Did Google Win the War on Paid Links?

Jim Boykin recently claimed to have kicked the paid links habit:

So, the best thing for my company to do, if we want to stay out of the fire, is to make sure that We Build Pages adheres to the Google Guidelines, and that means we won’t be getting any more paid links for manipulating search engines.

When I first got on the SEO scene and quickly started buying links, one of the sites I kept running into was WeBuildPages. One of my friends jokingly called me "the original link spammer" but Jim Boykin started buying links before I did and was doing it with more scale than I did. To see Jim dismiss link buying outright seems like it is either over-reaction or link buying is nearing its death.

Is Link Buying Nearing its Death?

When search click distributions may end up similar to the below graph how can one not want to push the limits?

For some keywords (and some entire business models) one or two rankings difference can be the difference between a profitable business model and a money loser. Yes real businesses should not be so reliant on Google that Google can chose to kill them, but there are a lot more people doing business with me too offers than there are creative and original people offering significant value added services from a unique approach.

Most business models are arbitrage, and Google wants to claw away as much of the easy value as they can, forcing you to spend on brand building.

The Cost of Branding

Most traditional businesses are lucky to have a 10% or 20% profit margin. When one company controls 70% of the search market (closer to 90% in some niches and some geographic regions) it is easy for them to exert enough influence on a business (through quality scores, hand edits, threats) to move it from having 10% profit margins to losing money.

Many regional offline brands are dying because their cost structure does not work on a network of infinite competition.

Many online brands are money losers or break even at best, with some losing hundreds of millions of dollars before coming profitable. Some of the more savvy online companies (like Monster.com, Expedia, and BankRate) may break even on the brand and leverage the brand to build out profitable networks of thin websites that allow them to double or triple dip in the organic search results.

Death Grip Growing Stronger

Google's death grip on the web is only growing stronger. While the web and search are making some bulky business models (like that of the NYT) irrelevant, in response the New York Times publishes articles about how Google Seduces With Utility:

“The most powerful form of advertising is to be exceptional,” said Ranjit Mathoda, an investor and technologist who blogs at Mathoda.com. “Google has created an ecosystem that perpetuates itself by being useful.”
“We do have a philosophy that our products should speak for themselves. We tend not to make a lot of noise,” said Jeff Huber, senior vice president for engineering at Google.

Google is the front door to the web. And while Google is getting credited for "not making noise" and "being exceptional" they use their ad platform to give themselves free distribution in any vertical they want to compete.

Part of Google rising to such dominance was their aggressive bundling of their toolbar on computers through deals with OEMs and other software companies. Now that Google has a browser they want to take it one step further by doing Chrome distribution deals:

Sundar Pichai, Google Vice President, Product Management, revealed that Chrome will be ready to come out of “beta” testing by January, and that the search giant was looking at ways to make Chrome the browser of choice for the everyday user.

“We will probably do distribution deals,” he said, adding, “we could work with an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) and have them ship computers with Chrome pre-installed.”

Chrome replaces the address bar with a search box. More search volume for Google.

Do You Still Buy Links? Do Your Friends?

Knowing how good Google is at marketing and that they are still gaining marketshare, do you still buy links? How has your link building and link buying strategy changed over the past year or two?

Published: November 24, 2008 by Aaron Wall in google


November 24, 2008 - 2:34pm

I think we will start to see less link buying as Google naturally devalues paid links, by making things like keyword rich anchor text more irrelevant.

But at the same time, smaller companies that don't have the cash flow for brand building will always look for that quick fix to compete with their larger competitors.

November 26, 2008 - 2:31pm

I have discontinued buying paid links because they were no longer having a measurable impact on rankings. Google has succeeded in devalueing paid links.

November 24, 2008 - 2:58pm

"we will start to see less link buying as Google naturally devalues paid links, by making things like keyword rich anchor text more irrelevant"

Should nt this be bad for G : resulting always the same sites in the SERPS ?

November 24, 2008 - 2:58pm

Paid links still work and always will as long as links remain central to Google's algorithm. They'll be forced farther underground every time Google takes steps to penalize link brokers. It's clearly a fringe tactic already, but I don't think competitive advantages arrive from being good little children and doing as Google says.

The risk is higher, but the value is still there.

I'm wondering: has Google taken steps yet to penalize the link buyer as opposed to the link seller? Their actions over the last year have all seemed to target the seller. If they target the apparent buyer, aren't they running the risk of falling to the ploy of one of the buyer's sneaky competitors? If they start doing that I'll happily buy some links for my competitors.

November 24, 2008 - 3:41pm

Hi Mike
I know of some cases where person X bought a bunch of links for person Y's site and got person Y's site torched by Google.

Arnie Link Builder
November 24, 2008 - 3:58pm

This is certain to rekindle the debate on what exactly does Google consider a paid link. Rand listed several methods on his site (SEOmoz.org) a few days ago. I believe all of them required some cash compensation, yet do not feel like a "traditional" paid link.

I don't know exactly how Jim's company was going about buying links, but there still seems to be plenty of link building opportunities without overtly renting links or paying for reviews that are acceptable (for the moment) to Google.

November 24, 2008 - 3:59pm

Interesting. I hadn't seen this happen myself - it seems a tricky situation for Google. How do they know who paid who for a link? I guess they can say, "we don't care who paid who," but that strikes me a destructive way to deal with the issue.

I would say that easy paid links are likely dead or dying. I don't think we'll ever see a true end to paid links, but perhaps Google's goal is containment rather than a total stomp-out.

November 24, 2008 - 4:11pm

I think that most sites that get whacked tend to be non-branded, of average quality, have little to no unique excellent content on them, etc.

On such sites if Google makes a mistake by whacking them then Google probably doesn't care. Also note that some sites are filtered out algorithmically...if someone buys you a ton of links with the exact same anchor text that can get your site hosed even without human intervention (though older and more authoritative sites are harder to knock down).

November 24, 2008 - 5:07pm

With branded sites having a large influential audience, does their stance change?

How about that Legal site which Oilman outed. They were caught, and caught large. But I can still see them rank well for many terms. It was probably for their big brand, or maybe because their parent company controls half the news circulating the globe.

November 25, 2008 - 12:12am

Risks for real brands are fairly trivial in most cases. At worst they might get a slap on the wrists for a few days or weeks...after having got more than their share of traffic for months or years.

November 24, 2008 - 5:22pm

I stopped buying links last year. I worked with clients who wanted paid reviews, and I arranged them through sites like SponsoredReviews. I even made a special tool that would detect even the very slightest inkling of the blog having paid reviews or sponsored posts, and made sure they only bought posts on those blogs.

Regardless, Google obviously found all of those links. For all I know, Google already has their hand in SponsoredReviews and friends through back-door deals.

The upshot is - you don't know what Google has going on. They can spread FUD all day long, and actually, I've seen enough of my friends and clients have their sites delisted that I know I don't want to bother anymore.

In fact, I think I'm pretty dumb for doing it in the first place. It's against everything I preach about adding value to the web.

For the last year or so, I've got links by creating useful content and tools and people have linked to me for that reason.

Sure, it's slower and harder. But you don't appreciate anything you didn't work hard to get.

My 2 euro cents :)

November 24, 2008 - 5:24pm

Also, I just used the "subject" line on this comment box for the first time.

Where does that show up? :)
What is the point of it?

November 25, 2008 - 12:14am

The subject appears in the right column for the 10 most recent comments.

November 24, 2008 - 5:41pm


Do a page search for the "subject" line you wrote and you will see that.

November 24, 2008 - 6:17pm

These are still the early days of the net and for Google, so I would put my efforts in abiding my Google's preferred methods for long term success.

November 24, 2008 - 8:06pm

Hi Aaron. Where did the data come from to build the "Traffic Distribution by Google Ranking" pie chart? No source is noted...

November 24, 2008 - 8:33pm
November 24, 2008 - 9:52pm

So what about the little guy who has a love for, and expertise in, his niche, but his niche is overcrowded with fluff already?

How then is it fair that sites with no value seem to rank so well in this niche, and not get caught or outed?

Should we stand by the side while a huge collection of profit is left on the table?

I tend to disagree slightly with this Google methodology of outing one another and ceasing the purchase of paid links. After all, how else does the little guy compete with the larger players? Bringing something unique to the table isn't always as easy as thinking up a new idea. In most cases, it takes a large percentage of profit. Profit that can be easily garnered once one makes it to the top. I also agree with MikeTek's statement, "Paid links still work and always will as long as links remain central to Google's algorithm."

November 25, 2008 - 12:18am

Well if you are the guy who has love for the niche then...

  • they should be able to bring something unique to the table
  • they probably are not driven by money
  • eventually the cream will rise to the top (though short term buying a few links can give them a bit of a boost)
November 26, 2008 - 5:41am

edited by Gab

November 26, 2008 - 6:15am

It's not that google "won" it's that there's a better way to build links.

November 26, 2008 - 6:27pm

I got into the paid link market in 2003. I got out (for the most part) in 2007.

The only thing that's changed is that I find it harder to monetize a new publishing/content site when starting out.

Paid links used to be a great entry point for folks that didn't have the traffic but needed some ad cash to help move their business along into profitability.

Now it's much harder to do that.

November 26, 2008 - 8:49pm

Now it's much harder to do that.

But that is also a nice barrier between new people and people who are at your level. :)

I try to lose money on new projects for at least 3 to 6 months...and then hope the strategy pays off before the year is out.

December 3, 2008 - 2:45pm

Is there a way to know which paid link vendors have been devalued by Google? I've been trying to find a list of companies that sell links that Google has devalued, but I haven't had any luck finding anything comprehensive yet.

December 4, 2008 - 12:09am

I think Google is hit and miss. Even within a particular link network some links count and some links may not.

October 7, 2009 - 6:31am

google is god

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