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Buying Links for SEO & Google Rankings? Read this first...

Over the last decade, it's become widely known that Google counts the number and quality of inbound links to a given website (or web page) as one of the most important factors in its keyword rankings. Basically the more links out there that point to your website from websites that are talking about similar topics, especially authority websites that have other sites linking to them, the better. While inbound links have essentially always factored in to web rankings, it's only been in recent years that most webmasters and business owners have taken notice. Just a decade ago there were a lot of businesses that didn't even have an online presence, much less a website they needed to rank on the first page of Google's search results for important searches related to their product offerings. Heck, Google itself started out as a research project just 16 years and in it wasn't at all what it is today in those first few years. Now, virtually all consumers use the internet to find all products and services they might ever need, and roughly 80% of us use Google for our searches. It's no secret that very few people click to the second page of search results (do you ever?), so an ongoing battle rages in virtually every industry and region in the country to obtain a top 10 ranking for page 1 visibility. As word of inbound links boosting rankings has spread, countless business owners have attempted to take the easy road and pay some quick talking black hat SEO spammer (that's right I said!) to "build links" for them. In the end what these spammers do is pay people in India to hide links back to the business's site in the footer of abandoned Russian blogs. That may be over simplifying things because they aren't all Russian sites (or blogs necessarily), but the principle remains - hiding links on unrelated, garbage sites that currently exist solely for the purpose of selling inbound links to dupded legitimate business owners. As terrible of a practice as that all is, it gets worse: It often works!!! That's right, it can work... but generally only temporarily and you can rest assured that eventually Google will catch on and you will be punished. The "punishment" comes in the form of dropped rankings, and in certain cases, your site being banned from search results all together, which is why we will always advise that you NEVER BUY LINKS. If you already fell for one of these gimmicks, we'll talk about what you can do momentarily, but rest assured - you're not alone! Even a company as large as  J.C. Penney had to learn the "don't buy links" lesson the hard way just about a year ago. The negative long-term impacts of buying links have been known (and voiced) by ethical SEOs for years, but due to ever increasing competition, the average business owner is desperate to do anything they can to compete and so far to many are roped in by hucksters who promise them hundreds or even thousands of links for a nominal fee. Other less-spammy methods have had their days in the sun over the years, such as blog/article networks. There's nothing wrong with obtaining legitimate backlinks through guest blogging, etc. but as Carson Ward explains, you run a great risk if you pay your way in to some sort of content "network" that allows you to post your content with the goal of linking back to your own website. The post also talks about "warnings" Google has started sending to webmasters about unnatural linking tactics, a point we'll return to shortly. Like any other "paid link", Google will eventually catch you so you need to ask yourself this question: Are you better off possibly getting a short-term boost but being actively punished by Google, or following white-hat SEO and inbound link strategies from the jump? Some in the SEO community have offered work-arounds like "paying for links but not buying them". The goal is to essentially get a backlink/mention from a 501(c)3 charity after making a tax deductible donation. This is probably a strategy that can't hurt you but the positive impact will likely be minimal unless you're able to get a number of these links from authority websites. As a longer term strategy, I think Rand Fishkin comes closer to hitting the mark in his recommendation that you buy blogs rather than links. Essentially the idea would be that a company buys a related blog and pays the bloggers small fees to continue producing content. This will obviously only work in very specific instances, but a great strategy none the less. Rand summarizes this way:
To my mind, this is a no-brainer. When you buy a blog or any form of online community, you're not simply acquiring links, you're getting:
  • An engine for brand building and indirect customer acquisition
  • An ongoing methodology to pull in links, tweets, shares, +1s, likes, etc.
  • Brand evangelists who will help expand your reach and credibility
  • A PR opportunity like few others, even in fields where PR is hard to come by (acquisitions are talked-about, blogged-about, and make the news, even those of relatively small blogs)
  • Content that's already been proven to attract an audience
  • All the organic signals that search engines love to see - from links to social to usage to content to branding
Again, this is an interesting and unique strategy that Rand has come up with which should be very successful in situations where it makes sense to implement. While this strategy might not make sense for a lot of other businesses, the key take-away is unique and fresh content, especially blog content. I have seen well written and optimized blog posts show up in the top 10 search results on Google in less than 10 minutes after posting. The importance of fresh content is underestimated by far to many business owners who simply don't understand that the days of "set it and forget" websites are long gone. For about a month now, SEOs have been scrambling to avoid the "over-optimization penalty" Matt Cutts warned about at SXSW. This problem with a lot of the panic, in my opinion, is that it's been unfounded - unless you've been buying links or keyword stuffing your content. Writing legitimate, SEO friendly web content basically boils down to writing naturally for "humans" (not search engines), while including the types of keyword phrases your audience will be searching for. Laura at Success Works has written a great post that breaks this down in more detail. But fresh and unique content serves a dual purpose. Remember, the point of this post is to talk about getting inbound links. Quality content is often by its very nature "link bait", meaning it's something that other webmasters find interesting/useful, so they'll link to it from their websites. As we mentioned earlier, we've seen paid links work for some websites and sometimes for extended periods of time, but we'll always advised against it because Google flat out says don't do it. Google takes things a step further in their description of and warning about "Link Schemes" (emphasis mine):
However, some webmasters engage in link exchange schemes and build partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. This is in violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact your site's ranking in search results. Examples of link schemes can include:
  • Links intended to manipulate PageRank
  • Links to web spammers or bad neighborhoods on the web
  • Excessive reciprocal links or excessive link exchanging ("Link to me and I'll link to you.")
  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank
The best way to get other sites to create relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can quickly gain popularity in the Internet community. The more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it. Before making any single decision, you should ask yourself the question: Is this going to be beneficial for my page's visitors?
I quoted that last portion to reiterate my point about content being king these days and the fact that you need to write for humans/website visitors, NOT for search engines. In 2011, webmasters began receiving notifications from Google Webmaster Tools about unnatural links. These emails detailed what issues Google had detected, steps to take to come in to compliance and then how webmasters could submit their site for reconsideration. If that all sounds like a lot of work, it's because it is which is once again why we advise against buying links in the first place. For more details on how to comply with Google's policies, check out Modesto Siotos' post about tracking down harmful inbound links and this SEO roundtable post about removing any and all paid links, regardless of how old they are. Krisina Weis summarized the unnatural links issue just this week and explained what you can do to avoid penalties as well, including one method for tracking down potentially low-quality we haven't talked about yet:
Google Webmaster Tools has a “Links to your site” section that shows you which sites link to your site and how often, which pages on your site have the most links, and what anchor text people tend to use to link to you (they call this “How your data is linked”).
I use this tool to analyze inbound links regularly. It's a great resource, but like everything else, it has its limitations. If you review the "Links to your site" section inside your Webmaster Tools account, you'll no doubt find links from websites that seem to be nothing but domain profile directories (for lack of a better term). I don't want to link to them and potentially boost their legitimacy but I'll just mention updowner, agoner and builtwith. Essentially these sites exist to generate ad revenue (you'll find most are plastered with Adsense ads), and rather than create legitimate content to generate traffic, they simply scrape the web and provide "information" about all other websites (IP address, similar sites, related search queries, etc.) Others seem to be scraping and redisplaying search results. The reason this is concerning to me is that Webmaster Tools doesn't attach a note to links like these stating "Your rankings won't be hurt by these spam sites linking to you". Presumably Google keeps an ever growing list of these types of sites so it can discount them, but not punish websites who's webmasters have no control over the links they provide, but there's no way of knowing. GWT provides a great list of ALL links that Google sees pointing to your website, but it doesn't tell us which links are viewed as spam and which are ignored, which certainly complicates matters.