Link Buying: the Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

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.

Deep Links

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 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.

Published: September 17, 2009 by Aaron Wall in seo tips


September 17, 2009 - 9:16pm

Man I almost can't stand reading the whiny posts here anymore. Rand DID say that link buying is still a feasible strategy and that there is even evidence that suggests larger, more established sites are not affected by link buying. He also stated that there are many sites that can afford to manage the risk of buying links.

Is SEO Book so burnt out on blogging that they really need to post a rebuttal to everything posted at SEOMoz?

I think there is obviously value in it's link research tool regardless whether you're buying links or not. It allows insight into possible partnerships with other sites linking to you without being solicited to do so.

It's a good thing you closed you doors to new subscribers. I'm curious to see if this tactic is a set up for a very "hypey" campaign along the lines of

"Closed door secret society of SEO gurus quietly raking in a billion $$ a day opens its doors to the next 1,000 subscribers, then will close forever!"

September 17, 2009 - 9:17pm

Thank you Aaron for calling him out on it.

He is becoming less and less an authority on seo by the second and more of a cutts puppet. Thank you for pointing his linkscaping nonsense out also, I don't think many people realize the $ that went into that r&d and to do so without using the data would be moronic.

Much respect to rand but the elitist flip flapping attitude has to go.

September 17, 2009 - 9:53pm

I respect Bing's stance on this. I too believe if you have a well-rounded SEO strategy buying a few links from a few quality directories will probably never hurt you.

September 17, 2009 - 11:05pm

great job describing how links gained without a direct cash transaction can still be paid links. a great marketing concept should always turn into paid links. the cost of any campaign is payment for the links it creates.

i have also enjoyed bing's clear and concise advice.

September 17, 2009 - 11:19pm

Sorta an asshole-ish comment there ntnsllc, don't you think? Saying crap like...

  • that it is good we are currently closed
  • that if we re-open you think it might be some hypey campaign like "Closed door secret society of SEO gurus quietly raking in a billion $$ a day opens its doors to the next 1,000 subscribers, then will close forever!"

Truth is our site is closed because I was getting burned out because I was undercharging and grew the site out too quickly. And as far as hyped up launches go, that label belongs to your buddy who you are promoting.

And for 99% of SEO projects there is no point to buying link research data if you aren't also going to buy the links. Plenty enough free tools available if you aren't looking to invest. And if you are afraid of buying links then why not just get your data from the likes of Yahoo! Site Explorer?

Someone may have got a cleint's website burned recently and is trying to back their way out of it by being a conduit for Google misinformation. And that person is not me! And my name was not showcased on Conductor's link buying proposals the way that someone else's was up until recently ;)

I have no problems with misinformation but if you are acting like you are being open it is best to just be open. I just don't like talking out of both sides of the mouth, which has become popular in the search and SEO industries recently.

September 18, 2009 - 6:43pm

Sorry for gettin' underneath your skin Aaron. I knew you had already taken a stand against hype and blasted MOZ for it. That's why I suggested that similar hype may be in your future!

I won't post any more "asshole-is" comments. I still continue to read the forum though as it's very valuable. But your post acted as though Rand was saying "absolutely positively without a doubt 1,000% do not buy links they will be bad for your health and etc." When he was only making a minor case against buying links. So I felt it was a little disparaging as to what the intent of his article was.

And in interest of full disclosure, I don't have a paid MOZ membership either.

My apologies to you and the readers who don't agree with me.

September 18, 2009 - 3:15am

My favorite part of the post was the comparison of how Bing looks at paid links vs. Google.

The truth is that Google likely evaluates paid links the same way Bing does. It's just they have tried hard as hell to scare folks into thinking that paid links are the devil (must have watched "The Water Boy" one too many times).

Buying and selling of paid links won't stop being effective until citations (e.g. inbound links and anchor text). Keep that in mind when crafting your SEO/marketing strategy.

P.S. I wouldn't of even bothered to respond to ntnsllc. Not worth the time IMHO.

September 18, 2009 - 3:50am

I wouldn't of even bothered to respond to ntnsllc

I hear you, but if I don't then people will assume I am dishonest or hiding behind something or that he was not off key (which he was). And if you delete comments from douche bags like him then they spam up the web about how you are censoring people.

September 18, 2009 - 3:46pm of those "damned if you do, damned if you're don't" type deals.

September 18, 2009 - 9:12pm

You don't have to worry about me spamming up the web about censoring! In fact, I've had a change of heart. I would support you in removing my comment above.

I should have posted my thoughts in a more civil manner.

September 18, 2009 - 7:22am

ntnsllc - I appreciate having more than one industry leader voicing their opinion on the issue - and one that actually has the balls to call other experts out - whether I agree with his opinion or not, I respect this.

Without contention many will blindly follow the advice of one highly visible experts point of view. It was actually refreshing to see comments on that moz post questioning the absolute stance taken. IMO there was more value in the discussion in the comments, than the post itself.

Top takeaway from this post:
"the more rigid the advice the lower its value"
There is no one-size-fits-all solution in this game.

September 18, 2009 - 11:10am

As usual a great post, Aaron :)

September 18, 2009 - 1:28pm

As usual, solid post with solid advice.

Too many SEOs promote themselves as "ethical" and closely-adherent to Google's guidelines. The bottom line is the bottom line and always will be.

Search is a competitive landscape in the most raw definition. If you're not willing to consider a tactic your competitors are likely using you're effectively rendering yourself sterile.

Give me a competitive niche and a half hour, and I'll come back to you with a list of high-ranking sites along with their clearly-questionable (at least from Google's standpoint) link acquisition methods. High-ranking meaning they have not been penalized - and most likely won't in the future.

In short: SEO is about killing the competition. If you don't have the stomach for taking measured risks in achieving that you've essentially given up.

ps @ntnsllc If you can't stand the "whiny" posts around here maybe you should take your stellar attitude elsewhere.

September 18, 2009 - 8:29pm

Just check the links of sites on the first page on any competitive niche out there and see just what kind of scammy looking links the sites have coming in. I have been truly blown away by what people get away with. But hey, as long as they're not too off-topic, who really cares? The user is still finding what they're looking for. They'll never see those links from the Miley Cyrus fan blogs and the bogus page counters.

A lot of people seem to complain about this Rand guy. I have read some of his blog posts but I honestly don't think I've ever really learned much from him the way I have from Aaron (who also understandably most likely keeps quite a bit to himself). Rand seems to his "viral content" as if it's some kind of holy grail but he never backs anything up. If you check the link profiles of the portfolio of sites his company represents, it looks like nothing but a huge cross-linking scheme. Where is your viral content dude? Or is that just some deceptive tactic. Just another bloviating SEO who likes to have everyone think they're sooo friggin brilliant. I'm so sick of these idiots. Newsflash: this is not neurosurgery. Either offer value or just be quiet and do your SEO.

d marks
September 19, 2009 - 2:39am

Aaron, I really enjoy the blog, I am familiar with google webmaster tools, but have not seen this functionality with Bing, can you provide some insight into this and where they post updateds for webmasters...thx

d marks
September 19, 2009 - 4:24am

I google, err....binged it and found the link, never knew it existed, pretty cool tools they provide...thanks

September 19, 2009 - 10:18pm

A topic I seldom see addressed in SEO blogs is link SELLING. I create informational websites, and at one time sold a link or two here and there. I now will not do it because I believe it ultimately harms the integrity of the site, at least with Google. Truthfully, I have no hard studies to back this up. But I can say that I have seen some information intensive, quality websites go from good ranking in the SERPs (and good PR) to nowhere fast, after placing a link.

When this happens, of course, the client who purchased the link no longer wants the link. I think of it as a vampire sucking the Page Rank out of a page. With the traffic gone and no one wanting to buy a link, the site is then pretty much useless.

Yeah, I can see the efficacy of buying links, but ultimately, for a webmaster trying to build a reputable site, it is a foolish move to sell a link that will only get short-term profits.


September 20, 2009 - 4:21am

Yeah...I don't typically recommend blatant link selling. Better to mix them into the content and to create content that makes the link look natural.

September 21, 2009 - 4:22am

McGelligot, a search engine can never know if you sold a link if that link is exactly like a natural link. That's the key to selling links.

September 21, 2009 - 8:23am

Ha Aaron, I would rather go the PPC route then bother paying for links. Instant results - instant money ;-).

September 21, 2009 - 8:42am

I am more concerned with sustainability than instant results. I would rather have an additional $1 a day for the next 10 years than $1,000 more today.

September 21, 2009 - 11:00am

I am more concerned with sustainability

With no intentions to harm your business... If SEO is sustainable then so is PPC and if PPC is not, then so is SEO. You wont agree to this - but I have had more "sustainable" business in PPC since the last six years than SEO.

I would rather go further and say, SEO is not even close to predictable (the ball is in Google's or Yahoo's or Bing's court), whereas in PPC if you are willing to spend money you will at least start getting visitors.

I would rather have an additional $1 a day for the next 10 years

... and what if (SEO) I don't get that?

September 21, 2009 - 12:15pm

Well your PPC vs SEO experience was perhaps the polar opposite of mine. ;)

Were you doing affiliate stuff with PPC, or something a bit more sustainable than that?

When you are buying AdWords traffic you can get squeezed out of the market and are forced to keep improving your conversion rates to stay in the game.

If you are doing affiliate and someone basically clones your ad copy and website but then sprinkles in a few hot selling marketing oriented lies then they can outbid you because they will have a higher visitor value (unless you are creating a much thicker user experience that moves beyond just an affiliate offer). And then if you are an affiliate quality score can wipe you out at any time.

I have one merchant that I do AdWords and SEO for who recently paused most of his AdWords ads (outside of some of the long tail keywords). His lifetime visitor value was not high enough to support losing money on the first transaction (like some competing businesses were doing) because he carries a smaller supply set than competing businesses and does not re-market to those customers for repeat sales (others can do more marketing because they carry more brands).

Another thing with AdWords is that half of his competitors on the first page were using Google Checkout as well. When Google rolled that out you either used it or you lost AdWords marketshare to the companies that were.

SEO can be unpredictable on weak websites, but if you have a strong site (or a collection of them) you can have fairly reliable traffic and margins. I guess it just depends on what you are good at...and I am much better at knowing how to pull in traffic than I am at squeezing every ounce of efficiency out of the traffic.

September 21, 2009 - 1:14pm

Were you doing affiliate stuff with PPC, or something a bit more sustainable than that?

Actually both - Affiliate marketing and a service I provide (not SEO).

September 21, 2009 - 1:32pm

Hi Aaron,

Firstly I would like to tell you I agree with virtually all of your post.

However, the example you use for Mint, you forget to mention that asking people to link to you from their blogs/sites by giving them stuff is also against Google's guidelines.

September 21, 2009 - 2:50pm

you forget to mention that asking people to link to you from their blogs/sites by giving them stuff is also against Google's guidelines.

I see far too many above radar examples to believe this is being enforced on much of any level at all. And I think the key for further protection would be giving product asking if they would review it, but not requiring a link.

September 22, 2009 - 3:01am

Really happy that finally a SEO with your kind of traction say link buying is not all bad. Of course another great post.
link buying is part of a greater marketting mix and business is business you need to throw what you have to the competition (I don't believe in short term gain) and some link buying could definitly be a part of the mix.

and yeah the elitist attitude is so passé :-)

September 22, 2009 - 2:40pm

Even Google buys links (though they usually buy them with influence as well, likeso: )

September 25, 2009 - 9:19pm

Hey Aaron;

Great post Aaron. I just saw your recent similar posts on my reader, reading Rand's first, then yours.

I was left feeling somewhat uncomfortable after Rand's post - like he was hiding something, not telling the whole story (truth). He even begins the post with a disclaimer:
...I'll ask, up front, for a bit of leeway in how my words are parsed and interpreted...
Damn, that smells like there's bullshit about to be served.

Now after reading your post I feel "back in realty". Let him brown-nose Matt, grandstand to his audience, and let them suffer the consequences. I've always been suspicious of white hat propogandists, for the simple reason that the proof is in the pudding. Niche SERPs show that link buying, and it's lesser form, reciprocating, works. As a few have mentioned, very few of any niche's top site's link profiles could be called "quality".

What other reason would someone have to link to "Joe's Patio Furniture page"?

Thanks for just saying it like it is. And thanks for allowing all comments - many here have been a goldmine of entertainment, and info. PLEASE install some sort of comment voting system - I'm FRIGGIN' DYING to just vote up or down on some of these comments! It would be neat to have threaded responses to comments as well.

Thanks again.

September 26, 2009 - 7:39pm

Thanks for the comment DeletedLIVE, but I don't think we will add a comment voting script on here soon...most of our posts don't get that much conversation anyway because most of our comments seem to come in the forums rather than on the blog.

September 27, 2009 - 5:42am

Niche SERPs show that link buying, and it's lesser form, reciprocating, works. As a few have mentioned, very few of any niche's top site's link profiles could be called "quality".

DeletedLIVE, absolutely. This is self-evident everywhere you look, and it's a verifiable fact. White-hat scare-mongering is very disengenuous given, like you say, the virtual impossibility for "Joe's Furniture" website (and millions of COMMERCIAL websites like it) to win links naturally.

So I wonder how a 100% white-hat SEO guru would market "Joe's Furniture" website with 100% white-hat techniques and make it compete with sites with similar content BUT these sites buy/barter links and reciprocate links? The white-hat SEO would be dead in the water, and everyone knows it. Another thing everyone knows: the 100% white-hat SEO guy does not exist.

Now I expect someone (often its you Aaron!) to come up with an exception to this rule, but I don't care about exceptions when the vast majority of websites need to barter for links in some way to get some link popularity. That's just a fact of life.

September 27, 2009 - 7:27pm

I have done linkbait for a Joe's Furniture type website. The result? Links from well connected sites like LifeHacker. Oh, and then Google banned our we didn't get any of that link credit anyhow. ;)

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