Understanding Link Reputation

There was an interesting comment made in a private discussion list I’m a member of related to paid links. Someone I have great respect for gave an example of a page that had several links on it, one of which was paid for, the others which were not paid for. Same site, one paid, the rest purely editorial. The paid link was placed on the site on purpose, in such a way that there was not anything about the links that indicated which one of the links was paid for. The source code gave no clues. No sponsor box. No “Buy a link here” text or graphical evidence. The transaction was made privately between buyer and seller, and nobody else knew about it. Bottom line? The paid link on that page was 100% indistinguishable from the editorial links on that page.

The point the writer was making was this was a case where a paid link would in fact fool the search engines, because they’d have no way to distinguish paid from not paid. The person paying for the link would receive algorithmic benefit for a link they should not receive any for.

At a micro, page specific level, yes, the above scenario is true. On this one page, no algorithm could identify the paid link.

But wait a moment before you start having secret meetings in dark alleys to arrange a similar tactic.

The flaw in the logic

Search engines do crawl the web a page at a time, and the page above–if looked at all by itself– would seem to be a way to game the system. But search engines don’t necessarily base their decisions on a single page. Engines have a huge history of link data they’ve analyzed. Links I pursued and received for my sites or my clients ten years ago are still around.

You can learn a lot about a site just by looking at its previous collection of inbound links. Has that site shown a tendency to participate in tactics that engines know to be spam? Has that site paid for links in other ways that engines have found? Does a site show a history of having the same content show up on a new domain every year? Has a site had a recent surge in 301 redirects from other domains? In short, your site has a reputation based on your linking history that will help the engines determine just how much they can trust you today. So what if you have a undetectable link on one page somewhere? If historically it’s obvious you’ve peppered blog comments with links, added your site to 700 free-for-all pages, and syndicated articles like a human copy machine, then guess what? It is pretty easy for the engines to spot such behavior.

I am not saying the engines do this perfectly, or at all. But I have some pretty good data that says they do. I’ll cover this in far more depth than is appropriate for this forum, but let me close with an example.

Two fellows who don’t know each other are dressed identically in $1,000 Armani suits, standing next to each other on a corner. At first glance, they appear the same. Handsome. Hard working. Successful. However, one of them stole his suit, and is currently wanted by police for other offenses. He has a rap sheet 20 pages long. The other fellow is hasn’t missed a day of work in 10 years, has never been arrested, and got his Armani by saving for a year.

From looks alone at that single moment, nobody knows who is trustworthy, and who isn’t.

Web sites and their links are the same way. They might look the same on a page by page basis, but collectively, like a police record, they paint a picture of character and intent that can lead to rightful suspicion. So forget about the one perfect link that may fool the engines. If you’ve been up to no good in the past, and the evidence (in the form of links) still remain, odds are the engines already know. Engines crawl links, and make decisions about them. You may be smarter than them on one web page, but they are smarter than you on a billion others.

Eric Ward has been in the link building and content publicity game since 1994, providing services ranking from linking strategy to a monthly private newsletters on linking for subscribers, The Ward Report. The Link Week column appears on Mondays at Search Engine Land.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Link Building: General | Link Week Column


About The Author: has been creating linking strategies for clients since 1994. Eric publishes the strategic linking advice newsletter LinkMoses Private, and provides linking services, training and consulting via EricWard.com.

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  • http://www.receptional.com Receptional

    “You may be smarter than them on one web page, but they are smarter than you on a billion others.”

    By contrast, if you’ve been a real good person for a decade, maybe now is the time that you can really do a good job in this regard.

    Even if you haven’t, Dave Naylor talked about getting (by accident) to number one for “buy viagra” all due to one of Danny’s blog posts – so there is plenty of evidence that one good link does work.

    I appreciate that the “flaw in the argument” is the perfect line to take Eric – and I would stick with it – but when you take away any sense of automation, a good link and “cash in hand” are going to be hard for Google to correlate.

    And who is to say when a link is really paid for? Consider the example of Maxim in April last year putting a 110 ft tall cover girl in the nevada dessert for Google Earth to pick up. It got links – for sure! But who says they didn’t pay? Sounds like they paid plenty setting that stunt up.


  • http://www.bessed.com AdamJusko

    The paid link is tough because you could make the argument that those willing to pay for links care more about their business and so should be more trusted. Not saying that’s true, but as Receptional points out, “natural” links often come as a result of paid stunts by corporations. The companies still paid to get the link, they just didn’t pay the Webmaster.

  • http://www.seo4fun.com/blog/ Halfdeck

    Last year when Big Daddy rolled out, many people complained about their site suddenly “going supplemental.” Matt Cutts’ explanation back then was that sites with untrustworthy link ins and link outs had their links devalued. It was the first warning shot post Big Daddy regarding “non-earned” links.

    Some people still refuse to believe that some of their exchanged / paid links are detectable. They blamed their problems on “lack of trust” or “low authority.” But the truth is that probably some of their crap links were detected by Google and devalued.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post :)

  • http://www.solaswebdesign.net Miriam

    What a good article – one I will bookmark. Hasn’t the world of what is and isn’t okay in linking become convoluted?

    There is no such thing as a free link, because even a voluntary link results when the site in question has spent the time to create a linkworthy item – and time=money, even if the siteowner isn’t being paid, their time is still valuable.

    So whether you are spending your own time, paying a webmaster, paying for stunts that get links, or paying for Adwords, money is involved at the heart of all of this.

    The unnatural part, I think, is that Google is able to say that paying for advertising in the form of Adwords is okay, but paying for other types of advertising is unacceptable to them. I know, it’s their search engine, they can do what they want…but the logic is strange.

    Thank you for writing about this. I have been involved in multiple conversations on this very topic in the last few months.

  • http://www.ericward.com eric_ward

    Receptional commented…

    ” …so there is plenty of evidence that one good link does work…”

    Very true. I didn’t mean to imply that one link would not make a difference. I wrote about this very thing previously (see Where Is The Mother of All Links? The key is the reputation the engines have assigned (for lack of better word) to the site granting the link. I know one link makes a difference because I’ve seen it happen first hand, but if a site that has earned such a degree of trust that one single paid link from that site can make that big a difference, then that site, if it sells a link, has just begun the process of eroding that trust, no matter the impact.


  • http://www.weboptimist.com WebOptimist

    Guess it all boils down to what most of us have been saying all along – buy links for traffic, not for backlink strength. If you do happen to get some backlink love, great, but don’t buy the link for only that reason. Buy it because you think the site is an appropriate source of potential traffic, customers, etc.

    Great post, Eric!

  • sweimh

    First time commenting here, but I do see a problem in Eric’s analogy. If I’m not mistaking, the analogy is drawing comparison between history of untrusted incoming links with “a rap sheet 20 pages long.” But if that’s true, that means search engines assumes “all” site owners have total control as to who and what links to their site (as a criminal makes his/her decision to committed a crime that resulted the rap sheet/reputation). So, theoretically, a site with 1000 good and highly trusted incoming links can be diluted if a competitor creates a bad linking history by sends 100,000 junk links to it (and it’d certainly be easy to create junk links).

    What I am trying to say is that you can surely learn a lot about a site just by looking at its previous collection of inbound links, but the fact they’re incoming links, search engine really can’t/shouldn’t rely on this factor heavily.

  • http://searchsummit.com Rick archer

    In light of this conversation, what do you all think of the various free and paid directories that many sites submit to to build link popularity? The kind listed by http://info.vilesilencer.com/ and other sites. Obviously, paid links in a site like the Yahoo! Directory wouldn’t be penalized. And I’ve seen sites benefit in the SERPS from free directory submissions. Where does Google draw the line? Does anyone really know or is this just speculation feeding on itself?


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