If you have worked in SEO for even a short amount of time or have even started to market your website or blog, then you surely understand that it is important to do what the search-engine giant likes if you want to gain higher rankings in its search results. (For example, the point of optimizing an SEO page is not directly to benefit your website; it is really to help Google to do its job better.) As a result, many white-hat SEO marketers — in contrast to those who use black-hat SEO software — never attempt to buy links or sell them in efforts related to gaining PageRank. And rightly so.
Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s web-spam team and the person with whom countless marketers would spend $1,000 or more just to have lunch, once described in 2005 his company’s approach to buying links in efforts to gain PageRank as such:
Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and link-based analysis has greatly improved the quality of web search. Selling links muddies the quality of link-based reputation and makes it harder for many search engines (not just Google) to return relevant results. When the Berkeley college newspaper has six online gambling links (three casinos, two for poker, and one bingo) on its front page, it’s harder for search engines to know which links can be trusted.
If you are an SEM novice, here is the gist in terms of how search engines analyze links. A link from one website to another is a “vote” that the latter site is “authoritative.” Therefore, the websites that have the most incoming links and are therefore viewed as the most authoritative will often rank the highest in search results for their targeted keywords. Of course, this can — and has — opened the digital door to abuse including practices of article-marketing automation, directory spamming, comment spamming, and, yes, buying backlinks and selling them in efforts to gain PageRank. In fact, as I wrote in a prior post, this is the reason that search engines will likely (and increasingly) use social-media today rather than backlink profiles when determining the “authoritativeness” of websites (see :
The reason should be clear to anyone who has worked in Internet marketing: Google has had to stay one step ahead of spammers and people who use black-hat SEO software. After people began stuffing keywords into pages, Google switched to preferring links as a sign of authoritativeness. After people began to obtain junk backlinks through tactics including directories and blog spamming, Google had to look elsewhere — and that will likely be quality content and social-media sharing.
Google is concerned about the abuse of paid links enough that the search engine has a page at which people can report them (or several other issues). (Personally, I wonder whether this feature itself could be abused. At the start of my SEO career, I worked in industries that, shall we say, are very competitive. And I was a newbie enough at the time that I did not realize that were often using unethical techniques. So, I would not be surprised if some companies file false reports to hamper the SEM of their competitors, if even temporarily. But I digress.)
Now, there are methods to sell and buy links that are acceptable to Google. (Yes, you read that correctly.) If you go back and re-read the earlier sections of this post, you will see that I italicized phrases like “buying backlinks and selling them in efforts to gain PageRank.” That was intentional. The practice is not viewed as inherently bad; it is only when the practice is done specifically with the intention to gain search-engine authority. A common example is when a website offers a “Sponsored Links” section in the sidebar that contains paid links to third-party websites, usually with targeted anchor-text (the words that comprise the link itself).
The Good Way to Buy Links
Other types of paid links, as Cutts himself notes in the post that I mentioned, are perfectly acceptable — for example, a paid link whose purpose is to increase referring traffic to a website and not to increase PageRank. I could sell a link on My SEO Software to another SEM website that wants to get traffic from people here who are interested in search-engine marketing. But, there is an obvious question: How can webmasters tell Google that a paid link is focusing on referring traffic and not on increasing backlink and anchor-text authority?
According to Cutts, there are two general ways:
- Insert the rel=”nofollow” attribute into the link so that it will not pass so-called “link juice” from your website to the target one
- Tell the robots.txt file to disallow search engines from indexing the page or post on which the paid link appears
This way, the paid link will not benefit the target website specifically in the context of search-engine rankings — the site will only receive referring traffic from the link as a result. Google’s incorporation of backlink profiles will be neither contaminated nor compromised, and both the buyer and seller website will benefit. Everybody wins.
Now, it will be obvious that most websites will ever be able to attract any significant revenue from such a strategy, whether they are on the buying or selling end. Those that will benefit will be at either end of the traffic spectrum: general-interest websites with millions of visitors (like the New York Times or Fox News) or niche-interest sites whose few visitors are extremely valuable in and of themselves. After all, as I mentioned in a post on what strategy new blogs should use:
The Internet vast increased the rate of market segmentation — rather than a single mass-audience, the world now consists of a near-infinite number of small, specific ones.
Whether you will want to pursue a blogging strategy or one to buy links (that is ethical), this principle is important to remember.
Samuel J. Scott, a former journalist in Boston turned Internet marketer in Israel, is the founder and publisher of My SEO Software and Director of Digital Marketing and Communications and SEO Team Leader at The Cline Group. You can follow him at Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. His views here and elsewhere do not necessarily reflect those of his company and clients.