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The Paid Link Controversy

By Gord Collins
Posted Friday, September 17, 2004

Paid links or "sponsorships" are a hot trend right now. Numerous brokers have launched Web sites that allow the purchase of links on Web sites with high PageRank. It is a difficult trend for any SEO to ignore and it may be impossible to avoid doing if Google can't improve its algorithm.

The purchase of links on someone else's Web site whether in text or graphic form does pose a threat to Google search engine results quality., and are just some of the more popular destinations for those who wish circumnavigate Google's PageRank and Hilltop ranking system.

Google (and other search engines for that matter) ranks sites based on the nature of the links leading to them. PageRank assumes that linking is done naturally and with thought, but link buying is determined by cold, hard cash. Now webmasters can buy links to provide them with whatever PR and link reputation they require. If Google drops the major directories in favor of a decentralized "authority sites" system, these new anchors of the search index can also sell links on their sites. The problem is wired right into Google's own solutions.

Although this threat to Google is immense, the company has such tremendous brand loyalty it's dominant place in Internet users lives isn't likely to be usurped anytime soon. The threat really is to all search engines who use link-based search algorithms. If companies can buy links in this fashion, search engine results will become as useless as spam e-mail.

Google's recent algorithm changes may be in response to this threat. Sites with lower PageRank were factored out of the results and PageRank was either frozen or detached from the rest of their algorithm. Some suggest the detachment of PageRank was just a delay to prevent the effect of paid links on a site and even to filter out advertising.

Can Google tell if a link was purchased? Since a purchase transaction takes place behind the scenes, there is no way they can determine if a newly added link was free or paid for. By delaying the effect of that link on rankings though, they can raise the frustration level of those selling the PR their site possesses.

There's no doubt Google is into link pattern and content analysis to try to identify rogue Web sites that seek to undermine their search engine's quality. Ironically, it is primarily Google who contributed to the monetization of links in the first place.

Should You Buy Links?

Marketers buy links on Web sites everyday. In the past, these links were temporary and dynamically generated, and therefore easily filtered out of search engine databases. With software available today, dynamic urls can easily be converted to a commone static urls. It is a challenge for any search engine to filter out paid advertising links.

So, yes you can get away with buying links and get the benefits that advertiser's site has to offer. It's a similar issue to spam e-mail, however there are no laws covering search engine spam.

As the SearchKing lawsuit revealed, Google will delete any site caught selling PageRank. If your advertiser overtly calls the purchase a sale of PR, then you're definitely at risk.

To deal with the problem, Google will have to hire link police who will investigate sites that offer PR for sale. If discovered, it will certainly cause a severe penalty including banning.

Google is assessing all new links discovered, so even if a newly added link on your site is not purchased, it will be treated with suspicion and you may see a reduction in your site's PageRank.

A link-selling abuse reporting page will no doubt be setup where competitors can squeal on each other.

If your site has a good positioning and rankings already, you would be wise not to risk it for the sake of a couple of overpriced link ads. In any event, this is no replacement for a good link-building based on content development.

Stayed tuned for more on the paid link controversy.

About the Author
Gord Collins
SEO Specialist
Bay Street SEO


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