Posted February 6, 2007 1:17 pm by with 15 comments

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V7N’s Contextual Links offering received a lot of online coverage and comments, first here on Marketing Pilgrim, then at Search Engine Journal and Matt Cutts’s blog.

The debate may rage on over the “ethical” nature of paid links. A more important subtext to that debate is the overall effectiveness of link buying as a strategy to improve search engine rankings. But now the ultimate link authority, Eric Ward, has spoken.

Eric has written a short-but-sweet article in today’s Web Marketing Today called “The Pros and Cons of Buying Links.” Eric warns against buying links to improve search rank, whether they’re “undetectable” or not. He offers three basic rules for link buying:

First, if you want to buy links because you want to improve your search rank, don’t. It’s that simple. Do not buy links for search rank. I cannot say it any simpler than that. Why? Because if you do, the engines reserve the right to penalize you for it. Google considers buying text links for ranking purposes to be a violation of its quality guidelines. Don’t believe it? Read this: Play that game with your eyes wide open, or don’t play it at all.

Second, think of paid links as advertising to the readers of the site where the link will reside. Nothing more, nothing less. Forget rankings. Is the site a logical place where the readers who encounter your link might be inclined to click on it? Your site sells plumbing tools? Then don’t buy a link here. Buy one here.

Third, while you will hear stories or anecdotes about how someone improved his or her rankings by buying links, is the risk of being banned by the search engines worth the potential for improved rankings?

Eric takes a strong stance on link buying: it shouldn’t be used as a method to improve search engine rankings. He doesn’t say that you should never buy links, however. Just not for that reason.

Whether or not paid links work for improving rank, there is the risk that search engines will detect them and get medieval on your site. Does Google set the standards for the industry? No, but it does get to set the standards by which the industry can legitimately and ethically (“white hat”) interact with Google in its terms of service.

Eric concludes his article:

[R]emember these two simple known facts.

A.You cannot know if your rankings really will improve until you buy the links, which means you assume all the risk of the known penalty with no knowledge of the outcome or reward.
B.You cannot know if any improvement will last and impact your bottom line to a high enough degree to offset the loss to your bottom line should your site vanish completely.

I’m not saying don’t buy links. I’m saying you need to be honest with yourself about your intent. Advertising via links is smart business. Chasing rank isn’t.

His closing advice is a good reminder to anyone who’s been working in natural search engine optimization a little too long. Eric Ward’s last word on link buying: Instead of chasing rank with tactics that search engines have clearly spoken out against, use link buying as advertisement and find another way to build incoming links.

  • rick gregory

    OK, maybe I just need a third cup of coffee, but is Eric saying that buying text links is a good idea or not?

    He seems to argue that, as long as you know why you’re buying them, go ahead… but Google isn’t going to know your intentions – all they see are bought text links pointing to your site. So, even if my intentions are to use the text links as adverts and I don’t intend to move my ranking at all, I could still be penalized or banned, right? That’s what a site owner needs to weigh – the pluses of the links as adverts vs the risk of having your site penalized or banned by Google.

    I just don’t see how being honest with myself about why I’m buying the text links helps me make a decision on whether or not they’re a good idea.

  • Rick if you are buying the links for advertising then you ask the site to usea no follow. If the site has any sense they will use the follow to prevent their own site being penalized for “selling links”
    I still do not undertstand why people think Google cannot work this out. Of course they can they have had a war on spam for the last few years and they have found solutions to everythign else its only a matter of time.

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  • I do not believe that Google will ban a site for purchasing text links, I just don’t. Maybe I’m wrong, but there is just too many things out of the control of the site being linked to. First, the decision to use a nofollow tag is ultimately up to the host site, not the advertiser. Second, anyone can buy a link and point it to anywhere, including competitors, ex-girlfriends blogs, corporate hate sites, etc.

    It seems much more likely that Google will just ignore the link, or act as if it had a nofollow tag.

  • rick gregory

    @fionn… Doh! nofollow… of course… That’s it, no more commenting without the 3rd coffee…

    @Tyson – I kind of agree with you but when I read what Matt C has written… it’s not a chance I would take if I had much to lose by being banned or pushed down in the SERPs

  • Weird stuff. Seems like the same I have been saying.

    Rick, as a matter of fact, Google will find a difference between a “PR-link-buy” and an advertising link. Links bought for PR are located outside the context, in the footers, together with other irrelevant links. Advertising links are only placed close to content, on sites with the target audience and, hopefully, above the fold.

    So don’t pretend Google doesn’t know anything.

    Also, does anyone find annoying Google telling everyone to place safe linking without knowing exactly which link is bought or not? That’s silly. I don’t tell my clients to go read a blog or two, because I don’t know the stuff.

  • Shocked by the idea of an SEO saying do not buy links. 95% of ranking, and SEO, is links. He is in essence saying, do not do SEO.

  • Eric,

    I enjoy reading a lot of your articles and I fully respect your opinion.

    Butt……… What are you talking about? Risk? Your more likely to get hit by lightning then to get banned for buying links.

    In all my years of selling text links I have only seen a few sites get banned. And those cases were so egregious that even I would say they deserved it. But even in those cases they were re-indexed in Google within a couple months.

    Most of the times people get banned from Google its for doing stupid on-page stuff. Like building 100,000 page directories.

    Not once have I seen anyone with a clean site go out and get banned for buying a few relevant links to help boost their rankings.

  • Eric Ward is positioned as a “link building guru”, but the more I read from him, the more he reads as still stuck in 1998.

    You see, there’s this thing called Google which is a links-driven search engine…

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  • Yes Brian. I am stuck in 1998. On December 31, 1998 I stopped trying to learn anything more about link building. I figured the years from 1993 through 1998 were enough. For the past nine years I have done nothing…NOTHING, to learn anything else.


    Reading hours every single day from every relevant SEO/SEM/linking/publicity related feed, newsletter, forum, blog I can find. At last count my private Google Custom Engine crawled 110 hand picked sources, my feedreader pulled from 60 feeds (including yours BTW, good stuff), and I have over 100 trackengine bots scouring for changes at 25 or so web based forums. Oh yeah, and a few hundred Google and Yahoo alerts.

    Speaking directly with friends that work at all the engines themselves. You know, asking questions from people who actually have answers and whom trust me enough to tell me.

    Doing link building and publicity work for clients for whom if I fail to deliver I send their fees back, because that’s how I do business.

    There’s the 20 or so podcasts I listen to, and the conferences I attend where I talk to people and work. I’ve never been to one Google dance, preferring to stay at the hotel and keep up with my field.

    Yes, I sure am frozen in 1998.

    One last thing I don’t do:

    I don’t spend time criticizing people on comment boards.

    Eric Ward

  • I just wish that whatever Google are doing to address this link buying would happen. I recall being at an SES about two years ago where Matt Cutts said do not buy site wide links you will get hurt well we all know what happened then. Now they are saying do not buy links for rankings you will get hurt. I do know of sites which have been banned for link buying they just dont talk about and the people selling them the links certianly dont talk about it. I wish the hurt would come so we could be done with this and everybody could move on. Its not goign to affect us we dont buy links but we are trying to rank sites against sites buying links and doing very well. This chapter needs to close. What are Google going to do who knows reduce the weighting for links perhaps whatever they are planning needs to happen.

  • Fionn,

    At the risk of sounding argumentative, I would be very curious to find out what your friends who got banned for “Link Buying” were doing.

    There is no conspiracy by legitimate link sellers to “keep the truth” from link buyers.

    I will stake my reputation on the fact that YOU WILL NOT GET BANNED for responsible link buying. Let me reiterate the word “responsible”.

    This does not include people that go out and buy dozens of links on every PR8 that they can find. Or people who purchase links from spam networks that include 10’s of thousands of inter-linked sites. But even with these people I can show you dozens of examples of people that are doing everything wrong, yet they are still ranking well in Google.

    If it was true that people got banned for responsible link buying there would be no hiding it from the forums and the blogs, as there are literally 10’s of thousands of people buying links to increase their rankings, including some very prominent Bloggers.

  • I think the whole link buying penalty is being blown way out of proportion. To say “buy links and you’ll get penalized” is like saying “cross the road and you’ll get run over”.

    Sure, the possibility is there, if you go about buying links in a dumb way, or crossing the road in a dumb way, but for 99.9% of us the risk is not worth mentioning. Paid links are everywhere. If you do it in a smart fashion, risk of penalty isn’t an issue.

    To demonstrate my point:

    Take a look at that post and tell me which link is paid.

    Can’t tell? Then how do you suppose a search engine can tell which is paid? How in the name of everything sacred could a search engine tell if human review can’t?

  • I also think that YOU WILL NOT GET BANNED if you buy links but i believe that content matters for a web site and good content means more and more inbound links ..

    so try to build first a good web site and then links will come ….also if you decide to buy links think the ammount of the links /per month..

    and about Google– Good things come to those who wait~!