It wasn’t long from the time when search engine optimizers first realized the important role backlinks played in search rankings until some enterprising soul came up with the idea of selling links.
Of course, it wasn’t long before bad actors started abusing it, just like nearly every other ranking hack in SEO. And Google, doing what Google does, began cracking down on the process.
There’s not much in the way of a gray area regarding Google’s position on the issue.
The first bullet point in Google’s Webmaster Guide about link schemes states that buying or selling links that pass PageRank will negatively impact your site’s ranking. This includes “…exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links, exchanging goods or services for links, or sending someone a ‘free’ product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link.”
And as good, white hat SEOs, of course, none of us would ever dream of doing such a thing. Except a lot of sites still do. It’s not openly discussed in our field, but the practice is still alive.
This, of course, raises some questions. Namely, what’s the benefit of paying for links? And is it worth the risk?
In this piece, we’ll answer these questions and take a closer look at the buying and selling of links.
Disclaimer: The author and Search Engine Journal in no way promote, condone, and/or endorse link buying. This post is for informational purposes only, and if you choose to do so, you do so at your own risk.
Before we begin, let’s address the elephant in the room: What exactly is a paid link?
When I start talking about paid link building, this is the most common question I get asked.
Google’s definition is clear. Any exchange of money, goods, and/or services for a link is verboten.
In other words, sponsored guest posts and paid reviews are paid links. These are standard practices, but Google is cracking down on them daily.
As you read this article, you should be aware that even “safer” paid link-building strategies risk being considered part of a link scheme and violate Google’s terms and conditions.
Right now, you may be asking, why are websites still doing it if paying for links is so frowned upon? For the same reason people speed in their cars – it’s faster, and some view it as worth the risk.
It reduces the workload building links requires (e.g., creating quality content, prospecting for link opportunities, and building relationships) and significantly cuts down the time it takes to start seeing results.
With this in mind, many SEO professionals don’t mind taking a chance. And believe it or not, paying for links has not always been frowned upon.
In the early 2000s, buying and selling links wasn’t just in vogue – it was considered good business. Directories that let you pay for reviews and service companies that allowed you to buy or “rent” links sprung up like dandelions on a lawn.
Then Google brought out the weed whacker – enabling users to report paid links – which forced link buyers and sellers to get sneakier or change tactics.
Over the past two decades, buying links has become increasingly risky because Google’s ability to seek and destroy the SEO value of paid links has become uncannily accurate. That’s the critical risk.
If you pay for a link, there’s a good chance the algorithms will quietly ignore it. You’ll have no idea whether you just threw money into a pit.
That said, Google isn’t foolproof. Some companies still resort to paid link building because it’s easier, it’s all they know, or it’s standard practice in their industry.
Today, the rise of organic link building and content marketing has more or less nullified the need for buying links in the SEO industry at large. But that doesn’t mean the practice has disappeared.
So, here’s the rub: You most definitely 100% should not be giving a website owner $500 to link to your site. This is a shady practice and is likely to get you burned. But there is a correct way to buy links.
One way is outsourcing linking to a reputable agency that can earn you links (keyword: EARN). When done correctly, this isn’t paying for links as defined by Google.
Paying for the work of creating resources, performing outreach, and building relationships aren’t against Google’s guidelines.
There’s a big difference between paying someone to build links for you and participating in a link scheme. If you choose to do the latter, beware. There are a lot of low-quality link sellers out there. And Google usually knows about them.
That said, there are links worth buying outright. For example, if you’re looking to boost awareness (independent from your SEO efforts), you should pay to be featured on reputable websites with properly attributed and nofollow links. These can be a great addition to your public relations strategy – don’t expect them to help you climb search engine rankings.
Bad link buying practices include anything Google’s been working diligently to stamp out over the past few decades.
These include link farms and PBNs (private blog networks). If your paid links yield a large volume of low-quality links, watch out, you’re at serious risk of receiving a penalty.
Just like organic link building, it’s always essential that you monitor the health of your backlink profile. Use link tracking software to measure your links’ impact and prune low-quality links that might have a negative effect on your site.
You should be incredibly diligent if you’ve purchased links in the past – double-check your link profile and consider disavowing any risky links. Yes, even if you paid for them. It’s not likely that you’ll get a manual action for a few paid links, but if you’ve used these tactics en masse, it’s a real risk.
The fact is, yes, paying for backlinks can increase your search engine ranking – provided you don’t get caught. If it weren’t worth the risk, no one would do it.
But it’s getting harder and harder to hide paid links.
Backlinks are valuable in helping establish a site’s reputation and relevance in Google’s eyes.
But it’s not strictly a numbers game. Earning a few links from relevant websites where the links provide a good user experience will outperform dozens of incoming links from low-quality sites.
It’s most accurate to say that paid links work until they don’t. Some people are okay with business models that rely on temporary tactics with high churn.
Now that you understand buying and selling backlinks better, it’s time for the $10,000 question: Should you do it?
If you ask me or anyone at SEJ, we will tell you firmly: No. At least, not for SEO.
But you’re an adult and make your own decisions. It’s entirely up to you to determine whether you think the potential benefits outweigh the risk.
Are you willing to accept the risks? Are you okay with being a “churn and burn” website and losing a significant amount of your traffic overnight? If so, you may determine it’s worth taking a chance.
Just be aware that paying for links in the long term is a waste of money.
The time and resources you dedicate to purchasing links would be much better served to perform above-board SEO work.
Bought links can give you a quick boost, but at some point, probably much sooner than you would hope, Google will start ignoring those links you paid for.
But maybe that’s your business model.
If you’re fine with being an SEO comet that blazes brightly for a short time and then burns out spectacularly, don’t say we didn’t warn you. Just be prepared to lose your investment when Google catches on to what you’re doing.
You’re much better off paying for an SEO agency to legitimately boost your rankings than you are buying links. In other words, pay for work, not links. Just make sure to do your research and hire a reputable agency or professional who isn’t just buying links on your behalf.