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.
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:
- You’re short sighted and only care about quick, unsustainable results
- You’re spamming or don’t care if your domain is banned from Google
- 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.