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 :)
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