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March 26, 2014

Google and the Paid Link Crackdown

USA Money
Photo Credit: 401(K) 2012 via flickr

Linked building has long since been a controversial element to organic SEO efforts. Some continue to swear by the usefulness of links pointing to content from across the web, while others are cite Google’s dislike of black hat, or paid link, practices.

Wondering if you should continue your link building efforts? Considering the practice is anything but easy to procure, it’s a legitimate question to ponder. Earlier this month, Google search guru Matt Cutts released a comprehensive video discussing paid links. In this lengthy discussion, much was revealed about Google’s views on link building in general.

Let’s dissect Cutts’ main points below, and in the end, you will have the info you need to determine how much link building will continue to factor into your SEO strategies.

The Task at Hand for Google

The first question on everyone’s minds is generally this: How can Google accurately determine if a link is paid or not?

There’s an obvious first go-to for the answer: some links are explicitly for sale. Purchase an outright link in this manner, whether through a monetary or goods exchange, and you better believe you’ll be red-flagged.

Webmasters often engage in this practice via clever methods, but don’t think you’re fooling Google. In Cutts’ own words: “The vast majority of the time things are incredibly clear: people are paying money outright for links based on PageRank, flowing the PageRank, trying to get high rankings. Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s abundantly clear that these are links that are being bought and paid and sold and all that sort of stuff.”

Because this practice has become so prevalent, Google has made it a top priority to target and penalize offenders. It’s becoming increasingly critical that any site linking to your content have a legitimate credibility rating with the search engine already.

Determining Value

Aside from the obvious link sales, Google then looks to approximate the actual value of the procured link. Value, in this case, is compared to actual dollars; in other words, they attempt to see how close the link is as compared to the value of money.

As an example, people often exchange goods and/or services in return for a backlink. This is where link sales become a trickier gray area. According to Cutts, accepting something akin to a gift card for a link has a high enough monetary value that it essentially constitutes a sale. Receiving a pen or other form of swag, however, has little actual value. The same is true for a free trial of a product, or a free white paper download.

The Conundrum of Loans vs. Gifts

Popular bloggers and content creators get offers all the time that consist of free products in return for a review. And quite commonly, the reviews are skewed into the positive realm in return for the favor. But what if an item is simply loaned out for research purposes, and not traditionally gifted?

Cutts states: “So imagine, for example, that somebody loaned out a car for someone to try out for a week versus giving them a car. There’s a big difference there.” This practice is far more accepted in the land of Google. Without the option to loan goods for feedback, high end items like cars and upscale electronics would have a nightmare of a time garnering reviews.

So while gifts have a clear monetary value and are not free and clear to Google, loans are completely acceptable.

Boiling it Down to Intent

It’s easy to infer intent when money or goods are exchanged for links and reviews; that’s an obvious financial transaction.

Intent, however, can be vastly varied. Say a software company gives a reporter a free trial of their latest tool. This action is generally centered around the wish to make a sale, and ideally a great word of mouth experience too. In other words, the intent may not be to simply purchase a link.

Cutts continues: “The difference would be where we’ve encountered people who are supposed to be reporters, who would say if you give us a laptop then we will write nice story about you, and it’s giving me a laptop not borrowing a laptop,” Cutts said. In this case, Google obviously does not approve.

Industry Standards and Surprises

Considering the norm for a given industry regarding freebies and loans is also part of the process. For example, movie reviewers are often invited to free screenings in return for a media piece. But technology bloggers should not be gifted free merchandise in exchange for a review; that’s not standard procedure, and in Cutts’ words, is a “surprise.” A surprise in Google’s eyes is considered a black hat practice.

All of this insight is valuable to business owners looking to stay in Google’s good graces, but the real question is if and how the search giant will be able to adjust algorithms to meet these very specific targets.

Regardless, links remain an essential piece of successful SEO, but not at the risk of buying links and watching your rankings plummet.

What are some of your top link building tips? And what do you make of Google’s latest analysis?


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Conscious online marketer, web executive, and multi-faceted writer Tina Courtney has been creating and fostering online innovations since 1996. Tina has assisted many clients in maximizing online production and marketing efforts, and is a staff writer for SiteProNews, one of the Web’s foremost webmaster and tech news blogs. She’s produced and marketed innovative content for major players like Disney and JDate, as well as boutique startups galore, with fortes including social media, SEO, influencer marketing, community management, lead generation, and project management. Tina is also a certified Reiki practitioner, herbalist, and accomplished life coach.  Learn more on LinkedIn, Facebook and Google+.

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