Paid links are dirty words in link building parlance.
It’s no secret that buying links can lead to ugly penalties that can drop an otherwise well-behaving site pages down the SERPs or even out of them altogether. Yet some gray area certainly exists as far as what is a paid link and what is acceptable.
I discussed this issue with a colleague of mine on our link building team the other day after coming across Jim Boykin’s old article on the topic. It’s well worth the read, as Boykin concludes:
“I see a pretty clear consistent line that’s been drawn by Google over the years. I’d say the message is pretty clear ‘Links that have been humanly reviewed, where they are not guaranteed a listing, are OK.'”
Essentially what this means is that paying for a site to be reviewed by an editor who may accept or reject the submission is OK, but paying for automatic acceptance or straight placement on a page is not OK.
This leads to even more gray areas. If you can pay for a review does that mean you can compensate a reviewer for the time it takes to review the listing? Or is that only the case if it’s a straight editorial review in which a rejection is possible. Does it matter if they provide a refund in cases of rejection?
For example, it’s readily presumed that submitting to quality directories is purely on the white hat side of things.
But there is a difference between the editorial review policies of different directories.
JoeAnt.com is one of the more authoritative directories out there. It boasts a home page PR of 6 and a Domain Rank of 77. JoeAnt charges a refundable review fee of $39.99 and has editors carefully pore over each suggested link before making a decision.
According to the site’s terms of service, “JoeAnt.com works incredibly hard to ensure that the information contained upon our Web pages is accurate, relevant and of the high quality that our visitors have come to expect.”
I know for a fact that sites have been before so I know its editors handle each review with care, and that’s why it possesses the kind of PR and Domain Rank that it does. It’s safe to say, JoeAnt offers a white hat link.
But I’ve been to other directory sites where the submission fee masquerades for an acceptance fee. My question is how does Google tell the difference between one listing and another? Or does it only in theory?
It’s clear that you want to stay away from obvious paid link opportunities, but to me any directory in which there is a reasonable review should be considered fair game.
What about discount links?
The line further blurs as it pertains to more creative ways to build links. Overstock.com recently ran into hot water by offering discounts to students and faculty on EDU pages in return for anchor text links, as reported by SearchEngineWatch. The blog shows examples of block paragraphs with targeted anchor text that may be going too far, but I don’t see why offering a discount could not be a legitimate link building tactic so long as it’s not abused.
In its purest form a link is essentially a recommendation from one site to the next or perhaps a way to give credit for a piece of information while providing a source for readers to learn more on the topic at hand. The issue here is the purely targeted anchor text that screams gaming search engines. If that anchor text provides a benefit largely for the bots and not end users, it should not be there.
This is where it would make sense for the link to be given the no-follow attribute. In this case the site would get some sort of recognition while not getting “credit” for a link it blatantly paid for.
If a site like Overstock is willing to offer a benefit, it should be entitled to a little bit of link love, especially because it provides utility to the end user in being able to directly go to the place where the discount can be redeemed. The question should be asked if it provides value to human users, and if so there’s nothing black hat about that sort of link.
In the WebMaster World forum that uncovered the reason for Overstock’s rise in the rankings, one commenter questions where exactly this mythical line stands:
“Links for cash is not acceptable, but links for % discounts in leiu of cash is fine? What about links for vouchers? What about links for capital bonds? Links for negotiable bond? Links for cheques? Don’t get me wrong, I think OS are in the clear. Its just that I’m currently much vexed with Googles subjective treatment of links.”
Is Content Really the Answer?
This vagueness leaves one universal truth to the question of paid links. Instead of haggling over the minutiae of this topic and trying to stay in line with Google’s unclear guidelines the answer is content marketing.
By building your own content that is so compelling that people link to it naturally you will no longer have to ask yourself whether something is human reviewed or if it’s going too far taking advantage of gray areas like the Overstock situation.
Such links are 100 percent meritorious and you will never find your site in that morning’s edition of the New York Times for a link strategy deemed unscrupulous for all the world to see.
This process can involve distributing and repurposing content you already have to fit a certain audience, creating and promoting entertaining or informative content or packaging compelling information about your industry in a new or interesting way.
In this way you circumvent the need to even worry about paid links.
We readily admit that in competitive markets, just creating magnetic content to capture links is probably not going to work. You still need to get links to specific pages on your site and hopefully with the right anchor text.
But there is no doubt that creating content that draws in links help build your entire site as an authority spreading link juice throughout. In fact we have seen pieces of content pull in links at such a cost-effective basis, that we are always recommending content marketing as a part of our link building strategies.