Death to the “Paid Link”

by on June 29, 2010 | posted in SEO Theory

Last week SEOMoz released a Whiteboard Friday post on the “surprising” success of paid links. In it, SEOMoz CEO Rand Fishkin and company broadly describe their process wherein they bought a link and saw rankings shoot up rather dramatically for keywords they targeted.

Within the post, little is detailed on what exactly their definition of a paid link is, what it should be, or how it applies to their testing. This made me scheme a little on the more broad disillusionment on paid links in general, and some thoughts – rather wrongly – about what they exactly entail.

The web community as a whole is rather against paid links. Paid links, as they imagine it, are the exchange of a link for cash. This is right of course, but they’re thinking about the more broad application of this term incorrectly.

On one side, we view “paid links” as the most pertinent showing of black hat SEO that’s still effective, while white hat SEO, therefore, is any other link acquisition technique  that doesn’t directly involve the exchange of money. This dichotomy, for SEOs and the greater internet world, is the great debate – why are paid links wrong or right? Should you do it? Shouldn’t you?

This entire argument is stupid – and really, it’s imagining the entire link acquisition process incorrectly.

Paid Links Aren’t the Only Manipulative Curated Links on the Web

The monster point that makes this wrong is that cash isn’t the only possible manipulative exchange of value. There are many, many other manipulative link-for-value exchanges that occur on the internet, and they have nothing directly to do with greenbacks.

Imagine a business contact you have which runs a relevant site that falls in the vertical niche of a client you work for. He has benefitted from knowing you in the past – perhaps by introducing a valuable employee he hired, or meeting a VC. Now, when you ask for a near-sitewide link for several pages on your client’s website, he accepts. As long as your website is above a moderate level of acceptability, he will post the links on his website.

This is a similar, manipulative value exchange that also occurs when buying a paid link.  The only difference is that this payment is delayed, or otherwise, you long ago paid it by connecting him with value in the past. In a paid link exchange, if your website is below a low level of acceptability, it is possible the webmaster will not accept the link. The higher the cash exchange, the more likely the blog will post the link anyways. This is value exchange is IDENTICAL to the delayed, or “previously” paid link.

These kinds of links occur everywhere on the internet, and, it is my strong hypothesis, that they are way more prevalent than paid links themselves. The degree of user experience obstruction with which they occur are often lower than paid links, but they still include manipulation where value is exchanged for items rather than cash, and not solely based on the value of the website itself.

The error with the “white hat SEO” vs “black hat SEO” debate is it, if described as it should be, uses this equation:

Black Hat SEO – Any link not created through organic website discovery


White Hat SEO – Any link created through organic website discovery

The reason why this is properly how the “Black Hat” vs “White Hat” dichotomy should be discussed is because one has some varied level of manipulation, and one doesn’t. There is no explicitly marked spot in the sand where manipulation starts being okay or it doesn’t – you have to decide one way or the other. So if you hate paid links, you should also hate every time Daring Fireball links to 43 Folders — because John Gruber is friends with Merlin Mann, and you can be sure they wouldn’t link to each other as much if they weren’t.

The internet has to run on this framework. The WORLD runs on this framework. Imagine a really rich friend who everyone hates but based on the basis of his giant pocketbook, you still hang out with him. He is exchanging value with you beyond his own coolness (website value) — he is exchanging with money. This friendship is manipulative, but you will still have rich friend show up next to you (on your website), whether or not you actually think he’s cool.

So what I’m getting at here – and what I want you to realize – is that the search engines shouldn’t aim to eliminate these non-organic discovery links – the search engines should aim to eliminate those links which disrupt user experience. THEY AREN’T THE SAME. When John Gruber links to Merlin Mann, there is a close enough degree of relevancy (they like the same things/have similar personalities), that it rarely disrupts user experience. Similarly, if KFC buys a link on a Fried Chicken Fast Food blog, it rarely disrupts user experience, even though there’s a degree of manipulation involved.

SEOs, then, should be judged not on whether or not they buy paid links, they should be judged on whether or not they create links on the internet that disrupt user experience. A black hat SEO constantly disrupts user experience – a white hat SEO does as little of that as possible. Whether or not either role actually involves buying paid links is irrelevant.

The awesome thing about this is that the search engines are constantly moving towards completely eliminating “black hat SEO” techniques, as I describe it. More things that disrupt user experience are devalued, and less and less tactics that disrupt user experience actually work. Having browsed through thousands of backlinks for hundreds of websites, I’ve seen my fair share of links that disrupt user experience – so I know what to look for. I am positive some of the following tactics are already devalued, but, be certain, whether or not they are completely; the search engines are doing their best towards doing so.

Also, please note: this is not a comprehensive list of things that disrupt user experience, rather, it’s a list of disruptive link building tactics most often implemented by SEOs today.

Disruptive SEO Link Building Signals

The Three Link Chain

Many blogs that accept paid links list in packs of three, so you may see sites with a chain of blog posts that all have 3 links, all to the same website. Similarly, these three links almost always have commercial intent. You can be certain that if you see a website with more than one of these commercial three-link chains on the front page, it’s worth zip, zilch, kaput – or, at very least, it’s a horrid website that’s going to be devalued or penalized in the future.

Inconsistent Link Patterns

Websites, and people, have link tendencies. Some link out tons, some not at all. If a website is constantly a running narrative of their boyfriend troubles with zero links and then a blip on LCD televisions with three links appears, the reader’s experience was just disturbed. For those websites that link out constantly, this won’t appear as harmful to the user experience.

Off-Topic Links

The more off-topic a link is, the more disruptive it becomes. For example, I rarely post about SEO on my blog, so this blog link on my site is disruptive as heck. Mr. Cutts, please devalue this post. More than user experience, getting links on off-topic sites isn’t doing your domain too many favors.

Saturating People with Commercial Anchor Text Links

People don’t like getting sold to, period. So if you’re priming them with a glut of commercial anchor text (i.e. sports t-shirts), you’re making them mad, and more than likely, making them hit the back button. You damn screwed up, Mr/Mrs. SEO.

Disruptive Links or Non-Disruptive Links

As you can tell by this post, I hate the discourse around the term paid link – it makes no sense when appropriately applied to the web. Instead, SEO as an entity should move towards describing what is now called “paid links” or “non-paid links” and rephrase it as a dichotomy of distruptive links or non-disruptive links.

Search engines are not operated on the basis of paid versus non-paid links, so we should stop imagining it that way. The search engines, on an algorithmic basis, care only about disruptive or non-disruptive links, because there is no absolute way – and there will continue to be no absolute way – to determine if a link was paid for, because the transaction can occur outside the documentation of the web.

We currently put such a stigma on paid links because we imagine them as the evil rival of Google’s PPC model. However, every link on the web, paid or not, creates a potential deduction from Google’s PPC pocketbook. And although Google’s ultimate goal is to make money, the best way for them to do that is to provide the best user experience, not demonize every individual who causes a direct removal of cash from their PPC platform.

It is my hypothesis that Google, therefore, does not care about penalizing paid links – they care about penalizing disruptive links. They would never explicitly state it, but often times, paid links actually improve user experience on the web. A paid link is not always a spammy link. The fact that paid links frequently ARE spammy links, though, creates the bad stigma around them in the SEO field.

The lines between a cash transaction and a non-cash transaction link will forever be blurred, because a paper trail of cash can’t – and will never – be purely traceable on the web. However, disruptive links can always be identified, meaning it’s every webmaster and SEO’s job to ensure that their link building techniques are focused on creating links that enhance user experience – whether or not they are paid for.

Image credit goes to dxjones and tobanblack.

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  • randfish

    Hey Ross – I see the point you’re trying to make; that the vast majority of links are “manipulative” in one way or another, even if that’s not directly through dollars. However, I’d argue that the search engines don’t care to remove the value these non-cash links have, both because fighting them is tough and because an organic web of referencing is always influenced by a commercial market (we live in capitalist times as you know).

    I’d actually argue that the relationship built between the two folks in your example is a link Google would want to count. There’s been an exchange of value, a relationship built and the link represents that relationship in the online world much as it exists in the offline world. As Google works to organize the world’s information, links like those are part of that mission, and, IMO, likely add to the value of the web rather than detract from it.

    Certainly, reasonable people can disagree on these points, but my impression is that Google cares much less about the types of “paid” or “influenced” links you’re talking about and much more about direct cash-to-link exchanges.

    • Ross Hudgens

      There’s not a line in the sand, though. We say “relationships” but often times people are only doing it for the mighty dollar. If we took the totality of the business community and gave them a year long vacation, what percentage of their business contacts would they actually continue a friendship with? For some, it’s a relatively small portion.

      So that means that relatively large portion is doing it for one thing – the almighty dollar – which makes the link transaction through business relationships identical to the paid link.

  • Ryan Clark

    First off I’m glad you wrote this out so concise! Some of my clients badly need to read this lol.

    There definitely is no line whatsoever in the sand anywhere. The only distinction I can see from only I assume 1/4 of the time Rand spends look at backlinks profiles is that the bigger the site, the less Google cares. I cannot count the number of top 5 ranking sites that have held down years of link buying for those spots. What’s a guy to do? Well, sometimes you just have to buy links to speed up the process.

    As an example that works fine with me would be an Ecommerce site who sponsors a contest within their niches largest blog or forum. Obviously you’re getting a link but at least that isn’t the main focus, and you’re not just getting some random link.

    You thoughts on something like that?

    • Ross Hudgens

      I think that’s not even widely considered a paid link – even though it is. Google recommends the curator nofollow that link, but they aren’t going to do anything about it. If you get specifically manipulative anchor text you run some risk, but little of it. The better part of that type of thing is you are beyond improving user experience – you are creating some great value. And as an SEO, if that’s what we’re doing, you don’t need to worry about whether it’s paid or not -because the value creation will be reflected in the way the link is portrayed.

  • fantomaster

    Great write-up, and of course I agree with your essentially dissing the simplistic “white hat” vs. “black hat” dichotomy which may have its place in manichean theology but not in technology and IR, which is, let’s never forget, what search is all about.

    I do, however, tend to favor Rand’s view here. For one, while it’s perfectly obvious that a lot if not most links are “manipulative” in onse sense or another (as, actually, is practically all human interaction – so how “unorganic” is that?), gathering links on a blatant cash-and-carry model is probably the only approach that can be tracked (and accordingly penalized) with a reasonable degree of reliability: link brokers are working in public, link selling platforms are being promoted openly, commercial linking patterns are fairly easy to discern etc.

    As for “disruptive” or “non-disruptive” links, this opens but another can of worms, don’t you think? Surely the fact that you don’t *generally* write about SEO on your personal blog doesn’t make any such link “disruptive” by default? I mean, if you keep rambling about everything under the sun on an ongoing basis, which link WOULDN’T qualify for being “disruptive” in that scenario? And how about all-purpose or, at the very least, multi-topic blogs/sites? News aggregators? Ezines? Portals?

    Ok, so if your blog article is, say, about your cat, and your embedded outgoing links are pimping “cheap viagra” or “online poker”, that would seem to be a fairly obvious case in point – well, unless that’s some humorous experiment you’re conducting with your cat (“how does she react to cheap viagra ads?”, “how good is she at online poker?”), in which case it becomes all the more complex i.e. moot again.

    Moreover, I seem to detect a fundamental fallacy here: namely the assumption that search engines gauge any given website’s relevance in its entirety. (It’s an easy delusion to fall for: clients are doing it all the time, asking for links “from relevant sites only”.) Sorry, but no: if at all, it’s individual PAGES that get assessed in this manner, NOT entire sites – and the sooner the SEO industry busts this myth once and for all, the better for everyone involved.

    • Ross Hudgens

      In regards to this post being off-topic, I of course was being facetious.

      But I am of the strong belief that Google CAN establish theme, but that mostly has to do with the internal navigation. If you took a fresh page with absolutely no links into it I might agree that Google could establish new thematic relevancy for it, but the internal link structures that encompass 99% of sites online (and for good reason) make those thematic elements (anchor text+theme of pages linking in) drip to subpages. Each subpage then has the ability to attempt to change theme but the link juice internally + navigation elements heavily dilute that.

      • fantomaster

        Hehe, suspected that might be irony, but of course your point carries way beyond that.

        And no, I don’t for a second doubt that “theming” a site can be done technically, esp. when you’ve crawled most of it anyway etc. Point being that there’s not much by way of informational gains you’ll achieve in this manner.

        So let’s say you have a site on cars – fully focused, authority status etc. Then, your interest shifts to yachts or even naturopathy for that matter: what would it add to the consistently evoked “user experience” if a search engine decides to demote your site for becoming “off topic”?

        More importantly, we can’t find any indication that this assumption is more than mere surmise on SEOs’ part. So for me at least it doesn’t even qualify for a credible working hypothesis let alone something to base serious SEO on.

        • Ross Hudgens

          I think something I think you’re getting at that that we have a misinterpretation on is that user experience and what the Google search engines do are 1:1. I am definitely with you in saying that Google is not constantly begrudging a site every time “user experience” is disregarded – it tries it’s best, but it’s not universal.

          My implication is that SEOs should make an attempt to improve user experience, and even if that doesn’t always flow entirely with the Google algorithm, a general adherence to this policy will be best for both the internet and the strength of the websites us, as SEOs, control.

  • Brian Gilley

    “On one side, we view “paid links” as the most pertinent showing of black hat SEO that’s still effective, while white hat SEO, therefore, is any other link acquisition technique that doesn’t directly involve the exchange of money.”

    IMO, your definition of white hat link building is a bit shaky — and it’s relationship or skewed lines with black hat link building. What about any other link acquisition technique that doesn’t involve cash exchanging hands such as links in exchange for leads/referrals, link exchanges (does not have to be reciprocal exactly), links in exchange for goods, a write up, or review of some sort. I could go on and on here…

    In many of these cases I mention above there is a relationship of some sort being created and yes, there’s “not a line in the sand…” as you mentioned to Rand. But how exactly can white hat link acquisition be any other link technique that doesn’t involve money? it’s not that simple.

    I don’t feel you can segment black hat and white hat so clearly because white hat includes so many other methods of link building that can be construed as “shady” or questionable by so many people — and search engines.

    “So that means that relatively large portion is doing it for one thing – the almighty dollar – which makes the link transaction through business relationships identical to the paid link.”

    I don’t agree with this philosophy, or at least the definition of the relationship to paid links you’ve noted within your post and comments. I personally think that if you removed link transactions through business relationships, then it would have a large and negative impact on search results as a whole. Just one example: Let’s look at major brands that partner with or acquire smaller companies, distributors, or other entities or partners. Without an on-site press release, page write up, or other method of mentioning this “new” relationship via a link or links, how would Google and other search engines connect the dots and serve better results? It could be a front end host provider partnering with a strong and well known server hardware manufacturer. An on-site write up on the hardware manufacturer’s website could give the host provider quite a lot of new business and revenue. Is money exchanging hands? Not directly. But there’s a business partnership and a link or links being given. Where would the line be drawn on other similar examples?

    The example above is only one of dozens of other examples, but what I’m trying to get across is that even in this example there are never clear lines drawn that illustrates the motives of the link being created. It could be to get more business. Isn’t getting more business just the same as “the almighty dollar” at the end of the day?

    I’ve always told clients that Google will never be able to detect, crawl, or otherwise index motives. They cannot get behind closed doors, read email (unless it’s Gmail!! :)), or otherwise dissect why all links are created and real or superficial relationships.

    • Ross Hudgens

      “IMO, your definition of white hat link building is a bit shaky — and it’s relationship or skewed lines with black hat link building. What about any other link acquisition technique that doesn’t involve cash exchanging hands such as links in exchange for leads/referrals, link exchanges (does not have to be reciprocal exactly), links in exchange for goods, a write up, or review of some sort. I could go on and on here…

      In many of these cases I mention above there is a relationship of some sort being created and yes, there’s “not a line in the sand…” as you mentioned to Rand. But how exactly can white hat link acquisition be any other link technique that doesn’t involve money? it’s not that simple.”

      Brian, I think you misunderstood me, as I 100% agree with what you say. My point in that line is that’s what the naive internet WORLD views white vs black hat as that definition – but my point is that black hat, along the lines as it should be defined by these people (even though I still don’t agree with the definition) is that black hat vs white hat progresses to “any link that is not discovered organically” against “any link that is discovered organically”, which is still wrong. MY VIEWPOINT is that black hat vs white hat should be imagined as disruptive vs. non-disruptive links.

      I think you misread my post a little, please go back through it. Cause it sounds like you’re actually completely agreeing with me – I also agree that business relationship links should not be eliminated.

  • Brian Gilley

    Hi Ross, I see where we are definitely in agreement on some or many points you brought up. I guess I read too much into where you said “On one side, we view…” meaning this was inclusive of your own viewpoints. Perhaps I should’ve said that the SEO/Internet community interprets the paid vs. unpaid, white or black hat link acquisition in a blurry way.

    I think my disagreement is more with this comment: “…which makes the link transaction through business relationships identical to the paid link.” I think there are lots of ways to pick this apart since my belief is that they are not identical because the motives and circumstances are or can be very different. But again, perhaps I’m blurring your own beliefs and comments with that of the general online community… Anyway, I’m glad we agree to agree :-P

    • Ross Hudgens

      I can agree that perhaps it is a dangerous generality, but my imagination of that sentence is the end result, not the means. So when we look at “means+ends” you’re definitely right, if we imagine it by “ends” I think they are often times identical in terms of what each creates on the internet.

  • Shopstyle

    I guess that explains why Google hasn’t penalized us yet despite our sugar inc blog link farm.

  • Steve Hall

    I think you raise some really good points regarding the whole debate about paid vs unpaid links and black hat and white hat seo. I would dare say that the majority of links on the web today would not be there if the goal was to simply place content on your website and then hope that someone would find it valuable and link back to it.
    I fail to come to grips with how an exchange of content for a link is much different to an exchange of money for a link. If this not just another form of bartering. I exchange something you find valuable for something that I find valuable.
    I like the way you turn the discussion into a disruptive vs non-disruptive. Can’t say that I had really thought about it in these terms before. If a link I place on my site adds value to my customers and I get paid for it does that really make me ‘evil’? And should I be banished to the depths of the search engines never to return. At least I don’t think so….

    • Ross Hudgens

      Thanks Steve, I agree completely and appreciate the comments. We are imagining the whole thing wrong – things aren’t as clear as paid vs unpaid.

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  • Frank

    I love how the usual suspects show up in the comments and talk smack about the link brokers while their business is targeting exactly the same clients. There are way to many people talking about paid links without actually being heavy buyers or having long-term link buying experience (including Rand).
    At the end most SEOs know that smart link buying and natural link building are close to being identical for search engines. It’s just faster & easier and overall more effective. That’s about it.

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  • Alex Dsouza

    Shall we mean that links from paid directories like Yahoo Dir, BTW, JoenAnt, and are less valued? Or Google considers them SPAM? Even though, Google discourages, what people need is visit. If they send decent traffic, does anyone care of ‘link devaluation’?

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  • Nikunj Tamboli

    Great article on the paid link Ross, the paid link stuff is getting complicating as people are more confused whether to buy links or to go Google way, the one of solution to the problem may be Google & other search engine introduce some html tags like link =”commercial” at end of the link just the way like nofollow tag, many of the said problem solved & the value of link buying will depend on search engines on how to treat them.

    • 王宇飞

      I don’t think the commercial tag can solve the problem, if i want to buy i link i will buy the links don’t have commercial tag.

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  • Thomas

    I always think of links as akin to a billboard. The most expensive billboards are in the best location right? Google has created this monster themselves with the Whole Page Rank + No/Dofollow of the links. There has got to be another way! I have a feeling that PR will evolve in the coming years and nofollow will be a dinosaur term.

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  • Link building Peter

    The strange thing is that so many hotel websites are relying at paid links, why can google even in 2011 still not track down all the sites who are making (ab)use of paid links? The J.C. Penny story one example that Google cannot find in time all sites who using paid links. Even Google can discover now bettter and better unnatural link patterns, they still cannot track down all paid links. It is not risking worth to buy links, but in some niches you have to. it would be better if google would be smart enough to spot easily paid links

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  • corszz

    Recently I was really, really low on cash and debts were eating me from all sides! That was UNTIL I decided to make money.. on the internet! I went to surveymoneymaker dot net, and started filling in surveys for cash, and surely I’ve been far more able to pay my bills!! I’m so glad, I did this!!! With all the financial stress these years, I really hope all of you will give it a chance. – n5vm

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