Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Buy Links For Traffic, Not PageRank

I recently commented on what I see as Google's effect on natural linking. Long story short: With Internet users choosing search engines over directories, and Google's efforts to minimize the prominence of spam websites in their search results, natural linking has plummeted making it very difficult to get new "natural" links to a website, particularly a new website. A big work-around that many SEM (Search Engine Marketing) firms have used has been to purchase links on other websites. While historically these consultants preferred the term SEO (Search Engine Optimization), as on-page optimization (changes you make to your own site) has matured it has become difficult to significantly affect a website's ranking merely by cleaning up its code, adding proper tags, and engaging in other on-site techniques. SEM includes off-site marketing techniques including advertising. Paid links are a form of advertising which, although not as in-your-face as many other types of ads, have proved quite effective in website promotion.

Purchasing links provides two big advantages: being able to control the placement of the link, and being able to control the anchor text.

A natural link is apt to look something like this: Example.com - The leading example website on the Internet.

A paid link may look no different, but often different anchor text will be used: The Best Example Websites - Example websites from Example.com.

By purchasing placement on a prominent location on a website, choosing the anchor text, and choosing the portion of the site to which the link is directed (e.g., to a subdirectory on a particular topic, as opposed to the main index page), an SEM consultant can provide both natural traffic to the desired webpage (people clicking the link) and improved search engine performance. Google, for example, will traditionally see a link on a high-ranking webpage and, paid or not, give the target site credit for having earned that link. The more quality links a site earns, the better it performs. Paid links can be very lucrative for those who sell them, and they are sold in various forms by websites such as Forbes (one-page themed mini-sites) and Lawyers Weekly (see the anchor text, "Michigan Auto Accident Attorneys").

But now according to Google's anti-spam guru Matt Cutts, Google wants to change the rules of the game. It wants its spiders to be able to determine whether a link is natural (added by a webmaster out of the goodness of his heart) or paid, and it wants to discount the value of paid links - perhaps entirely.
As long as we’re talking about links, this seems like a pretty good opportunity to talk about a simple litmus test for paid links and how to tell if a paid link violates search engines’ quality guidelines. If you want to sell a link, you should at least provide machine-readable disclosure for paid links by making your link in a way that doesn’t affect search engines. There’s a ton of ways to do that. For example, you could make a paid link go through a redirect where the redirect url is robot’ed out using robots.txt. You could also use the rel=nofollow attribute. I’ve said as much many times before, but I wanted to give a heads-up because Google is going to be looking at paid links more closely in the future.
This has some of the big names in SEO/SEM up in arms:
The more I think about it the more I realize why Google doesn't like the various flavors of paid links. It has nothing to do with organic search relevancy. The problem is that Google wants to broker all ad deals, and many forms of paid links are more efficient than AdWords is. If that news gets out, AdWords and Google crumble.

* * *

People game Digg, draft stories for specific trusted editors, suggest stories to popular blogs, buy reviews on blogs, create products or ideas with marketing baked in, link nepotistically, etc. There are a lot of cheap and affordable ways to reach early adopters.
Editorial and social relationships have far more value than Google realize, and Matt Cutts's recent outbursts are just a hint at how Google is losing their dominant control over the web. And they deserve to, because...

The Web Doesn't Want to be Controlled
I agree that paid links can be much more effective than advertising. I received an excellent free link a few months ago which created an incredible spike in traffic to a subsection of my site, all by people reading an article and clicking the link provided. If I were able to identify webmasters with similar traffic who were willing to sell me links at a reasonable price, I would take them up on it even if I knew that Google would never see or credit the link because it was an incredibly effective source of traffic.

I disagree, however, that Google is going after paid links to build or maintain a monopoly. Google has no problem with websites getting natural links of the type I enjoyed. It has no problem with webmasters buying similar links, provided the link is identified as sponsored to both website users and to search engine spiders. Google's own AdSense links are not even identified by most spiders as they are usually served with javascript, and they are redirected such that they provide no benefit to the advertiser in search engine results.

I suspect that part of the vehement reaction to this new policy is that it take the juice out of one of the biggest SEM tools presently available, the paid link. A lot of SEM professionals have spent a great deal of time and energy identifying how to structure paid links, where they can be acquired, cultivating relationships with webmasters who sell links, negotiating price, and building website promotion models which are largely centered on dozens, hundreds or even thousands of paid links. If Google takes that away, the current leading alternative is "link baiting" - writing blog entries or articles specifically designed to generate natural links as well as traffic through social media sites - but, despite what its biggest proponents suggest, link baiting does not work well for all topics and sites. For a lot of customers, until another trick comes along, they may find that their SEM consultant can do little more than broker ad deals and manage their ad campaigns.

Google and the other search engines still need to consider their role in the death of natural linking (at least, as it existed when they built their algorithms which still value that type of link over pretty much any other). But SEM consultants need to take some responsibility for the apparent forthcoming demise of paid links. When link building was first recognized as valuable, it was achieved by convincing webmasters "This site is good enough for you to link to." Then it became, "You don't think it's good enough, but President Jackson would like you to reconsider."

Paid links are simply another form of advertising. Google has no problem with their being used to generate direct traffic. I don't see why a website backed by deep pockets should be able to buy itself better position in search engine results by buying links that would not come naturally, and I think that the search engines have every right to differentiate between natural links and those which are actually ads.


  1. Aaron, I like your post. This is definitely a hot button and I'm actually very happy to see all of the attention it's getting! I'm in the linking business and I can honestly say that since Matt's post a few days ago, we haven't seen any sort of departure by our publishers or advertisers. People have always bought and sold links and always will.

  2. I imagine that the effect will be gradual. I posted a comment, now buried among the zillion or so at Matt Cutts' blog, suggesting that using "rel=paid" would be a better alternative than "rel=nofollow" or obfuscated links, as that way the search engines would be able to track paid links and their editorial relevance. I think it is a mistake to use the tag meant for links of suspect validity (e.g., those left through blog comments or in forum posts) for paid links. (But, as is so often the case, nobody asked me.)

    No matter what else happens, paid links are a valid way to build traffic and image, and they will remain so no matter what Google does. An AdWords link generates no PageRank benefit, but billions are spent on AdWords ads and similar campaigns.

    Also, I imagine that Google will be cautious in implementing algorithm changes around paid links. They won't suddenly become worthless - some will, but for most there will be a gradual decline in their importance. I suspect that the greatest present danger is to sites which are selling links without publishing that fact to their users, soon to be followed by those who are selling links without making that fact apparent to search engines.

  3. Agreed on all points.

    Another factor in the decline of natural linking is the tons of spam designed to fool us all into giving out natural links.


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