned it.

Welcome to the Slums

On the other side of the internet, where content isn’t social and it is nearly impossible to compete without playing the game, a similar ideology exists. Here, “great content” is not the great content that attracts the thousands of links – “great content” is a non spammy domain and a legitimate business. In olden times, there was more concern over internet scams and SEO plays eating up users’ pocket books. Today, that talk is essentially dead – even in these “black” verticals where complaints abound, scams are more of an identifier of the tactics that get the sites to their placements rather than actual shady business practices themselves.

In most instances, in these unsocial, hypercompetitive verticals, there is no sign of insidious hyphenated .biz domains and web design out of the 1980s. These websites simply can’t compete. At scale, these businesses must build legitimate businesses with real domains to hold their own, because the economics and reality of the link environment means that often times, the website with the biggest pocketbook wins, which often means the cash spent often informs the quality and legitimacy of the websites that get there. Because of the entrenched nature of the biggest, baddest and blackest verticals on the internet, much time and effort must be spent establishing legitimacy.

It is this legitimacy which will often cause a user to not convert for lack of a trust signal such as a Better Business Bureau listing, or a high-quality webmaster not to link to you for fear of a scam – even if you offer them money. The blend and the constant iteration of these processes means that those that don’t have them available at scale will be eaten up – meaning that even in an environment where paid links are as prominent and widepsread as oxygen, “great content” must be built just the same to identify and obtain the highest quality links and the high quality domains that will eventually perpetuate high ranking over time.

Because these verticals don’t have high content link efficacy, this content can rarely be leveraged to obtain purely “white hat” links. But it is great content nonetheless – as least at is pertains to these verticals. And for these websites, it is this “great content” that enables sustained link acquisition. Those that do it in a non-manipulative fashion – whether paid or unpaid – will be the ones who rank forever.

Not Content With Build Great Content

On the long line of SEO buzzwords and theoretical takedowns I’ve torched on this blog, this post is an acknowledgement that “build great content” is the next. Because “build great content” is not enough, and similarly, it should not be stereotyped next to “white hat” SEO campaigns. Nor should these “black hat” sites be imagined as having shoddy content for not creating a boatload of links based on that content. If you see a site with great content and the surface-level view of their top 100 links on Yahoo! Site Explorer or doesn’t show a rat, that doesn’t mean that lice doesn’t infect the entire burrow of that link profile. If you see a site with great content and manual inspection says “those are paid links”, but they intelligently inform the content on the page, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t rank.

Play or go home. Make the web better. Both the “great content” heavy social verticals and the “shady” verticals that rank well with businesses users want to find – based on the paid links that rank them – do that. The “shady verticals” might tear down little particles of its infrastructure while doing so – but the overall business  and value add for users that sustains them far outweighs the paid links that randomly annoy casual users. Overall, by polluting little parcels and annoying five percent of users across the web, those websites with the “great content” might annoy, sporadically – but they overall dynamically improve user experience over an environment that was left without them.

Google forced people to play this game. There is no good answer to it. Build great content. Rank. Make the world better. That – and paid links – can – and will – interact.

  • anthonydnelson

    Another great post Ross. The value of having a powerful and established domain can’t be overlooked when it comes to link building. If you are link building on a new domain, a few spammy links can put your site into a completely different neighborhood in the eyes of google. However, an established site with a natural link profile has the ability to start building a few well placed anchor text links without throwing off the balance of a natural looking profile.

    Without having analyzed the backlink profile of JC Penny or Overstock myself, I am amazed that they received punishment for their link building tactics. The strength of their domain should have allowed a fair amount of leeway before things started to look suspicious. Clearly, they must have been outed to google or been way too aggressive in their link building tactics.

  • Minchala

    Good, well-presented thoughts here. As a fellow whose head is genetically inhospitable to most hats, I also tend to mentally check out pretty quick from the white v. black v. grey debates. I feel like that debate gets less interesting with ever new website and vertical one actually works on. After a while, one should consider that as a marketer and business person, risk and reward is just as much a part of this biz as other profitable endeavors. Manage the risk, make smart business decisions, and be interested first and foremost in making your clients online presence profitable.

    If you’re a good marketer, you’ll learn from others, understand your audience, make educated decisions, measure results and keep what works. If you’re a good business person, you’ll understand that your success depends on client loyalty and a steady stream of referrals. This will motivate you to manage risk intelligently and create sustainable SEO strategies that work and keep your client’s far enough from the spam radar.

    Philosophy is valuable for humanity in that it creates a language and a dialogue to help us understand very complex things. The philosophical battle of white v. black has merit in that respect – so much of the language and intricacies of our day to day are brought up while discussing the friction between these two concepts.

    So to anyone who’s not gotten deep enough into the guts of an SEO campaign, follow the debate if you want. Digest it and when you’re ready to actually get to work on SEO, put it aside completely. Philosophy has never created or even augmented a revenue stream. Unless Plato had a booking agent. That dude must have made stupid money….

  • Branko

    Aaaah finally some sense. I totally agree. when I try to explain this concept, I compare it to a bottle filled with stones. Big stones are the high-authority, editorial links. but even if you fill the bottle with big stones, there is a lot of space between the stones for some sand – low quality, anchor-targeted links. Not every link has to do everything for you. some will provide authority, some will provide trust and some will provide anchor relevancy.

  • Josh

    Does Google notice when you start getting links to page in a site well after the page is established? Why would old content get new links out of nowhere?

  • Ross Taylor

    “Google forced people to play this game.” Spot on there, Ross. It’s difficult for the everyman who can’t devote multiple hours per day to looking after his website to employ the strictly squeaky clean white hat tactics that G touts. Especially with every update from MC himself changing the game, i.e. the supposed discounting of the long tail kw’s and keyword rich domain names. Unless you have deep pockets and a team of people marketing your site, some of the things you do to market yourself are going to appear to be in they grey area.

    For the record, I’m strongly against blog/forum spamming tactics, cloaking, and other black hat methods that just dirty up the internet with useless trash. I actually can’t believe mass blog spamming still goes on. What is the return on time investment for these people?

    Not really related, I always find it funny when competitors advertise themselves as “white hat”. It’s not really a term anyone outside of SEO knows or even cares about. Generally they want results and aren’t bothered with the details.

  • Dustin

    Great post, Ross. This comes down to one of Shoemoney’s mottos: don’t make Google look stupid. When you do nothing to cover your paid links or other unscrupulous activities, you can’t expect to do well w/o eventually facing a penalty. If a website does begin to rank well for its keywords, and rockets into the first few results, then not only is it getting more organic traffic but it’s getting seen by more competitors (and Google itself), so if you aren’t creating good content or acquiring quality links as you buy links to cover (or at least blur) your tracks, you’re setting yourself up to be ousted.

  • Unknown SEO

    “I actually can’t believe mass blog spamming still goes on. What is the return on time investment for these people?”

    Pretty good, really.

    $57 for the software and then maybe an hour’s worth of time to harvest and then blast thousands of blogs.

    Apparently it still works quite well, according to a friend who just did that for one of his sites.

    Don’t have a free hour? Just pay $60 to someone on one of the warrior forums to do it.

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