Living On the Edge: Link Buying In Today’s Marketplace

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Search Engine Optimization (SEO) centers around three tactics: improving a site’s technical structure, providing valuable content, and obtaining authoritative links pointing to site pages. Insofar as linking is concerned, SEO practitioners have long been divided into two camps — those who follow the unwritten linking derived from guidelines provided by the search engines, and those who do not.

Over time, have these “rules” and their stated penalties stopped people from participating in questionable link schemes? To some degree, yes. Most have stopped wasting their time creating “free for all” directories and artificial networks of sites designed solely to generate link popularity. The more acceptable approach of buying links that pass authority and PageRank, however, is alive and kicking. After discussing the issue with SEO practitioners currently buying links, it’s clear there are definite risks associated with any benefits coming from a purchased link, and one should consider those risks before entering the fray.

Why Does Link Buying Work?

Authoritative sites are not a dime a dozen on the Internet, and sometimes the only way to get a link from an authoritative site is by luck or by association. Schools with “.edu” top-level domain extensions (TLDs) are likely to link to each other, further strengthening the trust flowing between sites. The same holds true for “.gov” and “.mil” websites. Sites are not credited with more trust and able to obtain great links solely because of their domain extension, but also because of their association with other authoritative sites.

Buying a link from a TLD site is possible and may have the desired effect. Google’s policy opposing link buying is difficult to enforce. There are problems determining which links are paid-for, as well as who paid for them. After all, if Google devalues a page or domain simply because of suspected link buying, couldn’t it become a legitimate (although “dirty pool”) tactic to buy links to your competitor’s domains and watch the process work for your benefit?

Although it may be easy for an algorithm to detect unusual linking patterns if you start buying links from TLD domains without already having existing links, the problem of determining intent remains. For example, if your site has been around for 5 years with no links from “.edu” sites, and suddenly you have 10 such links, an algorithm may detect it. A human on Google’s quality control team may actually review your site, but without a smoking gun, it is difficult to justify pulling the trigger to devalue it.

Also keep in mind that not all “authority” links come from domains with these difficult-to-acquire TLDs. There are a number of trusted sites with “.com” and “.org” extensions, and even a few with “.net,” “.us,” and less-popular extensions. According to people in the industry and pitches I have fielded from partnerships facilitating link acquisition, it is much easier to buy links from sites in this category.

What To Look For In A Link Partnership

Link value for SEO usually boils down to two factors: relevancy and authority. A link from a relevant page with its own value — as measured by PageRank or manually confirmed by evaluating the number of links pointed to the page — helps the receiving page to rank better. SEO practitioners have proven the effectiveness of this relationship.

But determining relevancy may be trickier than you would think. It is easy to associate the notion of heart disease with obesity, for example, but is a page about eating healthy also relevant to a page on heart disease? In my opinion, yes. Keyword research and link-partner research can benefit from creating degree-of-separation charts to identify related content opportunities.

Link buyers I have spoken with advise caution if approaching webmasters on your own with offers to buy a link. As with any relationship, going straight for the score without the proper courting technique may end in disaster. Try to find evidence of other paid links on the site, and be very careful in wording the request to purchase a link. You do not want to anger or insult a webmaster who may in turn report you to the search engines.

If your plan is to partner with someone to help facilitate the purchase of links, ensure that they are considering relevancy requirements. If not, they are doing you, as well as their link-hosting partners, a disservice. Anyone in the business of selling links is taking an even bigger risk by linking out to irrelevant content.

News sites are the one exception to the relevancy rule. Sites for TV channels and newspaper or magazine domains have, by their nature, a variety of outbound links, given that news originates from many sources and industries. It may be easier to mask a purchased link from such a site, since the outbound linking pattern shows no clear or consistent theme or subject, and therefore can be ubiquitously relevant.

Does Size Matter?

The larger the domain, the more links the site will garner over time. Simple logic suggests that if a site has 50,000 inbound links, some of which come from trusted sites (some with TLDs), an additional 10 links from .edu domains will not stand out. With 500,000 links, it is even more difficult for both search engines and competitors to notice suspected purchased links. If you only have 500 inbound links, however, you are taking a big risk if you buy links.

Final Thoughts

The practice of buying links is not going away anytime soon. If you have taken the time to research your competitors, especially for highly sought-after keywords, you more than likely have seen evidence of purchased links. I, along with others, have taken the time in the past to report this evidence via the channels provided by the search engines. However, I have never seen action taken against a single site I have reported, and others I’ve spoken to agree there seems to be little, if any, enforcement.

So, if you have the budget and are willing to take the risk, here are some considerations to keep in mind regarding the purchase of links:

  • Is the page you are getting a link from relevant to the page you want to increase trust for?
  • Does the site apparently only link out to relevant sites or are there irrelevant links on the page? If the latter is the case, only blogs and news sites should still be considered potentially valuable.
  • If you are partnering with a company that offers this service, are they discreet but picky about who they partner with (meaning do they turn you down if you want to link from unrelated sites or if your content seems unrelated)?
  • Does your site’s current inbound linking footprint look like it could support links from high-trust TLDs like .edu or .gov? For example, chances are that not many .edu sites would link to a purely promotional page.

In a free-market economy, the practice of selling links is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, especially in a down economy when a site’s usual revenue-generating ability is weakened. This may be a timely opportunity for you, but remember that there is a risk engaging in this type of tactic. The risk may be greater for those selling links, but those buying need also to exercise caution in their linking endeavors.

About the Author

Chris Boggs of Rosetta is a specialist in search engine optimization and paid search advertising. Chris joined Brulant in 2007 as the Manager of the SEO team, and Rosetta acquired Brulant in 2008.

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