Online Marketing is Complex
One thing I believe about online marketing (and SEO in particular) is that the more rigid the advice the lower its value, particularly when it is cast out to a general audience. Why? Online marketing incorporates psychology, sociology, game theory, etc. The human mind is complex. Understanding how many of them work together (or against each other) is even more complex.
There are hundreds or thousands of ways to win a market. Each idea is a tool that has potential risks and potential rewards on a per market and per project basis.
Link Building in 2003
With link buying people get emotional and just consider it out of the question. Back when I got started as an SEO, many SEOs were considered spammers simply because they even did any link building at all. Why?
- It was amazingly effective.
- It was time consuming and expensive work that many established SEOs did not want to do for their clients.
Since then the web graph has got amazingly polluted and paid links are treated similarly to how link building efforts were treated back then.
Few SEO Tips Are Universal
Rand recently stated that he no longer recommends paid links. If you philosophically didn't believe in buying links then why would you spend $1,000,000+ building a web graph of link data? What good is researching all the link data if you take link buying off the table as one of the options? Most of the competing links that you can replicate will require some level of payment.
Sure link buying does not make sense for everyone, but it makes a lot of sense for some businesses. And if you don't buy links then there is little purpose to link research tools, IMHO.
The potential risks & ROI in link buying are not the same for everyone. Saying link buying is off the table is like saying keyword research is off the table. Sure if you are TechCrunch you don't need to do keyword research to succeed, but it still wouldn't hurt to consider it.
Waiting in Obscurity is a Real Cost
Let's say that you are starting a brand new project and have 0 market momentum - a position almost every successful webmaster starts from at some point in time. I don't think there is risk in buying a few links because you have to start from somewhere. Most of the people who launched new websites in the past year will be out of it by the end of next year. The biggest online risk for new webmasters is perpetual obscurity.
While being obscure you are not...
- building brand and momentum
- building cashflow
- building customer loyalty
- optimizing conversion flows
- catching up with established competitors who are re-investing into growing their businesses
One way or another you have to start doing some push marketing to build momentum. Eventually pull marketing can drag you along, but you don't benefit from it until AFTER you have built some awareness and market momentum.
At Pubcon 2 years ago Stephan Spencer mentioned you might get penalized 5 years from now for links you bought today. I said that I got started in SEO less than 5 years ago and if I didn't buy any links back then I wouldn't be speaking into the microphone right now. I also said that if you get penalized 5 years later for what you did back then well then you didn't build much of a business.
But for established brands doing limited link buying can still make a lot of sense. Since "brands are how you sort out the cesspool" there is much less risk in a brand buying a few links.
Some SEO consultants who are trying to appear like the safe option (to pull in corporate consulting clients) think that saying they don't recommend link buying makes them look wholesome, but any SEO who has worked for fortune 500s knows that once you get in the board room all that matters is efficacy.
Having wrote that, I can think of numerous instances where we advised clients to approach their overall strategy in a way that was less spammy and less risky than what they were already doing and what they were proposing.
If you don't buy links it is hard to influence the anchor text, particularly if you are doing SEO at the enterprise level AND want to get deep links into commercially oriented pages. Companies spend billions of dollars a year on organic SEO because ranking a few spots higher in Google can be worth a lot of money. If you know a #5 ranking is worth x, then there is a good chance that a #1 ranking can be worth something like 8x.
A Tool is a Tool
Am I advocating that everyone go out and buy links? Not at all. I am just saying that it does not make sense to categorically take it off the table. Link buying is a tool which has various value levels depending what market you are in and how your company is positioned.
Paid links can be a stepping stone or part of your strategy, but rarely should they be your entire strategy. On some client projects we have done we have suggested shifting away from doing as much link buying or reciprocal linking because we felt that the strategy needed to be more holistic and well rounded. It worked, and there was no reason to stop doing what already worked, but going forward it would make sense to leverage some of the brand assets and audience to build other types of links.
Where Link Buying Can Lead You Astray
If link buying is your only SEO strategy it is hard to stay competitive long-term because
- if your link profile is nothing but paid links that is risky
- if your link profile is nothing but paid links that is easy for competitors to clone
- if you are in a big money market some competitors will have other assets to leverage against you in addition
Doing a bit of link buying way back when helped get me some exposure, but it didn't produce the explosive ROI that we got from doing things like going to conferences, networking with people, and launching a bunch of popular SEO tools. Link buying can be considered a support, but the most successful businesses typically have numerous supports.
Creative Link Buying
Did you see that Mint.com was recently bought by Intuit for $170 million? It seems they used a creative way to buy links:
To build demand, we started asking for email addresses for our alpha 9 months in advance of launch. Then when we had too many people sign up, we asked people to put a little badge that said “I want Mint” on their blogs to get priority access. We got free advertising and 600 link backs which raised our SEO juice.
See how they required links as payment for priority access? Well I would say they got a nice return on those link buys. And so would they. And now that they have so much momentum they can't and won't be penalized for buying links. ;)
Where Link Buying Can Make Sense?
- if you are new and have nothing to lose
- if your brand & link profile are so big that buying a few links won't stick out
- in markets where the competitive barrier set by all the top ranked competitors includes an array of link buying (not saying you should match them link for link, but it might make sense to cherry pick a few of the best opportunities)
- getting a few deep links with targeted anchor text
- in markets where links are valuable and there are few organic links
A Word From Bing
One thing SEOs should love about Bing is that Bing's search team gives practical advice and does not try to scare you:
The truth is that getting bad links happens to great sites. We know this happens. In fact, we’ve never seen a decently ranking site that doesn’t have a few (or more) bad inbound links. We take the approach that bad inbound links won’t adversely affect your site ranking unless most or all of your inbound links are from bad sites.
Consider this as well: perhaps the reputation of the site linking to you is bad, but the content on the actual linking page is relevant to the page on your site. This could possibly be a decent inbound link—not as good as one from an authority site, but it might give you a little link goodness.
When it comes to inbound links, just remember this: zero inbound links are better than all bad inbound links. But if you have many good, relevant inbound links from respected sites, a few bad links won’t count against you (but they won’t help you, either).
So in general they look at the overall profile of the business when making editorial decisions and are not likely to penalize you for having a couple bad links. They not only won't penalize you for having a few bad links, but even expect them to be there.
I don't buy all that many links for SEO purposes. But I don't think it is a good perspective for most webmasters to remove the option from their tool set. Had I not bought links back in 2003 and 2004 I am not sure if I would have as big of an audience as I do today.
If you are just starting out and have limited capital you might want to approach link buying creatively (like Mint did), but if SEO is core to your business strategy you shouldn't be afraid to buy a few links.
Gain a Competitive Advantage Today
Your top competitors have been investing into their marketing strategy for years.
Now you can know exactly where they rank, pick off their best keywords, and track new opportunities as they emerge.
Explore the ranking profile of your competitors in Google and Bing today using SEMrush.
Enter a competing URL below to quickly gain access to their organic & paid search performance history - for free.
See where they rank & beat them!
- Comprehensive competitive data: research performance across organic search, AdWords, Bing ads, video, display ads, and more.
- Compare Across Channels: use someone's AdWords strategy to drive your SEO growth, or use their SEO strategy to invest in paid search.
- Global footprint: Tracks Google results for 120+ million keywords in many languages across 28 markets
- Historical data: since 2009, before Panda and Penguin existed, so you can look for historical penalties and other potential ranking issues.
- Risk-free: Free trial & low price.