With Google rolling out frequent changes, the last couple of years have been alternately amazingly fun and freakishly terrifying for anyone who builds links or has links built.

It should be clear by now that your site can be harmed by poor quality links, whether you bought them or got them for free, or heck, didn’t even intentionally get them. I previously stated (in several places) that I thought negative SEO was more of a scare tactic than a reality but I’ve since changed my mind after witnessing it firsthand a few times.

As much as some people like to think that links aren’t as important as link builders make them out to be, they’re still one of the easiest ways to cause harm to a site even if they’re no longer the easiest way to rank one.

Puppet Penguin

Google Adjusts Webmaster Guidelines; Panic Ensues

With Google’s updated Webmaster Guidelines for link schemes  I’m starting to think that paid links aren’t actually going away anytime soon as some are predicting.

Any optimization is an effort to manipulate the quality of Google’s search results, correct? I mean, why else would you bother? You want your site to have better visibility, and you aren’t going to leave that up to Google. These “link schemes” worry me because it’s not just paid links that are being fussed about now, it’s manipulative links, poor quality links, crappy directory links. It’s all links, basically.

If this is true, will people start to buy more links? I think they might. And yes, this is my version of “Predictions for 2013″ in an informal manner. And yes again, I don’t have huge issues with paid links, but I’m not suggesting that anyone should go that route; I am merely explaining why I think they might.

The Problem With Free

Lots of us used to think that any link was a good link provided it was free, but that isn’t the case anymore. I’ve looked at a few sites that were warned and penalized, sites that have cleaned up all their paid links (or never actually had any paid links), asked for reconsideration, and been denied because they still show unnatural links.

The common theme here is that these remaining “unnatural” links aren’t paid links. They just happen to be on sites that have little to no value. Maybe they once did, but they no longer do.

The Need To Control

Think about this: if you’re no longer going to get away with placing low-value links, you’ll either agree that content is king and work that angle or you’ll try and control the whole process on your own. Controlling any marketing process tends to cost money.

With people now charging to take an existing link down, I can’t see the payment bit of things simmering down completely, as webmasters now stand to make money off placing links, keeping them up, and removing them when they can make money. If there’s any money to be made, webmasters will usually find a way to charge.

And this: when sites have done everything the right way yet still have problems with every Google update, what does that tell us? Some sites may be sensitive, but when it’s your business on the line and you’re trying to do things the right way but it’s not paying off, what are you going to do? Sit and wait and hope it will all work out in the end, or pay for action?

Please note that by saying that, I’m not advocating that anyone buys links. I’m simply bringing up potential issues as Google attempts to subvert a process that continually evolves. I’ve talked to many site owners who say that they want to do things the “right” way but they don’t really think that they can, as they will keep losing ground to competitors who don’t have a problem with overt violations.

What New Ways Of Manipulation Will This Bring?

I’ve looked at link profiles that are full of good paid links and they are ten times better than some profiles filled with nothing but free ones. If the theory holds that we’re moving towards a more semantic web, then anchor text won’t matter as much which means that people will find other things to manipulate and instead of just buying links, they’ll potentially be buying authors. They’ll be buying content surrounding links they already have. They will develop new ways of rising about competitors by buying negative sentiments where their competitors have links.

Google’s constant attempts to crack down serve only to spawn new and harder-to-catch ways to win. It sounds harsh but I know that no matter what methods they develop of controlling manipulation in one form, people will find ways to manipulate something else, until that gets smacked too, and they start over again.

People like to think that any paid link will stand out, but you probably encounter paid links every day and you have no idea that they haven’t been editorially given. As Danny Sullivan pointed out recently, you can buy press releases that contain links but Google doesn’t yet penalize these. He goes on to say that they apparently don’t carry any weight, just like a paid no-followed link, but my point is that you cannot always identify a paid link without doing some digging.

There are definitely some stupid link buyers out there of course, but there are some incredibly clever ones as well.

At the very least, 2013 should be a very interesting year for link building.

Puppetpenguin image, used under license from Creative Commons.

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

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

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About The Author: owns the link development firm Link Fish Media and is one of the founding members of the SEO Chicks blog.

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  • http://www.cinemafunk.com CinemaFunk

    I still think that buying a link is not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps if you have great ads linking to a great product and site, then I personally do not see anything wrong with buying or selling links.

  • http://twitter.com/JulieJoyce JulieJoyce

    I agree. It’s a lot better than seeing the spammy free irrelevant directory and “list of links” links that provide zero value.

  • Henley Wing

    Hmm.. I actually think paid links will become almost obsolete in the next few years. It’s just not worth the ROI anymore, ever since a few years ago when Google introduced a link aging component to their algorithm. Now you have to buy links, and keep paying for months, even a year before it helped boost your rankings. Penguin just made things worse.

    I do think we’ll see more of a grey zone in paid links. For instance, lots of people are starting to do outreach to bloggers for giveaways. If a blogger links to you, and you’re giving a prize out to one of their readers, is that a paid link?

  • http://twitter.com/JulieJoyce JulieJoyce

    You may be right Henley. I just think that more and more people will want to control their links and buying them makes that easier. Who knows though…people have been saying paid links are dying for years and they’re still going strong. I think people are just getting smarter about how they do paid links. As far as your question goes, I think a lot of tactics like that aren’t really considered to be paid links, although some would argue that they are.

  • Miguel Salcido

    Kudos to you Julie for stating the obvious that no one else wants to touch. Paid links still do work. The issue is whether or not you are a “stupid” link buyer or a savvy one. Heck sometimes you don’t even need to know what you are doing and link buys will work.

    I got hit hard by Penguin. I had a really heavy does of anchor text links since that was what worked in SEO for like 5 years straight. So I was slammed. I removed a bunch, disavowed a bunch, did some excellent high quality content/link bait and got tons of great social mentions and truly organic links, did some high quality guest blogging, and did these things totally organically and legitimately.

    Yet, I’m still penalized. While I look at the sites ranking on page 1 for my target terms I see them all with heavy link buys and tons more exact match anchor text. Yet I’m the one that got penalized! I have clients in the same boat. Loads of overtly obvious heavy anchor text link buys and they dominate. While my client “cleaned things up” after their first Webmaster Tools warning and lost rankings for all their top terms.

    I see way more instances of link buys working than not unfortunately.

  • 123netspeaksolutions

    What Google has been attempting to do regarding good vs bad links has been carried out quite poorly in my opinion. As you pointed out, people will always find ways to game any system – and they have in this case.

    Actually, it seems to me that their approach to “managing links” is very much analagous to how countries’ manage their military arsenals – always having to develop new toys that are supposedly more effective than previous toys. No one wins such a scenario.

  • http://twitter.com/JulieJoyce JulieJoyce

    thanks for that…I think that a lot of people have never been exposed to good paid links so they assume they are all easy to identify or low-quality. And yes I agree, they do still work. Your comment “I see way more instances of link buys working than not unfortunately” is dead on what I’m seeing too.

  • http://twitter.com/JulieJoyce JulieJoyce

    that’s an excellent analogy actually.

  • http://twitter.com/incrediblehelp Jaan Kanellis

    Link buying is completes healthy and if handled correctly with nofollows perfectly fine with Google. Who wouldn’t want to buy a link on cnn.com if it makes sense from thir business perspective?

  • Mike Bayes

    We have been recommending what you refer to as Paid links for some time. But, good one’s have additional value, and maybe significantly more value than just a link and should be purchased based on the traffic and visibility they will give the company, not a rankings boast. The ranking boast is just a bonus.

  • http://twitter.com/JulieJoyce JulieJoyce

    Totally agree.

  • http://twitter.com/JulieJoyce JulieJoyce

    I agree…I think a lot of the time people just hear the word “paid” and immediately discount the value that a paid link can bring.

  • Alan

    There is the other form of paid link to consider. Content Marketing. Most Content Marketing is now pay for placement, because all the other methods are being stamped out. It won’t be long before Google gets sick of these links also and then where do we go?

  • http://www.villa-bali.com/ Daniel Rouquette

    Thank you for explaining clearly what was a gray area to me. I don’t have any budget for link buying yet but I’ll keep this approach in mind.

  • http://www.kirfan.com/ Khalid Irfan

    What if i start building spammy links for my competitor website, will he gets hurt by google due to spammy or low quality link building strategy ? :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/Moketronics Michael Ramsey

    That’s theoretically why the disavow tool exists… Though as the article is pointing out, things don’t always go as planned.

  • Unbound Marketing

    As long as links influence rankings, people will buy links. The currency some people use now is content, or “guest posting”, then try and convince people this is different to a paid link. All they’re doing is devaluing content and press releases.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=791771254 Holt Ryan

    I believe present and future links should largely be about your brand – Google loves brands we all know that and what comes with a recognised/ authority brand?? LINKS! all types of links. Blogs, directories, news, related industry, social – good, bad and in the middle links are all signals of an established brand. Too many people getting caught up on “what about anchor text and high DA?” Use good old fashioned PR and marketing to become an authority brand in your niche and Google will recognise the signals that come with it! :)

  • http://twitter.com/JulieJoyce JulieJoyce

    Well remember that I’m not recommending this…I think it works for some sites and niches but if you can get away with NOT buying links, I wouldn’t start buying them certainly.

  • http://twitter.com/JulieJoyce JulieJoyce

    I agree that bad links are part of an established brand…or part of any site that’s been around for a decent amount of time. I think they tend to be much more problematic when they’re part of a smaller profile and they’ve been done in a large amount. If they’re diluted it doesn’t seem to matter, but if you have 75% crappy links, it does seem to.

  • daveintheuk

    It is obvious, you go to AdWords! ;-)

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    “It sounds harsh but I know that no matter what methods they develop of
    controlling manipulation in one form, people will find ways to
    manipulate something else, until that gets smacked too, and they start
    over again.”

    Build a better mouse trap and you get a smarter mouse, right? People will always be trying to find new ways to take advantage of the loopholes left by Google. Or they will find a way to create new loopholes all on their own. And as long as even 1 site can “get away” with something than hundreds more will follow suit. Some will sneak past the filters and some won’t.

  • http://twitter.com/JulieJoyce JulieJoyce

    Totally agree…they’re breeding more clever SEOs every time they change the algorithm.

  • http://twitter.com/sharithurow sharithurow

    Hi Julie-

    Wow! Lots of comments. Great topic: paid vs. free links.

    It isn’t that simple, is it? Free links can be bad and paid links can be good. We all would honestly like to believe that if we truly create great content, the “good” free links will come naturally. Sometimes, that concept is true. It’s true enough some of the time for many people to believe it is true all of the time.

    And paid links. Not all paid links are bad, are they? How does one truly identify the good vs. the bad paid links? Look at what happened with PRWeb and other press release distribution services. Their links are devalued and/or not counted at all. At one time, these press-release links were counted as “good” links.

    And now we have social media. Same problem, different means of distribution. Does the quantity of social media mentions trump the quality of the “person” doing the tweet/like/etc.?

    And clients seem to prefer simple explanations over complicated ones. “More is better” is easy to understand. “Less is more” is not so easily understood.

    I agree with “Unbound Marketing.” As long as links are “counted” as a form of validation, people will continue to buy and sell links.

    Due to this wonderful topic, I am really beginning to see why information architecture guru Peter Morville said that “context” is a critical component of information architecture. Isn’t this SEO topic all about context?

    My 2 cents.

  • http://twitter.com/sharithurow sharithurow

    BTW, for the most part, my clients were not affected by Panda, Penguin, Florida, Idaho, Alaska, Polar Bears, Aardvarks, [fill in flavor-of-the-month algorithm name].

    I’m not a cat-and-mouse SEO practitioner, nor do I ever intend to be one. It’s a shame that SEO has become a reactive industry rather than a pro-active one.

  • http://twitter.com/JulieJoyce JulieJoyce

    excellent points there…your comment is a column all on its own. It will be very interesting to see where things go with content and social media over the next few months. Thanks Shari!

  • Alan

    Thanks Dave! I was worried about the future of SEO. You have eased my mind! :(

  • http://www.facebook.com/sbelfield Simon Belfield

    I don’t particularly agree with this point. Lots of people still buy links and they seem to be getting the rankings they want. Payment isn’t something Google can know is happening. The transaction doesn’t go through Google Whats the difference between a free link and a paid link on the same site in the eyes of Google?

    Every link in a paid link. It’s just the currency that is changing, at least people think that.

    The fact of the matter is Webmasters are much more savvy and want you to pay for these links because they know what you want them for.

  • Panayiotis Pieri

    Totally agree with the Prediction and all of these are happening in order to move more companies to Adwords. It is all about money and not providing a better search experience because after April the experience got worst for the majority of keywords.

  • http://twitter.com/RagilPembayun Ragil Pembayun

    “Every link is a paid link. It’s just the currency that is changing, at least people think that.”

    Every generalisation is dangerous..

    If I had a football blog and wanted to link a certain player to BBC or Sky Sport as a reference, would it be classed as a paid link because there was no currency involved at all in that case? I’d like to think there are still some decent people out there who are capable to resist such a temptation. Just because most do it doesn’t mean all participates in it..

 

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