Everyone and their bros want to sell you a link.But are paid links really a ranking factor that helps you stand out in the SERPs?
Google bluntly told us that links help them assess a site's reputation, and that search rankings are "based in part on an analysis of those sites that link to it."
We know that links are a ranking factor.
We know that organic connections can be hard to come by.
Can you buy links and enjoy the same ranking advantages as through content quality, building reputation and authority, and sharing valuable expertise that people can't get anywhere else?
Of course, you can buy them.There is no shortage of people willing to sell you links.
In this article, we'll explore whether these paid links can actually help you rank higher.
Claim: Paid Links as Ranking Factor
Google's Webmaster Guidelines are very clear about paid links.They don't want them affecting search rankings.Google says:
"Make reasonable efforts to ensure that advertising links on your pages do not affect search engine rankings.For example, use robots.txt, rel=”nofollow” or rel=”sponsored” to prevent ad links from being followed by crawlers.
That doesn't mean paying for links is inherently bad.You just need to be honest and open.
But what if you could sneak a paid link (or a few) through Google?
Of course, they can't detect all paid links algorithmically, especially if you're very careful.right?
In this case, if you don't disclose that it's a paid link, and are careful not to have a footprint to speak of, the link will provide the same benefits as any natural link.
This is real.
It's also a dangerous game.
The reason is as follows.
Evidence of Paid Links as a Ranking Factor
We know that links pass PageRank and affect search rankings.It's not even a problem.
However, Google requires you to disclose that when there is a relationship, "Hey, this is a super valuable/reputable/authoritative page that I really want to share with my audience!"
The way you explain your relationship with Google is through the rel attribute value in the link's tag:
- rel="Sponsored" says, "This is an ad and paid ad slot.It doesn't pass PageRank and Google basically ignores it.
- rel="ugc" says: "This is user-generated content and we make no endorsement of its quality or accuracy.
- rel="nofollow" says, "This is not a site we want to associate with, so please don't follow this and crawl this page.
(Nofollow was the predecessor to rel="sponsored" and is still an acceptable markup for paid links.However, Google prefers that you use sponsored tags for all paid links.
If you choose not to disclose paying relationships or transactions, you are likely to enjoy some ranking benefits.
until you get caught.
When that happens, you're in luck if Google just ignores the link.
Paid links can also keep it from ranking
If Google finds out that you are using paid links to manipulate the algorithm, you may find that your site has been removed from its index.
People have been trying to manipulate links and profit from sales – Google has applauded since the early days of the engine.
A particularly hilarious lawsuit in 2002 made clear Google's stance on the practice of selling links.
This is the case of Search King Inc. v. Google Technology Inc.
Search King is suing Google for "malicious" cancellation of PageRank from its link-selling program PRAN.
Search King sells links on premium sites.He sought to argue that manual action against his linking scheme was anticompetitive because PageRank was described in Larry Page's papers and Google materials as "honest, objective, and mechanical."
In her view, District Judge Vicki Miles-Lagrange explained:
"Search King asserts that the devaluation came after Google, as Google learned that PRAN was competing with Google and was making money by selling ad space on sites that rank high on Google's PageRank system.
Search King's case was dismissed, and the lesson for the industry was clear: If you're caught in a paid linking scheme, you're going to be slapped.
If you try to sue Google for indexing or otherwise punish you, you will fail.
In a 2005 blog post, Matt Cutts explained that while the algorithm solves most paid link problems, Google is not against manual intervention:
"Yes, Google has multiple algorithmic ways to detect these links, and they work just fine.But these links make it harder for Google (and other search engines) to determine how much to trust each link.A lot of effort is spent that could otherwise be spent on improving core quality (relevance, coverage, freshness, etc.).
"When people suggest how to make paid links less detectable (for example, by removing any tags or indicating that the link is sold), I wouldn't feel it if search engines started taking stronger action on link purchases in the near future surprise.
Even so, since around 2010, SEO professionals have largely believed that if Google determined a link was paid, it would ignore it.
But recent human intervention shows that Google isn't screwing up its paid linking program on a massive scale.
In 2019, Google's Gary Illyes thanked someone on Twitter for submitting a spreadsheet with over 700 domains selling links that passed PageRank:
Google also appears to have taken manual action against a law firm's scholarship link building program in December 2020.
In this case, the link is not bought or sold directly.
But as Roger Montti of Search Engine Magazine explained at the time,
"...These links are out of context and do not qualify as genuine citations or 'link votes' vouched for by law firms.
Today, the search engine's paid link resource says:
"Google works hard to ensure that it fully discounts links designed to manipulate search engine results, such as excessive link exchanges and buying links through PageRank.
But it's clear that even outside of algorithmic detection, Google is looking for unnatural links.This includes links in exchange for some value - currency or other value.
Google has long asked the SEO industry to police itself by reporting paid links and other linking schemes.
This means that what Google's algorithms might be able to grasp isn't your only concern.
If a competitor (or their agency) sniffs out your paid links, you may find yourself on the wrong end of one of those reports.and the resulting actions.
Paid Links: Caution Mistakes
SEO professionals have long debated what constitutes a paid link and whether Google has the right to require marketers to disclose the relationship behind a link.
See, for example, this 2006 article by Loren Baker.
Today, Google defines the following as link schemes that can negatively impact a site's search rankings:
- Buy or sell links through PageRank.This includes:
- Exchange funds for links or posts that contain links.
- Exchange goods or services for links.
- Send someone a "free" product in exchange for them writing the product and including a link.
- Text ads via PageRank.
- Editorial or native ads, articles that contain links that pass PageRank receive payment.
Google Says Paid Links Don't Work.
However, this is not entirely true.
Paid links work the same as any other link, unless they are:
- Mark as sponsored or nofollow using the rel attribute value.
- Algorithms determine that it has been manipulated in some way.
- Paid links that are manually reported or detected as undisclosed.
Two of these options -- self-disclosure of their paid status and algorithm detection -- will cause Google to simply ignore the link.You still get any relevant branding, advertising or other value from it.
The third scenario might cause you to tick off the spam team and generate manual action.
In this case, you risk losing not only the value of your links, but all your other SEO efforts as well.
Paid Links as a Ranking Factor: Our Verdict
Google uses links as a ranking signal.However, they explicitly don't want paid links to count.
Yes, you can try to hide it from them.
But you do so at your own risk - and the consequences could be devastating.
Using undisclosed paid links to improve search rankings is the SEO equivalent of tying a bomb on your website.
If you are lucky, its connection is wrong and nothing will happen.
But one day, you might find someone throwing a detonator at Gary Illies.
He'll gleefully flip the switch, make no mistake.