Posted by randfish
Last week at Pubcon Las Vegas, I presented on How to Buy Links with Maximum Juice and Minimum Effort with fellow panelists Roger Montti (Martinibuster), Aaron Wall (SEOBook) and Todd Malicoat (Stuntdubl). I was a bit of an odd choice for this discussion, as I’d only recently announced SEOmoz’s Stance on Paid Links & Link Ads, but Pubcon’s organizers decided it would be interesting to have a divergent point-of-view.
Below is my presentation, which covers the perspective I come from and why I’m so risk-averse as well as strategies I recommend to capture value from investing in link acquisition campaigns:
Pubcon 2009 Paid Links
Not surprisingly I had a lot of people talk to me (and email me) after the presentation and express some really valuable opinions and questions. The presentations started late due to a misfunctioning projector, meaning there was no time for formal Q+A. I thought I’d take the opportunity in this post to address some of those missed questions.
Do you ever recommend link buying for any site? What about hyper-competitive industries?
Because of my distaste for risk of any kind when it comes to Google’s webspam team, my answer is consistent – no. I don’t ever suggest that businesses buy links from brokers or in the form of link ads that carry the primary intent of boosting a site’s ranking. To be fair, many of my colleagues who practice SEO in competitive industries (dating, gaming, pharmaceutical, real estate, e-commerce, etc.) don’t agree and do engage in buying links to boost their rank. I even know folks at Fortune 500s who use link brokers successfully for specific pages and targeted keywords (this group is probably in the lowest risk category).
Despite these examples and my respect for my colleagues, whenever I’m asked, I’m going to give the same reply – it’s my belief that in the long run, your money will be better spent on link acquisition that runs no risk of being flagged as manipulative by Google. The penalties and problems of link buying simply outweigh the benefits in my mind, so while I have no problem with paid links from a moral, ethical or legal standpoint (nofollow is most definitely not a way to disclose advertising to consumers as per the FTC’s guidelines), the pragmatist in me says link buying isn’t the way to success at Google.
What about directories that require a payment?
The short answer is – it depends. I’d wager a lot of money that some directories which do require payments pass great link equity. These include sites like:
Then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum of directories that exist primarily for the purpose of selling PageRank. Google took action against many of these a couple years back and I suspect they continue to identify and discount their links as new ones crop up. In 2007, I wrote a lengthy post on What Makes a Good Directory and I’d still stand by nearly all of that today.
The message here is that just because a site requires payment to get a link doesn’t make it a "paid link" that Google will penalize or discount. As with many things in life, SEO and the web, there are shades of gray and nuances that require paying attention. If stuff like this were simple, SEO would be, too, and we know that’s not the case.
If I see my competitors engaging in link buying, how can I compete if I don’t do it, too?
I think a big misnomer with link analysis comes up when people scroll through a list of their competition’s links via something like Yahoo! Site Explorer. There’s no metrics indicating whether the link is passing juice, no metric for trustworthiness or quality, just a notation that a link exists on the page. Even if you’re using something more advanced like Linkscape, there’s nothing to say which links Google counts and which they don’t. You can easily get pulled into the idea that paid links are what’s propping up the competition’s rankings, when in fact, it’s a few great natural links that are doing all the heavy lifting.
I remember a site clinic several years back featuring a Google’s webspam chief, Matt Cutts. He was reviewing a site’s link profile on stage using an internal tool and commented that while Google saw several hundred links to the site, only three (yes 3 out of hundreds!) were passing link equity. Cearly, the search giant does a tremendous amount of filtering on the web’s link graph, so don’t presume to be sure which links are passing value.
Even if you feel very confident that paid links are winning the battle for your archnemesis, I recommend taking the low-risk road. In the long run, they’re likely to get penalized/devalued and you’re likely to overtake them with a link profile that’s clean and continually increasing in value.
Where do you draw the line between money that’s spent to acquire a link indirectly (as with event sponsorship, ads that turn into links, etc.)
This gets at the crux of the issue, but I think I’ve got a reasonably good methodology for determining which links requiring funds fit with Google’s guidelines and which violate them. I like these three questions:
- Does the organization offering the link tout SEO, PageRank, customizable anchor text or Google rankings as either a portion or the whole of the benefit you’ll receive by paying this money?
- Does the money go towards little else besides the link itself?
- Does the organization/website provide links via this acquisition methodology (whether that’s an event sponsorship, a charitable donation, an advertising relationship, etc.) to the more aggressive side of the SEO/web marketing field (niches like porn, pills, casino, legal, real estate, etc.) often with anchor text heavy links?
If the answer to any of these is a definite "yes," the source is likely to fit into Google’s "suspicious" pile and possibly will lose the ability to pass link equity in the future (or already has).
How can you be sure that linkbait and viral content won’t be treated the same as paid links by Google in the future?
Just a couple months back, I wrote about Why Linkbait is a Tactic the Search Engines Will Always Value, so it’s probably not worth re-hashing here. Certainly, there are ways to be manipulative about virtually anything in the link acquisition world, and Google may well take action against some forms of these, but I believe natural links acquired through great content are going to stand the test of time (and are likely to benefit from future ranking signals, whatever they may be).
This is just Google FUD – we shouldn’t let them dictate how to do our jobs!
But we already do! The only reason we try to build these links, research the right keywords, create and submit XML sitemaps, etc. is because Google is dictating the way their crawling, processing and ranking systems work. In their ecosystem – the one that drives 85%+ of all search traffic on the web – there are guidelines, best practices, rules and regulations. If you want to play on their court, you’ve got to abide by those rules or be ready to face the consequences. I’m not ready for those consequences and thus, have low risk tolerance and the attitude you’re reading about.
None of this is to say that a more risk-heavy appetite and more gray-black hat methodologies for link acquisition aren’t worth trying; just make sure you do it on sites you’re willing to get tossed out of the playground.
As always, I’m looking forward to the conversation in the comments.
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