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Links for sale: What are you getting, anyway?

Those of you who have read Search Engine Marketing, Inc. know how I feel about buying links from sites to improve your search rankings. Buying links without full disclosure violates Google’s terms of service, as well as those of the other search engines. I have no problem with buying links because you want to get people to click on those links to come to your site, and the search engines have no issue with that, either. But most folks buying and selling links have a different motivation–to improve their organic search rankings. I know this is a prevalent practice, but I wonder if most of them know what they are doing.

I started wondering about this because in recent weeks I have been approached numerous times by folks wanting to pay me to place “text links” on my site. I know that I should be happy, because even if I don’t want to take their money, they are saying that my site is important enough to be worth paying for a link. (Sound of chest puffing out with pride.)

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But I wonder about these folks making requests of me. Do they really know what they are getting into? Does buying text links even work to improve search rankings?

Look, I am not naïve. (At least not most of the time.) I know that extremely intelligent and hardworking black hat search experts make a living out of fooling Google. It’s a very tough business and I respect the ability it takes to stay at the top of that game, even if I’m too much of an altar boy to defend the ethics.

But are these folks contacting me those top-notch black hat pros? I highly doubt it. I mean, it wouldn’t take much research to find out what I think of paid links, so the odds of someone actually receiving a paid link from me is rather low. I think the pros, because they are good at what they do, might know who I am and what I think.

Instead, I think I am being contacted by the folks who aspire to be black belt black hats, but aren’t. And I wonder, what are they getting for their money? I mean, I turned them down for links from my site, but they probably send out hundreds of requests each day and actually consummate deals for lots of links. What do they get when they buy a link?

They get some traffic to their site directly from the link, but that’s not why they are buying it. They are buying it to get a boost in search rankings, because search engines use inbound links as part of their ranking algorithm. Does it work?

My suspicion is that it does not work as well as these aspiring black hatters think, for several reasons:

  • Long-tail keyword don’t need links. For most search queries, there are so few sites that are good matches for the words that links don’t have much effect. It’s the popular keywords where links really come into play.
  • Popular keywords require lots of links. If you’re trying to get to the top spot for “digital cameras,” good luck buying up the thousands of links you need from popular sites. Buying your way to the top of the competitive keywords is not a scalable approach.
  • The search engines are wise to you. I can’t prove it, but I think the search engines scrutinize all links quite carefully, and they discount links that might be paid. My guess is that many links get some kind of discount applied—perhaps a deep discount for especially dubious ones. And Google and friends have no reason to alert you when this is happening, because it would just tell the black hats which techniques are no longer working, when the search engines would rather keep them in the dark.

Again, I know there are folks making a living outsmarting Google. I just think it’s unlikely that one of them is you. If you’re reading this story, you are probably not a stud black hat, because my advice is so lame for someone in that business. If you are looking for the latest edges against Google, you don’t waste your time reading my blog so that I can tell you to be ethical, focus on what your customers want, and be kind to animals. Don’t worry, the search rankings will follow, I say soothingly.

But because you are reading this blog, I have to assume that you are a normal, garden variety marketer trying to understand what you should be doing. You’re not interested in turning search marketing into a full-time job, and you are willing to die ignorant of what’s in Google’s ranking algorithm.

So, for you, my advice is to use a radical approach to attracting links to your site. Write good content. Create tools people need. Develop a site that is so good that others want to link to it voluntarily.

If you do, you’ll find some other benefits. People who follow your links will be from the right places, and will be the right people for your site. They’ll be impressed by your site. Some of them will stick around long enough to buy from you. And some will like what you do so much that they’ll pass your message along to still others, using e-mail, social media, and old-fashioned word-of-mouth marketing.

So, if you’ve been spending your time faking out Google by buying links, my suggestion is that you’re wasting your time. I think you’d be better off building yourself into the kind of expert that both search engines and potential customers respect. Instead of building a house of cards that is just waiting for the search engines to knock down, why not build a solid business that withstands every spam investigation and algorithm change?

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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