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Google’s Matt Cutts Talks Paid Links – Finally!

Don’t even act like you haven’t thought about it. I’ll go ahead and put this out there: I have. Thought about it, I mean.

Yup, we’re talking about paid links. Many a webmaster’s dirty little income secret. Paid links are also the tried-and-true shortcut for online advertisers with deep pockets who are looking to rank in a hurry.

However, we’re all keenly aware that paid links are a big time “no-no” for Google. If Google catches you selling links (which is tough, but G does have its ways), your PageRank will be stripped. The result? Your website loses most of its appeal for advertisers, and you lose your cash cow. I’ve witnessed this firsthand. More on that later.

On the other hand, if you’re an advertiser looking to buy links, you run the risk of losing it all and having your website buried in the SERPs. Still, untold numbers of advertisers engage in the practice, knowing full well that they are gambling hardcore with each and every link purchase they make.

Google expressly warns against buying or selling links in its quality guidelines. However, until now, we knew little about G’s reasoning for the ban. Recently, Matt Cutts released a webmaster Help video on YouTube, and it delved into paid links, at long last.

Cutts on Paid Links

Cutts begins the video by outlining the difference between displaying ads from networks on your web property – think services like AdWords, Chitika, or Facebook advertising – and displaying paid links. He says that the key difference is that paid links manipulate search engine results and ad network links do not. According to the video, Googlebot knows how to avoid ad network links. However, he points out that private, paid “dofollow” links are a deliberate attempt to game the search engine results – and artificially inflate rankings by passing PageRank.

Cutts continues by explaining that link buyers are essentially paying for something that skews results for search engine users. Plus, he adds, paying for links diminishes the organic search experience for users, which he implies is the most heinous of SEO crimes. The best way to remedy the situation is to make use of the “nofollow” tag in all paid link situations without exception. This attribute is Google’s way of knowing which links are paid (and thereby should be ignored by Googlebot when figuring a website’s ranking power). When paid links are not disclosed, Big G considers this a straight up violation of the good ol’ TOS.

Real-World Application

I’ve seen the devastation that results from paid links firsthand in a highly competitive niche on the ‘net. I knew many of these people personally, and it was a sad thing to behold. A high-profile group of bloggers had been engaging in selling links for years. Most of them were pretty hush-hush about the practice. Then, someone felt the need to report many of the blogs directly to Google, and – voila – every single site saw its PageRank stripped overnight.

This had a tragic domino effect that caused many bloggers to lose their primary sources of income overnight. Was this practice a violation of Google’s TOS? Absolutely. Was it fair for Google to manually punish blogs that weren’t bringing in even a microscopic fraction of crumbs from Google’s table?

That’s debatable.

One thing is definite for sure, however: many bloggers and site owners who sell links clearly mark them as “advertisements” or “sponsored.” Yet those links are still against the rules if money changed hands and the “nofollow” tag is not present.

The Ultimate Double Standard?

I understand the war on paid links. As Cutts pointed out in the video, paid links without the “nofollow” attribute do cause websites to unfairly rank better in the SERPs since they pass PageRank. I get that. However, is AdWords itself not the ultimate paid link system?

Even if Googlebot ignores AdWords links on websites when it comes to ranking signals, does the service not place AdWords listings above the organic results – in a place of prominence – based upon how much said advertisers are willing to pay?

Of course, for the highly competitive keywords, AdWords ads now take up almost an entire page above the fold. Users must scroll down to even begin to see organic results. So is this a double standard?

I would argue yes, simply because Google is doing exactly what it warns webmasters not to: they have a program that allows people to pay in order to have their websites listed more prominently on search result pages. Some would call it gaming the system; I call it free enterprise.

Here’s the flip side of that coin. If Google was a public resource, I think more would take issue with this inconsistency. Unfortunately, Big G is a public, for-profit company, and their turf means their rules. So, okay, according to Google, paid links are bad. However, with such a far-reaching hold on search, one could argue that the creeping expansion of AdWords is bordering upon ethically irresponsible. In fact, this was precisely the issue in the FTC’s recent case against Google. According to Bloomberg:

Image 1:

This is why Google’s global hold is so intimidating and slippery. The algo is top secret and the terrain is untested – which means there’s not really a precedent for this kind of worldwide dominance… yet. The FTC has backed down for now, but you can be sure there’s more to come from the US and other governments in the years ahead.

For now, I’d recommend playing by the rules and using the “nofollow” tag if you sell links. For those of you who like to live dangerously, buy and sell on the uber supreme down low, and know that you’ll eventually get caught. But do me a solid and enjoy the heck out of that wave until it crashes ashore.


Nell Terry is a tech news junkie, fledgling Internet marketer and staff writer for SiteProNews, one of the Web’s foremost webmaster and tech news blogs. She thrives on social media, web design, and uncovering the truth about all the newest marketing fads that pop up all over the ‘net. Find out more about Nell by visiting her online portfolio at Content by Nell.

About the author

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Nell Terry

Nell Terry is a tech news junkie, fledgling Internet marketer and staff writer for'SiteProNews, one of the Web's foremost webmaster and tech news blogs. She thrives on social media, web design, and uncovering the truth about all the newest marketing fads that pop up all over the 'net. Find out more about Nell by visiting her online portfolio at Content by Nell.

66 Comments

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  • It was common perception before a year that anyone can get good SERP ranking via paid links and it was a proper method of marketing called SEM. But now after very strict policy of Google it not a good method and every intelligent webmaster try to avoid paid links. Before a week someone offered me high page rank and do-follow backlinks via paid method but i refused by i don’t want to loose my SERP ranking. After read Matt Cutts views and your expert advice i am quite sure about it that it is a very risky method.

  • Many a webmaster’s dirty little income secret will close. Google warns against buying or selling links in its quality guidelines. However, until now, we knew little about Google’s reasoning for the ban.

  • I think a few directory owners will be upset with this decision, and the webmasters selling paid links. Webmasters cant say they didnt know, its been googles policy FOREVER. See what search results the next google dance presents.
    ” The Ultimate Double Standard ” – if you dont like google or the way they do business block all traffic you get from google, and dont use the search page or web tools or analyitics, etc…

  • Google must realize the huge difference between paid ads on directories and paying for an express review which includes a featured listing if accepted. You can not buy a link on Realitist Directory, you can pay for a speedy review.

  • Thanks Nell, the interesting thing is why has it taken so long for them to actually say this? Perhaps they were worried about attracting court cases? Have there been related court cases that they’ve won now, that means they don’t have to worry?

    Please check your last sentence, there is something missing or wrong around “solid” and it doesn’t make sense.

  • Welcome Nell, It’s Really a good news for seo professional buddy . paid link is harmful for web industry. (If it’s stop) then cause of boost seo company USA.

    Thanks for Matt Cutts.

  • @Alan Gray, actually Ms Terry hasn’t made a mistake. The phrase “do me a solid” comes from Seinfeld and has been more recently popularised by the film Juno. It just means do me a favour.

  • Hi, What does this mean for paid banenr advertisments on websites?

    e.g. I work for a shipping company who pay for banner ads on industry relvant news websites etc, with this harm us?

    Thanks
    Nick

  • Hi!
    It’s again double standard. When money goes to my pocket it’s okey, when goes to other pockets, it’s wrong.
    In the coming years, we will see many informative and comprehensive websites will close their services and diminish from the net. If you develop good site, you have bring in your valuable time and to pay for hosting, domain, etc….and so on.
    If all the fruits have to go to one pocket…that’s a nightmare.
    It’s all the same around, we will see big-pocket sharks, before and after, and even more than after fold. I don’t have money to spend on ads networks so may life on the net will stay miserable one.

    • I totally agree with you Player. That’s exactly the game Google plays. Google want us to baby sit full time for our web site.

  • Its a problem for Google because they are not making any money from you if you sell links.If you do sell you get punished.Google is evil corporation and should be burned down and these scumbags prisoned.

  • Hi folks

    Great article Nell – keep up the good work!… the reality is though, paid links (still) make the world wide web go round.

    I think it’s important to make the distinction between paid for editorial/content, where otherwise there wouldn’t be any, that sometimes link in the text and paid for ‘spammy’ links. Surely the welfare/utility contribution of well-written editorial for everyone to benefit from outweighs the inconvenience of having to read over a couple of subtly placed links?

    Penguin eliminated some of the sillier paid linking strategies. My advice, like Nells’, is definitely to pay attention to your follow/nofollow mix within your off-page profile. Their is evidence that Google models this on a ‘tripping’ threshold, rather than a continuous variable. i.e. follow links are still good, but only up to the point where they would flag synthesis.

  • Thank you Kristian. I think I’ve only ever watched about 5 minutes of Seinfeld, so thats why it didn’t make sense. I did think of favour, but it was just a guess.

  • Can someone give a definition of a ‘Paid Link’?
    If I pay to advertise on a trade specific website and the advert has a link to my site, is that a ‘paid link’?
    Yahoo Directory charge well over $200 dollars for a review / listing, yet Google give them a PR8. The same applies to thousands of other sites as well.
    There are PR4 and PR5 sites sitting as parked domains with just Google adverts on them as well. It seems to me, that Google are party to, or the cause of most of the problems.

  • Ok, so we can’t pay for links, but Google is free to scrape & steal everyone’s content. They want to move from being a search engine to a “knowledge engine” . How? By scraping from your website’s, if you’d just help them a little by using rich snippets mark up so they can tell more easily what content to steal.

    Looking forward to the day when regulators decide enough is enough & they get broken up

  • I have a feeling that Google may well be in breach of anti-competitive / monopoly / unfair trading laws within a number of countries in Europe based upon their attitude to paid links and their own use of them as generators of revenue. I find it strange that there has not been more legal challenges.
    I can understand that many in the USA will not see this, but unlike the USA most of us live in a democratic society and not a capitalist one. I mention this simply because of the way that the author appeared to just accept that G can do what it wants in its own playground.

  • And once again Matt only offers a half-answer, remaining vague and aloof, not actually helping anyone at all.

    He needs to define what IS and what ISN’T a paid link. It’s pointless telling the world that paid links are bad, while refusing to describe what Google sees as a paid link!

    Affiliates are paid for promoting content, services and products, but are all those links considered paid links?

    Does it make a difference if the link is in the body of a page or in a menu?

    What if someone adds a link without permission?

    If I pay Alexa for their services and have links on their site due to that, are they considered paid links?

    If I pay for a featured post on another blog, is any link within it a paid link?

    Google needs to get its head out of its ass and stop acting like it’s a branch of the CIA. At the very least, if Matt isn’t going to offer any advice that actually assists webmasters he should just STFU and stop preaching entirely.

    People are sick of hearing warnings from Matt about what not to do while only getting half of the story.

  • There’s eveidence of paid links all around. I see “product review” links which just go straight to a commercial product web page. These pass on good PR. Is this unfair? You betcha.

  • I agree with Cutt, it creates a race between search engine optimizers to trick the SERPs results, paid links manipulate the results by paying high to the webmasters. I heard about many TLA’s providers offering paid links at a very high rate and guaranteeing NO.1 position on Google. I’ve seen positive results in 2008, but after Google changes in its algorithm in 2010, we see its highly discouraged by Google.

    Suggestion – Google should first layout its rules about do and don’ts list so by following it, white hat followers may not get harm of google algo changes. looking forward to see a positive feedback from all of you.

    Good luck in SEO and try adwords 😉

  • I might have missed something here, but why don’t Google put nofollow on their ads as a courtesy to other search engines. I suppose the answer is they don’t have to!

  • This sounds like any link (good/bad/whatever) that does not have “nofollow” is going to be flagged as a paid link/ad. Which of course means everything needs to have a “nofollow”. So, how do you actually get favorable links? “Quality links over quantity,” what does that mean anymore? How can you get a quality link if both parties get slapped? i.e. the site owner slapped for “supposed” selling of links and the linked site slapped for “supposed” buying a link.

    Sounds like Google is getting ready to unveil something else to determine ranking.

  • Site owners should ban together and promote Bing and other search engines. Google only exists, because they steal our content. Everything they do is a double standard. ~ Eff Google

  • Considering how many of the directory sites that require you to pay for an editorial review in order to have your link added are still showing up with PR4, PR5 and even PR6, I’m unsure of what exactly is a paid link in Google’s eyes.
    If I have a business profile on the major business directories like Yellow Pages, Yahoo directory etc. – are they going to impact me negatively? The truth is, nobody knows, because Google loves to play the high and mighty, all-seeing, all-knowing, only revealing confusing tit-bits of information as and when it pleases.

    When I think back to how the web’s most popular search engine has changed over the years (do any of you remember Webcrawler? Altavista? The days when Yahoo was king?) I wouldn’t be surprised if Google loses its hold on search engine dominance in a few years. Perhaps we will even see Bing/Yahoo growing in market share.

  • How does this effect having in text ads? Does Google penalize people for using ads from sites like Infolinks? Advertisements is how my site gets paid for, hosting costs etc., since I give free info for DIY mobile home repairs. Do I need to change my business model?

  • Excuse me, but 100% of prweb and marketwire “paid” press release submissions need to be considered paid linking. It is in fact why people (myself included) pay those companies to submit articles – For the backlinks.

    It’s so hypocritical to tell web owners not to sell links, and large companies like prweb and marketwire can get away with it.

  • I do agree that the double standard kind of exists, but at least Matt has been a light of knowledge which allows us to keep ourselves at least on the white side. Previously to these videos and comments we were completely in the dark.

  • I agree with Julie-Ann. Technically, according to Google’s definition, a link in Yahoo.dir is a paid link. Add that to the supreme frustration I feel when I see competitors continuing to pay bloggers for links and outrank the sites I manage that do everything within the rules of Google’s TOS.

    This was a nice post Neil. It was thoughtful and well-written. You are one of the first writers that has clearly stated how and why the FTC considers Google a possible monopoly. Nice work!

  • I am in the very competitive market of travel, If there is one thing to try to rank for in the serp’s that is a loosing battle it’s anything to do with the word Vacation or related words.
    I have done my research on the subject for almost 2 years, There are a few large sites that are always first, Expedia, CheapCaribbean.com, Travelocity just to name a few!
    What I have found is that these listed and many others are all paying for links! And they buy a lot of them!

    Some how the big G doesn’t punish these companies, but the little guy like myself , running a small family owned business would be taken out like last nights trash! The only thing I have found in common with all of these companies is Adwords, they all spend a ton of money on Adwords, more in one month than I make in a year!

    In early 2011, my wife and I went to a class put on by Google in Minneapolis. It was really pretty good at laying out the rules of Google and how to build a great Places page, and the importance of good content. But that was only a small part of it, they basically where pushing Adwords! After over an hour of trying to get some of the Google reps to stop BS’ing in the corner and come do their job, and explain to us how Adwords work, the jerk rep told us that we will “NEVER” rank in Google, for our niche. And that our best bet was to do an Adwords campaign, or hire someone to do it for us, of course he had the perfect person to do it for us! I think it was going to be him, at this point we has had enough of his crap and got up and walked away!

    Does Google have a double standard, “HECK YES” They always say they are out for the small business owner, But I am guessing that is only for the ones that can afford to buy there links from Google. And if you do so, they will over look the links you buy else where!

    I don’t buy links, I know what the out come would be! But I am wondering if it isn’t worth the risk!!

    • Yes, a big double standard, and G has NEVER EVER been out for the small business owner.

      They run a hugely profitable business and will of course do whatever they wish to do.

      Over time, I hope some of the smaller search engines take up more prominence, but for now, G is #1.

  • Possibly and arguably G defines anything as paid link that does not look natural. Then defines “not natural” as:
    1. a link that is not reciprocated
    2. quantity of not reciprocated links
    3. imbalance of PR of rceiving and giving site
    4. keywords of sites not matching

  • Interesting discussion. Earlier this year a couple of firms in the US paid me for text links for their clients and then a few months later one asked me to remove a link because
    their client was under Google review. They didn’t ask for a refund and I replaced their link with an affiliate link that better served me. I have also had webmasters pay me to publish guest posts. I also have guest posts on most of my sites that weren’t paid for and when I look at all of the guest posts there is nothing to indicate which ones were published with money changing hands and which ones
    weren’t. Furthermore any post that promotes a product as an affiliate could be perceived to be “paid” whether or not any revenue results from those affiliate links so really this whole argument is pretty much a grey area.

  • Google needs to follow their publicly asserted policy about “rel=’nofollow'” links and stop including them in aggregate data presented by Google Webmaster Tools.

  • Hi,
    Super informative article. I sold paid links only twice on one of my websites. Think i put the dofollow attribute, however the pr remained ok. now i consider to go back into the site history and place the nofollow:)

  • Well who’s going to tell the enterprise companies with enough money and resources.. that strategically “sculpt” page rank through “burner sites” they don’t care about getting dinged?
    The “scary” risk only matters to the main site, cuz you can’t be penalized for getting a “resource link” as that’d be “Negative SEO” like Google bowling! But if you can spend 5k to inflate a site, to in turn inflate their rankings and make a 20k profit…I’ll take that risk any day : ] It’s really the small and middle guys that get penalized frequently it seems.

  • What a huge switch I notice in those for & those against Google, only 12 months ago I often noted that on articles like this you would usually find an 80% to 20% split, the 80% being in favour of the Google God! Yet now it seems to have completely swung the other way. Could this be the slow demise of search engine giant..? I for one certainly hope so.

    Over the last 12 months & more so since April 24th, Google has repeatedly pulled the rug from under many small businesses and all with the justification that they are targetting spammers & making the web more user friendly. This of course is utter BS, what they are actually doing in turning the free web into a dictatorship & those that actually get the Google vote of approval, are those with the biggest budgets for advertising on Adwords.

    Google has decided in it’s infinite wisdom which sites you will see listed for any given search term, the choice of which site you want to click on is gradually being erroded away, there is longer any free enterprise on the Internet & if you are not in Google’s club then your site is not going to rank, it’s as simple as that.

    It has nothing to do with site content, it is purely governed by how fat a wad you can pay Google per month, how else do you think these big porn & gambling sites survive..? And let’s be honest here, the vast majority of spam that hits my email account & probably also yours, is either gambling, porn, viagra or cialis related.

    No I’m sorry but Google’s endless algo updates have done nothing to diminish this daily flood of garbage to my mail box, all they have done is killed free enterprise & taken away my free choice in who or what sites I choose to click on.

  • I almost gave up
    I am running two concurrent sites and one I was using paid links the other one I was not using any form of link building but surprisingly the one with zero links comes on page 2 of search and the one with paid links comes on page 24 for the same keyword search???

    The one with links is PR2
    The one with 0 links as usual it’s PR0

    PR0 gives me more money per month than the site with PR2

    I failed to explain this

    Should I quit link building?

    Before I forget one of my other sites was ranking well with PR4, and I bought a autobacklink builder software and one week down the road after I submitted my site to the so called .edu .gov, blaah blaah my site disappeared from google??

  • I didn’t see the video before reading your blog. Thank you for the easy-to-understand breakdown and explanation.

  • I think it enough, google. You do everything to disallow webmasters to control own sites and prevention them from making money. It happen in time when you increasing own profits, placing misleading ads at top of search results, implementing bid-to-display shopping system. I think google time as search engine going to end. I personally not will orientate on google anymore, will promote my sites via social & bing and live in peace. And will disallow googlebot to prevent such stress with that updates, depression and constant forums checking – what the new shit google launched today.

  • I had a site delisted by G back in April, I got an email saying that my link profile looked suspicious and that G suspected me of obtaining links in order to manipulate PR and SERPS.
    This email was on Gmail, now, imagine how I felt when sitting right next to my “kick in the you know whats” was an Adsense ad selling a ” Get on Page 1 of Google Guaranteed in 1 Month” !!!

    G deserves to be shut down, period!

  • I love your articles Nell. You always ask the hard questions and sock it to the giants. Keep it comin.

  • With G it is “Do as I say and not as I do.” You have to do some scrolling to get to get to the organic listings. The folks who get pushed off the first page because of the paid links got shorted.

    My, oh my all the paid links you have to go through to get to the organic SERPs. Obviously we are being taken for fools.

    I just don’t get how the big folks get to break laws and trust (I know a BIG liar on Pennsylvania Ave who gets away with it on a daily basis) while us little folks trying to do honest business get screwed without a good reach around or a kiss.

    Also, no. Never even crossed my mind to pay for links. I’ve spoken against them on numerous sites and always thought it was stupid to beg and pay for links. It didn’t make sense to me then and it doesn’t make sense now.

    And the double standard continues only because we let it…

  • Google chastises paid links, yet companies like Text Link Ads continue to make millions selling dofollow links, and their clients are still successfully buying their way to the top. Are you even pretending to care, Google?

  • I have a WordPress site that has a menu bar on the RH side. The page has no links, but the menu bar does. There seems no way to put a “nofollow” which covers using a menu widget. Any ideas?

    Drachsi

  • I have a website that was doing quite well in keyword rank for a few key terms. Since a lot of my content is managed in Word Press, I added all in one SEO pack to eliminate conocial urls. When I did this it eliminated a lot of the duplicate pages Google had indexed. I didn’t realize that I still had these pages in my auto generated XML Sitemap and when Google stated trying to reindex it found that these pages where returning a 404 error. I dropped off the face of the map as foar as my big keywords where concerned and traffic when down to almost nothing. Once I saw this I updated my XML Sitemaps and Google stated removing SOME of the 404 errors. My keuwork position is going back up but still show about 500 of these 404 error pages in webmaster tools.
    What is the best way to elininate these? Like I said they hae slowly dropping off but were talking about months for abut half of these to disappear (which seems to be slowing down now) and I just want to get back on track.

  • Wow, guess I am a little late getting to this discussion, there are some really good comments on here. A good article as well. My advice, completely avoid paid links. Check out this article for a more complete answer covering the differences.
    What is the Difference Between a Paid Listing and Buying a Link?

    Link Worx Seo
    Search Click Convert