Paid Links: More effective than ever

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  • January 11, 2008

Most of you probably think that the paid links market is on a downward spiral and that Google has stamped out the practice once and for all.

While the practice of legitimate sites selling links has, without question, been pretty much killed off in the last few months the art of buying your way to the top is still alive and well.

To illustrate this take a look at the results for car insurance, one of the most lucrative terms in the UK with CPC costs of £15 and daily Adwords budgets pushing £25,000.

As you can see a lot of major sites that we see every day on UK television stations are listed, no surprise there. The problem with the car insurance industry is that it’s pretty boring and not many natural links are passed around. Most mainstream newspapers mention these sites all the time but it is quite rare they actually give a live link. This makes it very hard for these sites to rank naturally.

Let’s take a look at the backlinks for the top ranking car insurance sites, I looked through the first 100 links for all the sites using the links below and found that a large proportion (around 80% for some sites) looked like they might be paid links that appeared to pass PageRank. Now of course I can’t say for sure that they are paid links but neither can Google. They have to make a judgement call that a site wouldn’t put a link in their footer with the anchor text “cheap car insurance” without being paid to do it.

This is what Google says about sites that buy links:

Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.

I’m not picking on these sites either, a lot of links to the top ranking results were right next to very similar links to their direct competitors. In fact, a quick look at the links for almost every single site on the first page for “car insurance” reveals links that appear to have been paid for.

How many paid links can you find?

My thoughts

To be clear, I have nothing against these sites and I fully understand their position. The fact of the matter is that the only way to compete in a market such as this is to buy links. There is no other way. If any of these companies came to me and wanted top rankings the first thing I would suggest is a massive link buying campaign. Of course I would try to do it in a way that made it hard for people to detect but they would still be paid links. If all your competitors are getting good results from buying links you cannot afford to wait for Google to do something about it.

Google will probably say that they have discounted all the paid links and that the sites are ranking purely on merit. Do you believe them? Let me know in the comments.

Patrick Altoft

About Patrick Altoft

Patrick is the Director of Strategy at Branded3 and has spent the last 11 years working on the SEO strategies of some of the UK's largest brands. Patrick’s SEO knowledge and experience is highly regarded by many, and he’s regularly invited to speak at the world’s biggest search conferences and events.

  • Glen Allsopp

    I’m actually competing in a similar market and see that amount of sites that are ranking based on blatant paid links. You are right in that it seems to be pretty much the only way to rank in these markets.

  • Mikael

    No I don’t believe them. First of all there will never be a way for them to be able to recognize paid links with a 100% certainty and I honest do believe that it would cost them massive amounts of administrative time to deal with all the complaints that they would get if they tried.

    I’m sure they’ll hunt down the obvious ones but defenitely not those that aren’t.

  • Adam

    It’s all about the paid links 😉

  • Sucker

    I think Google would say that no matter what, just to scare you away from buying links (by making you think you won’t get any PR benefit.)

    I call it a false sense of danger to keep people in line, kind of like those fake security cameras or the homeland security threat level deal we have going on over here.

  • Frank M

    Relevant paid text links are massive flash banners of the 21 century.
    Do you know what is the current average banner ad CTR?
    Rhetorical question, it is around 0.2%.

    Word of mouth marketing and paid links are giving advertisers much higher ROI, especially if they pass PageRank and get some juice.

    It is no sin to buy links. It is called advertising.

  • Ernie

    Link buying is a factor of online life. If a company asks a search agency to manage their SEO the first thing they will do is suggest link buying strategy.

    Everyone does it, some black hat, others grey, but I don’t know anyone who is bidding on competitive terms using a fully white hat approach – if they are they won’t be on the first page for that term.

    Google will continue to discount those links they find, companies and agencies will continue to find different ways to buy links and the world will continue turning…

  • ny seo

    Google is out of touch and blinded with power.

    A few years ago, an article like this might have received several responses about why buying links is cheating.

    I am glad to see the industry might be catching up with one of the latest forms of marketing, “link buying.”

    Google is behaving like we are buying factories in China with child-workers who work 16 hours shifts.

  • Manish Pandey

    No, absolutely not!

    If that were the case many of the sites would have lost rankings, but they still rank and out rank those big sites with 10000s of links!

  • jayjayjay

    Oh man, I hate it when people make posts like this :) Yes, you want to back up your point with examples but your shoving it in google’s face, and Google is very explosive at ‘fixing’ its image. I wouldnt be surprised if a shuffle happened 😛

  • Mielno

    Hmm – I think about in and Ill be back soon. Mielno

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  • Paul Mihai Pavel


    Let me ask you a question: how does Googlebot, spider, or whatever you want to call it, how does it know that a link is paid for or not?

    Sincerely, I cannot afford to buy such links, so my PR is still 0.

    And what can Google do about this? If they forbid sites to sell links, a black market will grow for sure.



    • Patrick Altoft

      Google can never tell for sure whether money changed hands but if the link appears to be a paid or unnatural link then they will try to discount it or penalise the site.

      A blackmarket already exists.

  • John

    While Google can never tell for sure if money changed hands, they can get a good idea. After all if you can make judgment calls on whether or not something is a paid link, Google should be able to at some point in the future.

    Really though I see the entire field of SEO moving much more towards a quality of content view. Sites with better content which fulfills the needs of your customers (without them even needing to look elsewhere). Content that allows customer feedback, and endorses reviews. After all if you were looking for a company on auto insurance wouldn’t you want it to have high quality content, good design, obvious interaction with customers to a high standard? Well either that or your just looking for the cheapest prices around!

    I’m in a similar niche, and we’ve been working quite hard to make our site the best it can be for users, and thereby the type of site Google, or the “next” Google will want to rank highly.

  • Kevin Lee

    Clearly the further underground the paid links go, the harder it is for Google to find them. If they start showing up within editorial (and they have), even the footer link-juice removal wouldn’t make a difference.

  • Spencer

    We have several websites which have recently seen our inbound links go to almost zero. This change has happened within the last 2 months or so. Our inbound links are typically paid using directories that are niche to our industry. We aren’t using the directory link to get better PageRank, but we were seeing legitimate customer inquires. These inquires typically used Google to search terms relevant to our business and our directory listing would typically appear on the first page.

    Well, since the paid links change at Google we are no longer seeing any customer enquiries. Is this typical to what everyone else is experiencing?

    In my research into correcting the problem I ran into a new feature in Google Web Tools that allows you to report “paid link sites” and the site using this paid link service. The following is verbatim from the Google Webmaster Tools admin area.

    Report paid links

    Help us maintain the quality of Google search results.
    We work hard to return the most relevant results for every search we conduct. To that end, we encourage site managers to make their content straightforward and easily understood by users and search engines alike. Unfortunately, not all websites have users’ best interests at heart. Some site owners attempt to “buy PageRankâ„¢” in the form of paid links to their sites. Buying links to improve PageRank violates our quality guidelines.

    Google uses a number of methods to detect paid links, including algorithmic techniques. We also welcome information from our users. If you know of a site that buys or sells links, please tell us by filling out the fields below. We’ll investigate your submissions, and we’ll use your data to improve our algorithmic detection of paid links.

    Does this mean that we get penalized for buying links in these niche industry directories, even though they provide a valuable stand-alone service?


    • Patrick Altoft

      Most general web directories don’t help with search engine rankings anymore so you should only submit if they will send real visitors.

      Buying and selling links is against Google’s guidelines so you might find yourself penalised if you do this.

      Try to make sure you are building natural links from quality sites as well as directory links if you want good rankings.

  • Wil Reynolds

    Patrick, GREAT post. I think what you outline is the simple fact that while we know Google is de-valuing paid links, they do provide a boost still. So in some industries you may have to do that for now, but I would be recommending to folks to balance that with great linkbait and legit link strategies. In this way as Google gets better and better and detecting these links you’ll already have hedged your bets by diversifying your links form more sources from day 1.

    Great post!

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  • Matt Ridout

    I believe paid links still contribute to many search engine rises for companies, usually costs a lot and there is a lot of risk involved.

  • Vertical Measures

    Google also says that buying advertising or traffic is okay. One could say that all links are purchased for traffic – right? So the next step for Google would be to measure the traffic a link is sending to a site and heavily value the link based on that metric. Wouldn’t that shake up link buying?

    • Patrick Altoft

      I don’t think Google would want people to be able to buy a link that passed PR even if it sent huge amounts of traffic.

  • Charlie Anzman

    Patrick – Had a client that stripped all his paid (and some unpaid) links due to a -40 penalty. Reinclusion , blah, blah … No improvement after 60 days. Guy was rightfully #2 + / – in his market for about 3 years. Luckily, I was not the ‘SEO of record’ at the time but yep, this is still a bit of a mess!

  • Tony Hilton

    I don’t think Google has an accurate way of detecting paid links. I think they can pick out the obvious ones but nothing more. I have noticed recently the visible page rank vanishing from paid directories not on the home page but on the page that actually has the link on. The pages still seem to transfer PR so I think the change is just to the visible PR not the actual PR. Personally I just think Google is trying to scare people of buying links.

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  • Hami

    I dont really believe paid directories.. I’ve seen so many directories saying they are PR 4 or 5 but actually when you place your link with them, they will put you on 0 PR page.

  • davi

    Alright hami i agree to your point most of the sites that promise to put your link on pr 4 will always place you on pr0 however i still strongly believe that having your links in directories will improve your page rank…i know this because i have eveidence…

    It happend to on of my site..

  • Justin

    Alot of these sites’ main pages have high PR’s, but the page or location they put your links have a much lower PR… just my 2cents… not worth the $


  • EH

    I don’t quite agree. Paid links have their place, but you have to be so careful because search engines, especially Google, are getting increasingly selective about what links are actually related to your site. When building links, it is import to remember to stick with sites or blogs that have related content to your own website. If you are linked to unrelated websites, those search engines will discount your website and it will put you lower on the PageRank or even blacklist your website instead of moving you up in ranking like you want it to.

  • Sasa Ebach

    This is so not true. Buying links over the course of years is costs a LOT of money. I have heard about monthly budgets of 30k Euros for 150 links or so. I am sure in the english speaking world it is even more expensive. With 30k a month you can get so creative and do such amazing things. But even if you are completely uncreative, just go ahead and give away 1000 Euro a day on your car insurance blog. You do not even have to be sneaky about it. Those car insurance companies are just plain dumb or simply stupid (which ever you choose). There is absolutely no industry you HAVE TO buy links for. You only have to buy them if you are not willing to be creative. I don’t dispute the state of theses industries concercing links, but I doubt that the only way to compete in a market such as this is to buy links. This is like saying: The only way to get sex is to pay for it.

    Sasa from the Linkaufbau-Agentur

    PS: You require registering for a link but then set it to nofollow? No thanks.

    • Patrick Altoft

      Sasa the link on the profile page is followed.

  • Sasa Ebach

    Hi Patrick,

    good to know, but still …. hrmpf 😉

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  • Wedding Photographer in Kent

    This issue really is a pain for those of us who genuinely try and build links with local and relvant suppiers.

  • SEO Information

    Every paid link website is not good for your website health because of that type of website has lake of site structure , css and design and they have had motto of PR in their mind. If you want to buy link, yahoo directory is best for you.

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