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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+.

38 Responses to “Google and the Paid Link Crackdown

    avatar max says:

    I wonder what Mr. Cutt want since Goggle is creating this mess and after they complain about. All this only come from the fact that they give a unnatural high value to links and not to content so people exploit it, thats normal. They know all this but instead of lower the value of third party links they try to fight it. Which everyone who can count 2 + 2 together know its a lost fight from the beginning only Google pretend not to know this. Google has two factors which screws any realistic evaluation of any website, this are the link value and the totally useless and disturbing value called “authority” both are artificially created by Google and have no real value. As long as Google continuously introduce abstract values they create it will get worst and worst. Because of this their algo gets more lousy every view month, they dont care because they have toooo much money, thats it.

    avatar ecommerce services says:

    Hi,

    Thanks for this informative article on paid links.
    link building through social sites and blog commenting help more then directory sites submission to increase the backlinks.

    avatar BobP says:

    This article is really about paid product reviews not paid links. A paid link is no different from a paid ad except it is disguised as a do follow regular link to more information. There is no way Google is detecting these links except by taking a wild-ass-guess based on their absurd dislike for any exchange of links. It does not improve the web to make webmasters afraid to link out to other helpful sites or even their own sites.

    avatar Sunil Chowdhary says:

    This calls for an anti trust suit against Google for control of search engine algorithm. It means if someone pays me for an ad in my web site he gets penaiised but if he uses Google Ad Words then no problem. They are stiffling the ad industry and more because I cannot advertise a link of my sister company on my website and vice versa.

    avatar Foogle says:

    Ya, thx for the unreflektive Report that totally ignores Gods Googles possibility to JUST IGNORE THE IDENTIFIED LINKS! Instead God Google wants to PUNISH! They are attacking the MAIN BASIS of the internet by attacking the hyperlink itself. Does anybody care? Instead the parrots show up and repeat googles propaganda, thx for that you noobs! With executioners like you the internet basis will die a horrible death!

    Google made all our businesses vulnerable for negative SEO attacks and mass backlinking your competitors is the new sport in the business. Many of the old backlink sellers just renamed their product and offer it now to punish competition by cheaply bombarding them with bad backlinks. Great Job you MEGALOMANIAC IDIOTS at FOOGLE.

    We use BING instead now! Another megalomaniac company but at least they dont dare to play god.

    Our 40 Online Shops just left google adwords and we spread our money to the competition now.
    30000€ a month. I hope you like that, it costs another google employee the salary! Way to go before its Cutts salary.

    Let them have it.

    avatar Luana @ n0tSEO says:

    I make nothing out of Google’s analysis of paid links. I’m the one in business with the advertiser, not Google. What sickens me the most is the ‘cult’ built around Google, and all the talking about ‘sins’ in eyes of Google. Actually, oftentimes what I see borderlines with bigotry and fundamentalism, two things to abhor in every religion, and Google’s ‘religion’ is no less.

    To continue with the metaphor, I’m an atheist in this Google-oriented world.

    Your article is comprehensive and clear, Tina. I appreciate that. 🙂 My ‘complaint’ of course is not directed at you, but to the general Google-worshipping crowd.

    I say it over and over again lately – power to the webmaster! And even to links, whatever their nature – editorial or commercial – because that’s what happens in a real world where people talk and buy/sell to each other. It’s a good thing, actually, not a bad thing as ‘god’ Google says.

    Honestly, I feel so much better – and I enjoy my freedom! – since I took Google out of the content developing and web marketing equation. So much, much better. 😉

    ~ Luana

    Luana, I totally understand, and you’re inspiring me to write a future article about ignoring Google all together and following your own muse/business model. It is certainly daunting to attempt to satisfy their every whim, and it’s easy to lose your brand’s core identity in the mix. Thanks for the wonderfully insightful comment 🙂

    avatar SAK says:

    another great informative research based artilce by Tina

    thumbsup

    avatar Derek Jansen says:

    Great summary Tina. The bottom line is that Google is going to have a very hard time trying to dissect intent and value, even with thorough manual review (nevermind algo analysis).

    Seems like more of a scare tactic on Google’s side than anything.

    avatar Vanessa says:

    Well, it was about time Google did something to stop cheaters who unfairly entered the seo competition. Well done, Matt!

    avatar RogerV says:

    After 10 years with position 1 to 4 on Google for the key phrase website design mytown (actual town name replaced) my website has suddenly dropped to not show in the first 300 results. I have never paid for links and don’t have keyword stuffed content or similar.
    I have links from all my clients’ websites (hundreds) with the anchor text simply my business brand name, and links from directories. This used to be Google’s recommended approach for organic SEO.
    If Google is now penalising sites for links from certain places, the least they could do is to tell us which those are. I have tried to disavow the domains I didn’t recognise as valid, and “nofollow” the links on my clients’ sites, but still no improvement.
    Better still, why don’t they abandon totally the idea of ranking sites according to the presence of backlinks, and just rely on the relevance of the title tag, description metatag and site content!

    avatar Nelieta says:

    I totally agree with you.

    avatar Scriptor says:

    Absolutely agree. A website should stand on its own merits and nothing more. I always felt that back linking can be a two-edged sword.

    avatar James says:

    I disagree with some comments here that Google would find it difficult to be able to distinguish between links that were “bought” and links that were not. They have one of the most powerful computers in the world. They just have to ask the computer to generate a list of all backlinks and the number of times they are linked. If a link appears more than (pick a number) times, all sites that are linked to that link are assumed to have bought this link, and are penalized. Easy pezy.

    avatar BobP says:

    Why don’t you try and see how many back links any name brand company has and determine whether they asked for them or not. I suggest starting with http://www.nytimes.com what’s that, a thousand billion? How many are paid?

    avatar RCS Optics says:

    Good article Tina. You scope out the facts and report clearly.

    avatar BlokeToys says:

    Of course, what Matt ignores is that all the large companies and corporations currently in position 1 on Google for all your search terms have paid links all over the internet – but you can’t do that.

    They “overlook” this when it’s a massive corporation paying an SEO company a massive wad of money every year to do all this for them, but heaven forbid you or I try to use the same methods of promotion ourselves.

    Once more, Matt ignores a fundamental flaw in Google’s demands – without traffic you can’t get genuine links from people, and without links you can’t get the traffic.

    Of course, no one wants to even talk about the fact that Google is an unelected and unaccountable internet police force, dictating business practices and directly attacking those that don’t comply with their rules. What’s the difference between Google and “the Mob”?

    I used to follow Google’s policy updates but quite frankly I’ve given up.

    By penalising webmasters who link to each other’s content Google is endangering the very basis on which the Web was built. Google’s arrogance and hypocrisy in this regard is staggering.

    Google itself has built its business model around paid linking to other peolle’s content. What else is AdWorss and AdSense if not paid linking?

    Apparently it’s fine to charge to link from your own web service to anyone else’s content in return for cold hard cash if you’re Google. If an ordinary webmaster does the same however then acxording to Google this is morally repugnant. Hypocrites!

    I really think that success has gone to Google’s corporate head. They’ve lost the plot. Googles search engine was fantastic for a long while and helped many mom and dad website owners to make a living online. Right now however Google is morphing into a paid advertisement engine for the world’s major corporates who are the only ones who can afford to pay the exorbitant cost per keyword to rank at the top of search results.

    In my view the real reason Google is punishing ‘Organic’ links is to try to squeeze even more money out of their paid search by forcing webmasters to pay for good search rankings. Eliminating the competition in the paid linking market is another apparent motive. At least that’s the perception.

    Personally I don’t use Google’s search engine any more. I stopped using them since Google destroyed my successful business model which had been operating since 1997 (long before Google even existed.) I suggest all aggrieved Webmasters also bouycott Google’s search engine as consumers. It’s the only way to show them that they are only as successful as the number of people who use them. And we can still switch to other Search and Email providers.

    avatar Mr SEO says:

    Nice Article on paid links but lets look at what is behind all of this.
    Google is only interested in clearing up the big mess they have made in the Fiber market and they need CASH so where do they get the cash from, the Cashcow of course. Take a good look at the Google stock Shareholders will not accept loss.

    Google changes the Algorithm to ensure higher profits because Larry has told Matt that we need higher margin its nothing to do with the value of what is visible on google anymore its all about money lost on the carousel and Core Business is going to pay for it.

    avatar Tom says:

    I agree with most of these comments that Google’s algo has come undone and they must depend on Matt Cutts PR machine to scare “business owners looking to stay in Google’s good graces.”

    The Cutts fear, uncertainty and doubt campaign means Google is out of control. Want proof? Matt Cutts is constantly in the media, but back in the day when the algo worked better, very few knew about Matt Cutts. If the algo worked, there’s no need to use the media to scare people into submission.

    Good luck with that G, you’re done.

    avatar ian says:

    Well let’s be clear. Google only cares about revenue. Matt Cutts says one thing, does another. It’s time Google had its wings clipped. I hope Duck Duck Go takes off.

    avatar Jennifer says:

    I, like most marketing folk, hate Google and their ADHD business practices. However, as in-house marketeer for 2 legal practices, I have NO choice but to follow their lead. I have totally stopped paying for SEO services, not because they didn’t work, but because they didn’t work for long and, once Google changed the rules on them, my sites were kicked with harsh penalties for things they were being rewarded for the month before. So while I’ve personally switched to Yahoo for seach, I am still Google’s ***** and will always be as long as I need to get my websites in front of as many people as possible to sell services. Having said that, I’m off to watch Matt Cutts videos all day and fold laundry.

    avatar Scriptor says:

    The SEO services didn’t work for long because they weren’t using white hat. They definitely used tricks, smoke and mirrors. Pure organic white hat will withstand any algo changes.

    avatar Mr. E says:

    Google is changing it ways again; While I think paid backlinking is a thing of the past and apparently so does google it seems everyone else is upset at this. When I read the article and policy updates all I see is don’t buy links from people. It’s that simple. If you want your site to rank decently in google stop ordering the fiverr backlink gigs; or any other backlink items. Only post to the web manually. I’ve been working on new seo techniques not using backlinks and google seems to like them so far. Google has said before they don’t like how paid backlinks rank pages on the net. Some say google is double dipping or hypocrites; The paid links in google are just ads it’s been that way since the dawn of google. What google is trying to stop is the spam on the net not you from ranking your site. If you solely relied on paid backlinks then your site will stop ranking so well. However if you are an actual business and are setting up your site and business manually and without paid links google will notice and rank accordingly. If your site is doing losey in search try the google link disinfection; google shows you all the spam links your site is on and allows your to request for the removal of those links, also very helpful in a negative seo attack. Personally I find the new results for most of my searches are better because the first few pages aren’t full of sales sites that were only there because they paid for the links to be there; offering no easily accessible information to the pertaining to the search. Google is simply changing how it ranks sites and you should look at updating your seo techniques as well blackhat method will simply not cut it anymore.

    avatar Ray says:

    Google’s problem is of its own making.

    Back in the day when Google was the new kid on the block the difference that their search engine had to the others was that it attached massive importance to incoming links.

    No wonder then that webmasters started chasing links.

    Today the best SEO is quality content and author credibility. Don’t fight Google, get a Google+ profile and start building author rank.

    avatar Dr Martin says:

    As a practice owner, I would like to thank you for providing this online resource, and especially the comments sections. I find others experience to be the most helpful when trying to determine which path to take. With a small business, almost everyone in the vertical is offering the same services, so any tidbit is welcomed!

    avatar TIm says:

    I think Google are doing you a favour by telling you to stop paying for links……

    OK I am in a niche market so I am almost guaranteed a place at the top of search results, nonetheless I have always put myself into free directories (I am too mean to pay for advertising, and it doesn’t work anyway!), and in exchange I always give a free link back, because Google always said that if you have links you will come higher….

    These days I have loads of links to my web sites which have nothing to do with my business, a lot of them are from Russia and the old Russians states but Google takes no notice of these, in fact it doesn’t even show them in Webmaster Tools! I didn’t ask for these links BTW.

    One of the most consistent links that I have is from prlog.org from press releases and people still see these even after a couple of years, and I didn’t even pay for the press releases!

    Google likes to have content, so write content then, and do as they ask……Use a bit of imagination and highlight your products from time to time, send out a press release or write a blog about a ‘product’…It doesn’t have to be sensational and it doesn’t even have to be a ‘we are better or our product is better’. Just be factual and make it readable not just stuffed full of keywords.

    It really does work!

    All I want to do now is get rid of my competition’s link at the top right of the search results, and I don’t think they have paid for it, I think Google are just putting it there because they are fresher news than me!!

    avatar Pat says:

    I guess I don’t understand god google’s problem with paid links since they have adsense where people pay you to advertise on your website.

    Also, my website was on page 1 and 2 of the search engine for 2 keywords. I was finally starting to get some decent traffic. Then last Aug,all of a sudden I am on page 12 and 18.
    All the links on my links pages are from people asking me to link with them. I have never paid anyone to place my link or paid anyone for links on my website.
    I have no idea what god google wants.
    I think they do not link little companies – they only like rich people.

    @ Mr E,

    I think you missed the point I made about Google’s hypocrisy.
    You said “the paid links in Google are just ads” yet you lumped paid links from all other web services together as “spam” and “black hat techniques.”

    What you don’t appear to realise is that you have slipped into the very mindset that Google’s corporate arrogance has fostered. Not all paid links are “SPAM” or “blackhat” and if particular sites engage in SPAM then ban those specific sites, not penalise all paid links.

    Can you explian why when Google charges for paid links from other people’s sites, E.G. Adsense ads, it is “just ads” but if an established niche Website directory like the one which I cofounded in 1997 did the same it would not be “just ads” but would be a “black hat” technique or “SPAM?” (Actually our former Web Directory didn’t even charge for links, the ads were free, but Google still managed to scare away our members!) An “ad” is still a link so what’s the difference?

    I’ll make it even clearer to you how you have fallen into Google’s little trap.

    Can you please explain why if two sites, let’s call them Site A and Site B, have exactly the same words with exactly the same link to another site’s content in return for payment of an advertising fee that one of those links would be “just an ad” (and therefore OK) but the other (identical) one would be “a bad link because it is a spam link”?

    If your answer is that the difference is it’s “just an ad” if Google does it but a “spam” link if anyone else does it then you have just proven my point not your own. The only difference in this case is Google’s arrogance and hypocrisy. Not all paid links are bad. Many are “just ads” whether Google is the one charging or not. (Some may even view unwanted “adsense” ads plastered over just about every site they visit as being “SPAM” but that’s another matter!)

    Jump through all Google’s ever-changing hoops if you like but don’t think for a moment that Google is not being hypocritical and self-serving. They will inevitably come up with a new reason to penalise your site’s rankings soon unless you start paying them handsomely for each click-through. It’s all become about making money from paid ads which is a good thing to do apparently if you’re Google but is a morally repugnant business if anyone else who is not Google tries to do the same. Google does not play by its own rules.

    The popularity of Google’s search engine in my view will be judged by history as having been a persistent but ultimately passing fad. Google knows this which is why they are busily diversifying into just about everything from driverless cars to longevity research in a desperate bid to continue their success after “Google Search” ceases to be their cash cow. In the mean time though Google has shareholders to feed and so is desperately milking the cash cow quite literally to death.

    The saddest thing is that Google appears to believe it’s own propaganda. And so, unfortunately it appears, do some of its star-struck users, blinded in awe of Google’s omnipotence. Just bow down and do what ever Google demands and maybe Google will toss a few visitors your way. Most website owners however privately feel like I do. Most of us are simply too scared to say anything publicly in case Google bans our sites from their ubiquitous search engine.

    But someone has to tell the truth. If all Google ever hears is its own propaganda sycophantically repeated back to it then we will only have ourselves to blame for what is happening to our online businesses. If anyone at Google HQ is reading this I hope there is a small voice in the back of their head saying “oh dear, what if he’s right? What have we become?”

    avatar Stacy says:

    As a home-based business, the whole link building process is very frustrating for me. I tried several methods – some worked, some might have caused a problem. I would, however, like to know how Google handles situations where you have enemies or competitors placing blog posts on spam sites and porn sites and very bad foreign web sites because I have hundreds of them that I DID NOT post on nor would I ever post on. Because of it I have lost rankings on hundreds of keywords on Google Search and its hurt my business and sales and I have NO clue on how to fix it!!

    avatar John H says:

    So if I read all this correctly, if I buy a link for my competitor, that competitor may get penalised? Why not just punish the link sellers rather than the link buyers? What a can of worms Google has opened.

    avatar Tommy says:

    Your article, and Matt’s comments, make perfect sense, thanks for the reminder.

    avatar RogerV says:

    Mr E says “If your site is doing lousy in search, try the google link disinfection; google shows you all the spam links”
    Google shows you all the links but doesn’t tell you if it (this week) considers them to be spammy. Directory listings could be good or bad – how do you tell?
    By penalising websites which have links it disapproves of, Google gives unscrupulous competitors carte blanche to add bad links to sites they want to damage.
    My site is now on page 23 for the same term for which 5 weeks ago it was #1. I have had no warning of spammy links or any other problem, yet my site now ranks below hundreds of sites with far less relevance to the key phrase.
    We know Google owns the game and so can set its own rules, but it would only be fair to tell the players what the rules are. And like the tax system, keep them so few and so simple that nobody can make money out of finding ways round them!

    avatar Havana says:

    Thanks for the updates. Really appreciated

    avatar Gest Apo says:

    There are so many other clients in all other search engines anyway, not to let gest-apo G roudup criminal link builders to gas them out of the commercial realm. Making them their next client to extort money from them. Google becomes like Bitcoin. No value. Anywhay their results aren’t relevant most of the time and their arbitrary gest-apo algo makes it worse and worse over time. Who won the 2nd world war? Not the gest-apo.

    avatar Frank says:

    I just wondering how Google find out link is paid or not. It depend on site by site.

    avatar Holy says:

    Well after reading this complete blog post, I will just say It’s awesome. I really like the way of explanation in this article. Tips are very good and helpful for me. I think other people should also read blog post very seriously because this will help them to learn something new which they need. Hope this post will also help others when they will read it. Thanks for sharing this wonderful blog post.

    avatar Rosy says:

    I still think that paid links strategy is working smartly, I personally know a man who pays for getting links backs to his website and he has not been penalized, on the contrary, his PA and DA are improving!

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