Is Buying Links Stupid?

This old chestnut.

There is a post over at Search Engine Land by Danny Sullivan entitled "Conversation With An Idiot Link Broker". To cut a long story short, some guy tries to broker a link deal with Danny, seemingly not knowing who Danny is, and Danny plays him along. Danny reports him to the Google spam team.

For the sake of furthering discussion, I'll play devils advocate :)

Regardless of anyone's views on link buying, it is wrong to mislead people. Danny clearly felt this guy was being misleading, and gave him a number of chances to clarify his position. But is buying and selling links really as "risky" a behavior as is being made out?

It might be considered a risky behavior if you spend a lot of time obsessing about Google, as SEOs tend to do. However, links are the glue that binds the web. Link buying and selling started long before Google existed. It will always happen.

It's called advertising.

But it would be disingenuous not to see what Danny is really talking about here. He's talking about buying links for the sole purpose of gaining link juice. I can understand why Google takes a dim view of this practice. . Paid links compromises Google's business model.

Fair enough. If I worked for Google, I'd take the same stance.

For Danny Sullivan, given the level of exposure of his site in the search world, the risks presented by link trading would be significant. Regardless of Danny's personal opinion on such practices, such a deal would clearly be a non-starter. The link seller is a fool for, above all else, failing to identify his customer.

However, for most sites, the reality is that the risk of link buying and selling is probably negligible.

Google taking out the occasional site amidst a storm of publicity doesn't mean much when there are tens of thousands of sites that clearly do not receive the exact same treatment. If one site in two got hammered, it would be a different story, but it is likely the figures run into one site in thousands. It then becomes a matter of weighing one's chances of being detected and punished by Google against the potential rewards on offer.

For example, there are credible, Fortune 500 companies engaged in buying and selling links. The risk of big names being taken out for any longer than a day or two is near zero. If you run the sort of big name site searchers expect to see in the results, Google probably aren't going to leave you out on a technicality. This would compromise their business model, because Google must deliver relevant results.

Is it up to the link seller to outline all the potential risks involved? Apart from the comical farce of a link seller failing to identify Danny Sullivan, how big a moral crime has the guy really committed? Do Google outline all the risks associated with using their products and services? Or is Danny cunningly implying that Google's algorithm cannot determine which links are paid, and in fact relies on people filing reports? ;)

A moral tone runs through such discussions, and I'm not sure it is entirely consistent.

Google are a business and their pronouncements must be considered in this context. They will act in their own interest, and those interest may or may not align with your own. Are we at risk of ceding the assumption of moral superiority to Google when they may not deserve it? Google, like you, are trying to earn a crust, and any organization may not be entirely transparent and morally consistent in all they do. Who do you call out, and who gets a free pass?

Google certainly holds the power, and if being in the SERPs matters a lot to you, then you should stay within Google's guidelines. It's also fair to say that, these days, even this approach offers no guarantees.

Tread wisely :)

Further Reading

Published: October 3, 2008 by A Reader in


October 3, 2008 - 6:13am

Buying links is definitely risky business. As google continues to identify these people it is likely that it will become less of a problem for them, but Yahoo and other search engines are definately not taking the same precautions. I have noticed that Yahoo tends to ignore these link buying exersises much more, in a way they just turn their head. It will be interesting to see if they start to pay more attention to it in the future.

I would have loved to have seen the transcript with Danny and the Link Broker! I bet it was a good laugh!

October 3, 2008 - 9:31am

You can read the partial transcript on the original post.

October 3, 2008 - 12:05pm

In one of a very popular forum someone wanted to know if he/she should buy links to increase Page Rank.

I discouraged him to do so. I gave him a proper reason why webmasters should not buy links just for the page rank flow.

Surprisingly the moderator deleted my post and sent me a PM telling that I was wrong and people do buy links.

I have written a few articles on this subject. I hope they benefit your visitors.

To Buy Link Or Not To Buy Links - A post that discusses the issues involved with buying links.

How to Get Great Incoming Links - If you want to get great incoming links to your site.

How To Use Rel Nofollow For Paid Link Advertisements - Instructions on how you can buy links without spamming the search engines.

October 3, 2008 - 9:27pm

@dilipshaw, Wow it's refreshing to hear other people say the same thing I've been saying for sometime now. Usually for telling people not to buy links I get ostracized or harassed. So I know how you felt when your post got deleted.

Thanks for the article links.

Nicholas Hamilton
October 3, 2008 - 1:00pm

Google says act like there was no search engines when building your site. Well if that is the case I would be buying links. Not for link juice, but for traffic. I see no difference in buying a link on a relevant site where the users would find my stuff relevant and buying a link on google search result when some one is searching for something that I provide.

As far as I am concerned google is the biggest seller of links, every search result is covered in paid links.

October 3, 2008 - 1:01pm

As Aaron stated: link buying and selling existed long before Google. But it is not the problem of no-follow or link buying... it is the problem that Google tries to police the web, but at the same time lets big players to cloack, link-buy, do blackhat...

i would say: who cares about google guideliness? if you can bend them and not get punished, why not... after all... the best SEOs are the ones that can get away with it... i have seen link buying from large websites and they have not been punished. my websites dont have nofollow nowhere.. why? because i want it that way. and i havent seen any difference in rankings... no-folllow is just google's experiment, and as long as SEOs are willing to "bend over" to google, this long will google dictate the rules of the game.

October 3, 2008 - 2:32pm

What about the people who run websites, sell links, but have no clue about SEO? The fact is, there are countless webmasters out there who never even look at html, and run screaming from anything as complex as an alt tag. I'm willing to bet that these people are the majority.

Google is having a laugh if it expects the majority of webmasters to alter their code to account for their failure to accurately identify all paid links. It's like herding cats. Even if the will is there, the technical know-how isn't always.

October 3, 2008 - 2:52pm

Is buying links risky? As in, does it carry a risk?

Yes, the risk of Google swiping you aside and banning you from the SERPs is definitely not zero if you buy or sell links.

I used to buy links and did great with it. But now I want to sleep at night, so I don't do that on any of my current sites.

It doesn't reduce my risk to zero, because in the space I work in there are lots of very aggressive competitors who wouldn't blink at buying incredibly spammy links pointing to someone else's site, just so they could report them.

Buying links is lazy SEO though. The Web is a big karma machine. If you put real value back into the Web, then it'll put real value back into your bank balance. If you want quality links then put something of high quality out there to attract them.

October 3, 2008 - 3:30pm

@chande i don't think this post was written by aaron it says peter

October 3, 2008 - 4:46pm

if you're careful about your link buying, it really isn't that risky. the odds of getting caught are really very, very slim. just more FUD from the Google camp.

October 3, 2008 - 7:41pm

"But is buying and selling links really as "risky" a behavior as is being made out?"

As I said in my article, I readily acknowledge that there is debate over this. Google certainly does pump up the fear way more than it really impacts some sites. But the bottom line is yes, it is a risky behavior. No one knows exactly what will happen if Google catches this. Maybe nothing, especially if you're a big site. Maybe only a PR downgrade. Maybe a ranking ding. Maybe you'll be banned altogether.

In terms of how big a crime -- how much you should have to outline. In this case, the person who approached me either lacked any serious ethics or was a complete idiot.

Let's be clear. He didn't outline ANYTHING to begin with, despite the fact that if you're a link broker, you know there's some element of risk. OK, let's say you roll with that, decide no sense raising this until you even find if someone's interested.

On the follow up -- when I specifically ask about risk -- I was told not to worry. End of story for me. End of any argument or trying to say "well, but Google might not do this or do that." They lied. If they're going to lie about that, what else are they going to lie about? And potentially, yes, they could have gotten me into trouble. Or someone else.

I don't need to decide if Google is moral overall to decide if individual actions I or others takes are also moral. The actions should be taken individually.

In short:

Is it ethical to not disclose to someone that you might promote them in a way that has risks. No, not in my book. But up front with them about the worst that could happen, what you really think will happen (or not), but be sure there educated.

Is it ethical to directly lie to a client (or be misleading) if they ask about risk. No. Not in SEO. Not in anything.

Is it ethical to buy paid links? That depends on your view point. When people are doing it and not being caught, you might decide it's fair game. And it might very well be. You might also decide when people are bartering links, or getting "undeserved" links just because they know someone, that's fine too. The ethics here are much harder to say yes or no to.

But no one should take the ethics of buying paid links as a tactics, where things are unclear, and then try to use that as a justification that you don't need ethics in how you sell or purchase links. Different things.

And no one should get confused between ethics and the search engine guidelines. You can think that ethically, you think paid links are fine to do regardless of what Google's guidelines are. That's fine. But then don't cry if you get banned or hurt. They're Google's guidelines, and if you knowingly want to violate them because you decide ethically they make no sense, you also are making a decision that you don't wish to operate with the rules Google sets and take the lumps that come with that.

Chande, all the best SEOs are not the people who get away with bending the guidelines. There are plenty of good sites and good SEOs that bring in quality traffic by following them. In some areas with lots of competition, you bet, people feel like they have to push the limits. But let's not assume that this is the starting place.

Terry Van Horne
October 4, 2008 - 9:01pm

"Paid links compromises Google's business model."

Yes, but shitty SERPs compromise them even further! Ask Yahoo!, Lycos, M$ and all the other also rans if it matters if you have ads if people don't use your SE or if people will even buy the ads next to crappy results.

Google doesn't like paid links because, IMO, they believe they are contrary to the spirit in which PR is based ie: citation! Therefore these sites can degrade the SERP when crappy sites use stupid promotion tricks instead of fixing the real problem.

October 5, 2008 - 12:29am

Hi Terry
I could see your angle as having validity over Peter's IF (and only IF) Google did not chose to market to advertisers that searchers can not tell the difference between aggressively integrated paid ads and organic search results.

October 5, 2008 - 9:44pm

Great debate :)

Terry - I agree with what you say - there is no point fouling ones own nest. However, I'm not certain buying links leads to poor SERPs. It could do, but that is not a given.

Consider the act of acquiring a link with the intention of boosting ones' position in the SERPs. It doesn't matter if the link is paid or not. It would *still* compromise the citation model you mention because there is an ulterior motive to the link placement. I've yet to see SEOs demand scripted or no-follow links, in all instances, to ensure they don't violate Google's guideline of manipulating rank!

October 6, 2008 - 7:41am

Buying from other sites that do not understand the reasoning behind the linking other than the direct traffic these links could possibly bring has a much lower level of risk than looking for established sites to buy from. The problem is that these same uninformed sites are not very diligent when it comes to linking properly to other sites who have purchased links.

I was working for a company for a while who's sole focus was ranking its directories in the SERPs. This company paid zero attention to end user experience and ignored SMM completely.

Before I left to find greener pastures, the directories started falling pretty significantly so I set about figuring out why this was occuring. It turned out that many of the sites that links had been purchased on had either removed the link entirely, moved it to an un-indexed page or had altered the text that we provided to them. When attempting to contact these sites in order to have the links corrected, we were always given the run around or just had the linking agreement scratched entirely.

As the old saying goes.. write interesting content/articles/blog post and the links will come and they will be relevant links providing a much higher amount of value.

October 6, 2008 - 11:17pm

I have been wrestling with this one a lot. I vigorously protect the integrity of my clients' sites, so I don't buy links, because there IS a risk, no matter how small. Putting a site at risk knowingly is not a smart thing to do IMHO, if I want to keep working. But aggressive competitors benefitting from these "slightly shady" practices occasionally beat us up in some competitive, necessary SERPs. Makes the easy road very tempting. However, I have seen that over time, the ones who get the juice from forcing it or buying it don't tend to keep it for long. So patience typically works...but trying to explain this is sometimes impossible when dealing with a concerned business owner who sees only their rankings, and has even put my own experience in question...making it very tough to walk this line. If I won't do something like buy links or spam blogs for a business, there are a million guys who will. I haven't yet lost work (or sleep) over it, but it does make some days and explanations very long indeed.

I will say, I have become a much better SEO by trusting the general suggestions of people like Danny and Aaron for the last 6 years, so I feel like I am in good company to not jump on this bandwagon, and not entirely jump off it either.
I don't buy links only because I don't - but I would, if the client fully understands the risks, and it will provide significant potential in a highly competitive market. This means each link source is relevant, closely monitored, and the entire strategy is exercized in moderation. I wish it were cheaper, too --I have never seen a link I wanted to buy that was in any way inexpensive. Great topic!

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