In Defense of Paid Links, why Rand is Wrong

Rand Fishkin of SEOMoz fame recently released their corporate position on the issue of paid links. I rarely disagree with Rand on the common practices of search engine optimizers, but I must respectfully disagree with this position because it misrepresents the risk-reward ratio for the overwhelming majority of online business owners. I will try my best to both respond to his points and outline my own position regarding paid links.

First, let’s be clear about a few things. Paid Links != Rented Links. There are a wide array of paid linking methods that are not rented, each with its own risk-reward ratio to consider. Cheap, automated paid directory linking may offer very low reward and high risk. Renting links may be somewhere in between. Paid Links != Text Links. There are a wide array of paid link opportunities that are not text links, such as image or banner links.

Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the argument. Rand makes it clear that their position against paid links is two-fold.

  1. “we believe that the risk to reward ratio is too high”… “paid links no longer offer long-term, high yield value for SEO campaigns”
  2. “there are other, more valuable, less dangerous tactics that will add long term value to your SEO”

Essentially, SEOMoz’s position believes the risk-reward ratio has shifted negatively and that other tactics offer better long-term value. I vigorously disagree.

Industry-wide, the risk paid links is exaggerated.

If paid links presented a significant risk to your site’s ability to rank, it would become an effective method of Googlebowling. Neither Google nor any other search engine has the ability to identify who is responsible for purchasing the links pointing toward your site. At any given moment, I can go out and purchase links pointing to a competitor’s site and report them for paid links. It is not in Google’s interest to turn paid links into a negative factor; rather, they intend to devalue paid links altogether. Google would prefer to find a way to identify paid links and destroy the market for them by removing the ability for those links to pass along PageRank over penalizing sites for paid links because doing so would create a dangerously easy black-hat tactic. Chances are, if you lost rankings after paid linking, it is because Google’s algorithm found 1 paid link and took a closer look at your link profile, devaluing much of what were ill-gotten gains. This is not a penalty, this is a reevaluation.

Industry-wide, the reward of paid links is underestimated

I will ask our readers and the SEOMoz team to take a crack at this one. Please find for me a site that ranks #1 for a highly trafficked (100,000+ uniques per month), commercial, generic industry term (non-brand) without the keyword in the domain name that ranks without paid links above sites that use paid links. The only sites you will find that meet those expectations are sites like Amazon, Ebay, Best Buy – companies with nationwide brick-and-mortar presences which can depend on site authority. Mom-and-pops have no chance without paid links. Paid links are the bread-and-butter for many effective SEO campaigns. Moreover, there are long-term rewards for paid linking as well.

  • First, as mentioned before, you can easily buy permanent links that look very natural. A paid link need not be rented and, frankly, if you are renting links through a broker, you have to bet that Google can do the same. There are safer ways to buy links.
  • Secondly, short term gains from paid links, even rented links, can be used to bank-roll long-term, whiter-hat solutions that take longer to realize investment. There are plenty of clients for whom we recommend rent-to-own schemes where the client begins with a safe renting strategy and which is replaced, over time, with highly targeted paid and unpaid permanent links.
  • Finally, the low overhead of paid linking allows many webmasters to run multi-site strategies. This allows them to mitigate risk through diversifying strategies across many web properties. The high-overhead and labor of most white-hat link building methods make multi-site strategies cost prohibitive

There are no realistic alternatives

Rand has already indicated the importance of Anchor Text and once again their very own Search Engine Ranking’s factor lists anchor text as the most important factor. The primary methods of non-paid linking such as viral marketing offer no real anchor-text control. Only widget-bait can give this control, but even then Google has indicated similar problems with this method of link building. The simple truth remains, if you have a competitor outranking you by purchasing links, your only realistic chance of beating them is by also buying links. Given the ethical dilemma of reporting competitors for paid links and the reality of businesses not simply being able to wait on Google’s algorithm to improve enough to get rid of their competitor, there is no realistic alternative to paid linking.

The problem isn’t paid links

  1. it’s the algo: When is the last time you saw someone use high seo-value anchor text in a link in a completely editorial fashion? Before you knew anything about SEO, would you have ever considered turning the words link building in this sentence into a link pointing back to your site? Google has chosen to use anchor-text as a primary (if not THE primary) tool for determining the rank of a site despite the reality that the overwhelming majority of keyword-specific anchor-text links are acquired in non-editorial manners. They are paid, traded, solicited or spammed in one way or another. Paid links actually make the playing field a lot more balanced.
  2. and it’s stupidity: Everything in moderation. Relying solely on paid links is a bad idea. I think everyone agrees on that. However, using paid links as a part of a comprehensive search strategy is not only effective, in competitive arenas, it is necessary.

I know Matt is going to shake his head at this, and I don’t mean it to be a ringing endorsement of paid links at all, but I want online business owners to not be driven by the fear that the great big Google is going to stomp down on them. I have seen far more online businesses fail by not being willing to risk enough online than fail by risking too much. If you really are concerned about it the potential of losing rankings, start a 2nd website and buy links to that one. Build 1 site completely white-hat and 1 site with paid links.

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  1. Mark
    Sep 20, 2009

    Without going into a dissection of both posts, I’d like to highlight one point. You say you think paid directory submissions are “high risk”, I would disagree.

    If you’re “paying” for a directory submission, are you not paying in reality for the time for somebody to examine the link and your website and determine if it is worthy of inclusion, rather than paying for the link itself?

    So being listed in Yahoo! Business Directory is high risk?

    Author Note: If I did not make myself clear in the post, I apologize. I intend to say that massive paid directory submission is high risk (ie: joining hundreds if not thousands of cheap paid directories). Yahoo!, BOTW, etc. are low risk. Doesn’t it seem silly to lump all of these in together as paid links? and to paint them all with the same brush of “don’t do it”? Thanks
  2. randfish
    Sep 20, 2009

    Hey Russ – good post.

    I think your point about Google’s treatment of exact match anchor text is a really good one, and certainly there are different levels of risk (which I could have been clearer about in my post) when engaging in different types of link purchases.

    I’m going to have to disagree with you in regards to this bit, though:

    “Mom-and-pops have no chance without paid links. Paid links are the bread-and-butter for many effective SEO campaigns. Moreover, there are long-term rewards for paid linking as well.”

    I think that with the exception of a few thousand folks who are “hardcore” SEOs, paid links isn’t even on the minds of most “mom-and-pop” businesses (whether they’re doing SEO or not). I also think that, while I may have exaggerated (or not done a good job delineating the various levels of) risk as it applies to paid linking, you’re underplaying it here.

    Lastly, I’d posit that for those who engage in very small, very limited, targeted paid link acquisitions from sources that don’t normally sell links and in ways that are extremely hard for the engines to catch (in content, not through a network, purchased privately and direct, no tags, etc.) you might be right. However, when people say and think “text links” and “link ads” and “paid links” in this industry, that narrow definition is not what comes to mind.

    p.s. I still think that given the time and resources spent on buying links in that targeted and cautious a fashion, you can always get creative and make viral, social, PR, branding and partnership link strategies that will be value-add for the long term.

  3. Garry
    Sep 20, 2009

    I still don’t see how monetizing a website through paid linking programs compromises the “integrity” of the site or the information offered.

    If Google trusts my site through its algo, and people trust my site through linking, then Google should then trust my outgoing links without further review or concern.

    It’s not Google’s job to determine how I have monetized my website or make a judgment on which method is trustworthy and which one is suspect.

    The day people stop linking to my site is when my PR should drop. Google needs to keep their BIG nose out of my methods of website monetization.

    Not everyone has a shoe-in cash cow like AdWords where you make more easy money than God for dominating the market.

    Some of us still have bills to pay.


  4. Seth Rietdijk
    Sep 21, 2009

    I think that the question of the relevancy of a website should be more important for any engine than the question “is a link paid for or not?”.

    And how do you define “paid links”? . if a webmaster knows you and likes you and/or gets some presents of any sort and gives you links in exchange this is actually almost the same as sending a invoice for it.

    Also… newspapers for example do not always get paid for the stories itself… but they normally won’t write a story about your company (with links) if you are not advertising with them. They indirectly get paid for the post. Why do Google or other engines give so much credit to these companies (and see them as highly relevant and of great authority) while they know that they are working like that? It should be easy for them to actually let these articles pass no pagerank at all… but they don’t.

    It thus means that in some sort of way paid linking works and i need to agree with the author of this article… but it works only if you pay directly/indirectly to high authority websites… the smaller ones get their “butts” kicked in the proces. Not really fair is it?

  5. Michael Savage
    Sep 21, 2009

    Great points gotta love the fact that Rand would take the time to read and comment on your point of view.

    Author Note: Agreed. Rand has always been good about that kind of stuff.
  6. Michael Garner
    Sep 22, 2009

    Being in the trenches, I have seen the aggressive paid link strategy pay off for many competitors, and it is a point of frustration. Especially when the consensus from our peers is “don’t do it”.

    For businesses that are serving a specific locality, what influence do links from local blogs, reviews, social networking sites, and local citations have on SERP placements? These may be harder to quantify, but in my opinion, are playing an increasingly important role in successful long term SEO strategy.

    I think a diversified strategy that includes all of the above (in moderation), as well as good on-page optimization, is the key to long-term success.

  7. Mark
    Sep 30, 2009

    Has anyone got a good, solid example of a site that has been penalised for buying links?

  8. Mark
    Oct 1, 2009


    “I still don’t see how monetizing a website through paid linking programs compromises the “integrity” of the site or the information offered.”

    Assuming they are good links, it doesn’t affect the integrity of your site, however Google’s is worried that giving the green light on linking is going to have a negative impact on the quality of their search results, which is core to their business.

    “If Google trusts my site through its algo, and people trust my site through linking, then Google should then trust my outgoing links without further review or concern.”

    I don’t think that’s a good long term solution. So what stops me getting trust on my whitehat sites then just linking through to all my blackhat efforts? Again that’s going to impact on Google’s search quality.


    Google does leave you free to monetize your work in your own way, nobody is stopping you. The only difference is that you won’t be ranking in Google’s privately owned index, which don’t forget is not a public service or a “right”.

    The fact is, the only reason your making money is because Google is delivering you that traffic. If it wasn’t then you certainly have no worries about doing whatever you want. If you’re saying you want to monetize your site by selling links purely for the Google link benefit, then it kind of does impact them that you’ve got a business model that essentially only exists to leech off their algorithm.

  9. Eduardo
    Oct 29, 2009

    Hi Russ,

    I’m looking for a post you published titled “Using Tag seeding to create optimized pages”.

    Did you remove it? Is there a way I can read it again, it was pretty cool!



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