Ryan Jones Blog – dotCULT.com Ryan Jones Blogs About Internet Culture, Marketing, SEO, & Social Media

February 18, 2011

Paid Links For SEO

Filed under: Main — Ryan Jones @ 12:41 pm

It’s been an exciting week concerning paid links and SEO. Last weekend the NY Times broke the story about JC Penney selling links and how Google responded with a ban.

Today, securing high-quality ‘do-follow’ links is no easy task. However, it stands to reason that things will be difficult because every company is trying to find and secure the best links for themselves; the difference is that some do it better than others. That’s where a good service provider like SEO Melbourne comes in!

Shortly thereafter we had Forbes posting about similar Google actions in the Google webmater help forums. Looks like they had a penalty for their links too – which they kind of sort of but not really cleaned up.

Now we’ve got Barry Schwartz admitting that he sells links to SEO companies. Combine all of these events and you’ve got a perfect shit storm of SEO arguments just ripe for a flame war to break out. Somebody call the fire department, a backdraft scenario is imminent.

First I just want to say kudos to Barry for doing whatever the hell he wants to do regardless of whether or not Google advises it, but that’s not what impresses me. What impresses me is that Barry is willfully violating Google guidelines and NOT bitching up a storm about how evil Google is. He’s accepting his penalty. I wish more webmasters would do that. Barry’s living out the advice I gave in my SEO Columbus post: Own Up To Your Shit.

What annoys me are all the SEOs in the comments of Barry’s Article who are trying to defend paid links. It’s even getting kind of personal with one calling me an SEO Noob after I stated that paid links shouldn’t be part of most sound SEO strategies. He goes on to further (incorrectly) label me, but none of that matters. This isn’t an argument about ego, clients, or e-penis size. It’s an argument about the validity of paid links and whether they’re a viable SEO method. (plus, for the record, my E Penis is huge!)

Instead of entering a virtual measuring contest, I’d rather elaborate on what I mean when I say paid links should not be a part of most sound SEO strategies. Since I hate how wonky Disqus comments can sometimes be, I decided to do that here.

The simple answer is all about risk/reward – for both the SEO agency and the client. If your site is penalized for paid links the results can be devastating. Not only will you lose traffic, you’ll also have an ORM nightmare on your hands. For a major client that means hundreds and hundreds of man hours being dedicated. For an SEO agency it means potentially losing a client, and lowering the chances of getting future clients. To me, none of these risks are acceptable.

Even if you do put on the short-term success blinders and accept the risks, I still feel that there’s better methods than paid links. Let’s take JC Penney for example:

Not counting their paid links, they still had around 2 Million earned, high-quality, anchor text diverse links pointing to the site. As Alan Bleiweiss points out they also had much bigger problems than linking. Their site is ripe with canonical issues, duplicate content problems, faceting nightmares, a terrible URL structure, and title tags that look like they’re all auto-generated based upon what you last clicked on. That’s a lot of problems, and I only spent 3 minutes looking at the site.

If you ask me those issues, and not the lack of links, are why natural search only makes up 7% of JC Penney’s traffic. They needed those paid links with the anchor text to rank because they weren’t getting the true value out of their 2 million earned links. They weren’t getting the value out of them because the search engines were (and still are) having trouble crawling the site and finding relevant, optimized content. Who knows what would happen to that 7% number if they spent that paid links budget actually fixing the issues on their site.

And that’s why paid links aren’t a viable SEO strategy. They’re a band-aid. They work great for short term success but the risks just aren’t worth it.

In my opinion there’s only 3 reasons to use paid links:

  1. You’re short sighted and only care about quick, unsustainable results
  2. You’re spamming or don’t care if your domain is banned from Google
  3. You’ve suck so much at SEO that you have no choice

Disclaimer:The views in this post are mine and mine alone. They in no way reflect the views of my employer or clients. With that said I have never recommended nor have I bought links for any clients nor do I intend to. I have both bought and sold links for personal sites in the past, mostly just to test things out.


  1. Issue to consider is what is a paid link and then to evaluate the different paid links.

    Their are contextual paid links that are earned. For example, many events do not pay speakers but reward speakers with a printed bio and a link (sometimes of their choice of text). What about when you are a corporate donor to a charity event and the event website links back to you. These are all forms of paid (rewarded) links that should and must be allowed.

    What if a site is referencing the topic/industry/service your product offers. These are content relevant and do have their place. In the perfect world the site owner might naturally link to you, but what if they didn’t and you offer them a bit of cash for the link. Yes this may be a bit unethical but it is relevant to the site visitor so what’s the big deal.

    Now we come to out of context and misleading links that are bought and paid for. These are not informative extension of the pages content and are purely an ad. So they should appear as such and out of the disguise of being content relevant.

    Comment by Alan K'necht — February 18, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

  2. Properly placed content with a paid “ad” within that content should be acceptable. It’s a tough line, because the search engine has a vested interest in eliminating individuals that could be competing on a paid “ad” base.

    In the end, it’s their search results, so they can do as they please. Just find it to be an interesting argument.

    Comment by Thos003 — February 18, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

  3. I agree, Alan, that you have to allow those types of links, but I don’t put them in the same category as text-link-ads style paid links.

    The reason is, that charities and conferences are still making an editorial decision before they place that link. Conferences won’t just let any idiot (like me) speak. (although given some conference speakers, I’ve been led to question that)

    Charities are the same way. Most won’t accept a donation from NAMBLA or the KKK or anything like that.

    So in a sense, those links ARE earned.

    as for the “but my paid links are useful” argument that somebody will no doubt drop in here to say: if your links were useful to users, why are you only providing them if you’re paid? Shouldn’t you provide useful stuff to users without being paid?

    Comment by Ryan — February 21, 2011 @ 10:38 am

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