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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