Purchased Link Penalties: There’s No Time to Waste

Fellow search marketers: Please understand that if Google does not win the fight on paid links, eventually the top rankings will belong to sites that spend the most money on links. This hurts almost every SEO and certainly hurts every one of our clients.

An explicitly clear warning for all online business owners:

This post is a formal summary of the issue we have seen explode recently regarding “purchased links.” For the benefit of everyone, I am turning the volume knob on this warning all the way to 11. And, no, I am not crying wolf.

While Google has been working on detecting deceptive SEO links and some sites have already seen penalties, these prior penalties are really just the start of an increasing penalty period.

We have a sincere and urgent concern regarding the method of link development involving purchased links and the impact it will certainty have on search rankings. I want to be very clear that we think Google perceives deceptive linking methodologies and the ramifications of these actions as deceptive acts worthy of a penalty.

If you really think you are smarter than Google and can hide your paid links forever, then you deserve the inevitable.

In this article:

What Not to Do in Link Development

Take this example: A company buys links, sees where they appear, drops the links, waits for a competitor to buy them, then they report the competitor to Google for buying links, documenting the linking URL’s as proof, and thus also reports the site selling them.

Are you smart for buying those links? Are you outsmarting your competition who is more than happy to report you and have no issues with setting you up? Do you think Google hasn’t seen users doing this already?

Per Google, the link-development methodology referred to as “purchased links” — however innocent this method may appear to be — is a direct violation of the Google Quality Guidelines. What this means is that sites should not engage in the practice of developing links with the intent of influencing link popularity or PageRank distribution, or any other SEO benefit in mind.

If active engagement in this practice is detected and flagged, the best you should expect is a zero benefit from those links and at worst, there could be unequivocal and compelling punitive repercussions in the Google search results, depending on the circumstances discovered.

We have seen smaller business units in large Fortune 50 clients that were buying insignificant traffic links for SEO purposes, bring down the company major keywords simply because all business units shared the corporate domain. The problem is that in large companies nobody knows who might be, or if anyone is, buying links, and stopping it is hard if naïve client staff think it is okay but keep it secret. If the president of a large company were to find all of their Google listings gone, how long do you think you would keep your job if you bought or even knew about those links? Put another way, if you buy paid links, you should reasonably expect to lose your job.

Likewise, we have seen agencies perform a website analysis, or use enterprise tools that identify a need for inbound links, and, without the full disclosure that this could get the website banned, that agency offers to solve the link problem for a reasonable monthly fee. Their solution is often purchased links, and the client is unaware that they are at serious risk. Or worse, the agency states that this is okay with Google and this is how others are doing it.

If an agency advises you to buy paid links for SEO purposes, you should find another agency. For an agency or service to do this to a client is an unethical act. Our advice is buyer beware.

To be clear: There is a paid links penalty, it is severe, and you cannot hide from it.

On his blog, Ross Hudgens provides some commentary regarding Google’s explicit warning against paid link programs.

The Safe Way to Use Purchased Links

Google does not want to tell companies who they can and cannot do ad business with; however, they do not want anyone to be able to influence organic search results by buying or renting links.

If the intention of any link-development program using a purchased links strategy is to generate traffic like an ad buy; as long as you include the rel=”nofollow” attribute in the link code then there is no problem in the eyes of Google.

What we are saying is that it is critical that you do not in any way engage in a purchased link methodology with the intent to influence SEO results.

If you are treating this like an ad buy, please request the use of the rel=”nofollow” attribute in the link code to help demonstrate to search engine spiders that your intent is strictly foot traffic and ad space. You would be wise to make sure that your ad contracts and insertion orders clearly state that the sites providing the links will comply with the quality guidelines as specified by Google and not pass PageRank.

Act Now or Suffer the Consequences

We realize that many people have seen an SEO benefit from link purchases and, although we have all heard of penalties, most people simply do not think it matters until it happens to them; by then it is too late and the damage is done.

Based upon what we know beyond any doubt, penalties are accelerating and broadening to include many more Web properties. It was nice of Google to wait until after the holidays, but that time is over.

What Can You Do?

  1. If you are buying links, then stop immediately. You must protect your valuable Web assets by not inviting them to be penalized. If you are unclear about what to do to get the links you’ve already bought removed, then contact us about our SEO Penalty Assessment services.
  2. Check your ads now for links that might be construed as trying to influence SEO before you are left scratching your head and wondering where your rankings have gone. If you have purchased ads with direct links, then either rel=”nofollow” them or have them removed.

If you have any questions on this, please do not hesitate to respond to this post or email us. And, obviously, we do expect comments to this post.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Our online SEO Guide teaches current guidelines on search engine-friendly link building/link earning, avoiding Google penalties, and much more.

Bruce Clay is founder and president of Bruce Clay Inc., a global digital marketing firm providing search engine optimization, pay-per-click, social media marketing, SEO-friendly web architecture, and SEO tools and education. Connect with him on LinkedIn or through the BruceClay.com website.

See Bruce's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (67)
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67 Replies to “Purchased Link Penalties: There’s No Time to Waste”

Can we also delete any wanted penalty links from search console?


This pointless debate really makes me chuckle. My website has thousands of naturally acquired, extremely authoritative and contextually relevant links (from government, local authority, university and charity websites). Yet I’m sitting at the bottom of page 2 for a very important keyword (having never purchased a link – other than a Yahoo directory listing), whilst I can clearly see 15 out of 19 sites ahead of me purchasing the spammiest pile of garbage links you’ll ever see in your life (they also regularly post relevant anchor test links in signatures on totally irrelevant blogs).

The lesson is – ignore what Google tells you to do (the webmasters guide is a joke). Just buy links in a sensible way because your chances of getting penalised vis-à-vis the rewards is minimal from what I can see.

I just wish I had the money to buy links.

I will answer Julie. Hereis what you do. Get a team of overseas contractors they only charge a pittance. They use software anyways so you don’t have to feel bad about paying them so little money they will still be able to feed their families. They will spam the shit out of blogs with comments for you. They will comment on forums for you all automated. They will write garbage content and put it through a software product called a content spinner you know like a salad spinner but its actual content. You know how the lettuce comes out all tossed up same with the content but that’s fine with Google it makes no sense but it still works. They will post the same piece of content over and over and over on blogs and before you know it you are #1. If Google catches you do not worry just build another domain do the same thing over. You are in an industry where that is all you can do to compete with the people doing just this. Now don’t worry about your competitors reporting you to Google they won’t do anything. I know this for sure because a low life dog of a competitor created garbage false content about us then did just this. It ranked great, no amount of white hat SEO will dislodge it. So I think, I know I will report it to Google they will see these vile links I will even document it for them so they know exactly where to look. Does Google take any action NO. Same garbage content saying what a great company we are linking to slanderous made up crap about us. So can you hurt a competitor by gaming Google’s link algo and they way it rewards spam you bet absolutely I can prove it. Cheap too. Anyone who wants to see it tweet me @fionnd and I will send you the details.

I have a PR6 blog it gets about 10,000 spam comments a month. We have spam filters in place but so many sites just let comments through without realizing it. A great little Mommy blog which has been around forever gets to a PR6 over the years and they end up a spam farm because they do not have the technical knowledge to fix it. I have nothing but respect for Matt Cutts I think he does a great job but sometimes it makes my head spin when I see the shit that helps rank sites and there is so much focus on paid links. I do not agree with paid links either. We also do content creation my guess is Google will nuke that before they work out how to stop the link wheelers, commenters and content spinners.

Julie, sorry for exploding but do you sense my frustration!!!

JC its not that expensive see my post below. Bet your site gets burned if you do. Ggoogle seems to be able to find the people with a conscience and reaward the totally unscrupulous.

Google’s using so many signals now and if the current trend towards personalized results driven by usage data, such as click stream, history and social continues, then paid link builders are going to have to work harder for the same results (Which has been the trend over the years anyway).

To answer Julie Joyce’s original question about highly competitive niches. If there are million websites out there that offer payday loans and your client is no different than most of them, I say they have a poor business model (when it comes to reliance on search traffic) and that in a perfect world, they probably don’t deserve the #1 spot or even first page for the term “payday loans”. How could a million websites offering the exact same service with no differentiation deserve the same #1 ranking?

So what do you tell or do for your client in those situations where what they offer is valuable to users and can be profitable enough to invest in, but is ultra competitive? I say, “Rethink your SEO strategy.” – Target the searcher, not the search. People have a reason that they need a payday loan. Peel off a bit of your strategy to target non-direct conversion path search terms. For example, try targeting terms like “electricity cut off”, “avoid eviction” or “how to avoid eviction”. Move your search strategy upstream in the sales cycle. There is almost no paid search competition for the phrases I mentioned above. Certainly, no payday loan websites offering relief to people in those situations are buying or organically ranking for those terms.


If I perform favors for the owner of a website and they link to my site, is that a vioation. Say I washed his car, maybe I took care of his dogs or maybe I performed another favor, you know….

More importantly, sites with worthless content that rank well = paid links. Why does a site that has nonsense gibberish rank well? Has to be links. Good chance they are paid links. Punch that in the algo. Weigh content and page position to calculate questionable inbound links.

Furthermore, Google does those comparison ads for mortgage rates, credit cards, they just bought at a travel tech site that handles airfares. Number one search company now owns the results??

Off topic. Groupon purchase. If I were a coupon site I would file antitrust case. Google owns search, they can’t possibly own the content via coupon site or provide credit card comparison data or travel air fares.

Do no evil. Hating Demand Media. What did they do? Provide lots o content. Sure its poor but who decides that level of quality.

Google is crossing the line. Microsoft was the evil empire perhaps they are now the rebel alliance and Google has gone to the Darkside.

I am still waiting for somebody to respond to July Joyce’s comments.


I just gave a dodgy indian agency $100 to buy a bunch of links and point them at BruceClay.com. Guess you guys are gonna vanish from the SERPs any day now!

(or, wait, is there a fundamental flaw in this…? Hmmm)


Can I just buy links for a competitor and report them? Buy anonymously (or pretend to be an agency, whatever), point them at a competitor, and watch them climb the rankings, then fall when the paid link strategy is uncovered.

Just hypothetically speaking. Or is the defence “No, honest Google, it wasn’t us that bought those links – look, do a full audit of both mine and the selling site’s business to see!” Never going to work = paid links are here to stay.

Google makes changes quite often to their algorithm, so to buy links on a consistent basis is playing with fire. You may think you are working under the radar, but most paid links are detectable. If Google decides to crack down on your site, then they can tell which links are paid links to a certain degree.

Great Post

We will just keep siloing sites, creating keyword anchors between pages within silos and write and distribute content. While we never ever guarantee a specific result for any client, we can normally tell that we will see Top 10 results within a 3 to 6 month period by following a set methodology for our content distribution which ends up giving the sites deep links to the pages that matter. Some attention to site structure (as Bruce teaches) can go a very long way. The money that people spend on buying links could be better spent on writing better content and much more of it instead.


How does Google know what a paid link is vs. free?

I am new to the SEO game but I have a few underlying questions about how google could possibly punish people:

1) How can you tell if is a paid link or a free one as Matt asked?

2) How can Google tell who is purchasing the links if they are indeed purchased? By this I mean how could they possibly punish the company being linked if it is a competitor trying to sabotage them?

I simply do not understand how such things could possibly be known by Google, and in turn take accurate action.

Whilst I recognise the need to solve the problem of purchased links algorithmically, I can’t begin to imagine how this can be achieved. And clearly neither can Google – at least not yet. If Google is to avoid the risk of administering damaging penalties to innocent businesses whose competitors have pointed purchased links at them, then the best that any algorithm can do is surely to do no more than negate the beneficial impact of paid links. Google can detect paid links but not who is responsible for their acquisition. Until the next Larry and Brin come up with the next generation algo, large scale random manual inspections by Google may be the best deterrent.


So what if you buy traffic from google which propels a site into the top 1000 on this list: http://www.google.com/adplanner/static/top1000/

Which doesn’t have a single no-follow. And pulls up in google search.

Wonder how much that link from google weighs in the algorithm.


Is there a difference between buying links and buying link building services (that do things like place links in forums and blogs?)


yes buying links works and isn’t spam, and putting links in forums/blogs works only marginally and IS spam. :)



But is putting links in forums and blogs a violation of Google Webmaster Guidelines?

The only way to end the practice of link building is if Google stops rewarding companies for back links. Also, if “mentions” on the web becomes a bigger factor, then things will change, and probably not for the better. Of course the no follow links will not even matter, and things could just get worse.


Google isn’t the policeman of the internet, they are a private company. So no wonder link building = evil and Ad words is fantastic. There is nothing in this world that isn’t fixed, staged, choreographed or rigged. Nothing that isn’t fueled by ulterior motives. It’s just like Drugs in Sport – the second they ban or police one method, 14 are going to replace it.

Obviously a link from a PR-8 page is worth a lot more than a link from a PR-0 page… So why does Google publicly display the PR of every page in its toolbar?
That just makes it easy for link sellers to set their price and tempting for link buyers that want links from high PR pages.

I think that if buying and selling links (that pass PR) is that big a problem, then Google should stop publicly displaying PR.
At least that would make it harder for the buyers/sellers to determine the price.

My two cents


Who is the penalty going to apply to? If one buys links to competitor sites are they going to suffer in the rankings or will Google somehow find out who did the buying and punish the buyer? How would they do that?

Hi Bruce,
I would prefer to live in a world with less spam, just like everyone. I also want to stay in business and feed my family. So when my competitors get links from steel barn sites, casino sites, Alaska fishing tours etc it makes it difficult to not at least consider doing that too.
At local networking events there is a salesperson who goes from meeting to meeting selling links from “2,000 unrelated websites” and they are charging $495 per month to have links gradually added to their groups.
I have not done it, of course, but it is a financially compelling arguement to do that for near sure results versus hiring someone to design an awesome info graphic that might or might not get any link love. I am looking at sites the have been ranking well for years but their bank links are junky.

So it is true…my competitor can buy a ton of links pointing to my site and hurt me?

I agree that paid links are out of question, but it gets difficult to avoid in large corporations not just for the reasons you stated. It normally isn’t some rogue SEO in a large company buying links. Sites cross link all the time as an afterthought to larger deals, but these sites often have gobs of trust and know Google personally.

Google definitely will never allow paid links publicly. But I just question how actively they will pursue and punish those that do. It is true like he mentioned in the 2nd video it can lead to seriously skewed results and the end users (and the legitimate competitors) suffer the consequences.


Telling SEO’s not to buy links because it’s only going to rage a war price, is akin to telling SEM’s not to bid above $1.00 on any given keyword because it’s going to raise the prices.
This is true in every industry, the one who pays most gets the most. Front page ads caost more than other ads full page ads cost more than half page. whoever has the most money will advertise more and essentially be a bigger brand.
The same for link building whoever can pay more will buy more links and rank better.
What about SEO agencies? Small new start ups can’t afford to pay for good SEO’s as much as bigger organizations. Should we be telling website owners not to pay to much for SEO because it’s only going to raise the prices?

Back to the issue at hand. It’s going to be a war whether we can outsmart Google or not. Those who will,will rank better making their money spent worthwhile…

Well, I’ve seen Google hit some of the spamming websites in the recent past, but I haven’t seen the sites buying links get hit yet. Hopefully in the near future. I’ve got faith in Google.

Buying links to influence SERP’s is wrong.

Google should hit companies who delve in this sort of proactive with penalties.

No-one should be able to buy their way to the top of generic search results.

If companies want to buy their way to the top, AdSense and not buying links should be the route.

Improving the user experience on your site adding value and combining offline and online marketing strategies is the way forward to enhance the quality and relevance of your site. That way you will naturally attract links from relevant sites.


So I could take down a Fortune 50 website by buying links to it? Cool!!!

As a new marketer I find the whole SEO business confusing. I am serious about this question as a newbie: I had two offers, one from a company that said they would automatically send out links for me, and a second one who could recommend links that I could use to submit to, one by one. I chose the company and paid them a little–really not much money–to give me some ideas, but when I am submitting my site, I am choosy and I do it one by one.
For those of you who are obviously experts, am I doing it the right way, the wrong way and what do you recommend?
I am a true relationship advisor in a sea of people who sound like they are, but they aren’t. A little advice?

“If an agency advises you to buy paid links for SEO purposes, you should find another agency. For an agency or service to do this to a client is an unethical act. Our advice is buyer beware.”

These statement’s are absurd. Although I no longer work at an agency, I would always have the risk/reward discussion as it relates to paid links with my clients. If an agency doesn’t let you know about the potential payoffs and downsides of paid links they are doing a much bigger disservice.

Paid links work and have the ability to dramatically increase rankings and leads/revenue that are associated with those increases. Like all things in business, they carry a cost and risk. A good SEO consultant/agency would be able to evaluate and articulate the potential risks and rewards based on the site’s link profile, history, tactics being considered, and potential rankings increases. Having listened to the recommendations, it should be up to the client to ultimately decide whether or not they want to undertake this risk.


You indicate that “There is a paid links penalty, it is severe, and you cannot hide from it,” yet neither you or Matt Cutts has shown what this penalty might be. A penalty for the link buyer? Or just a loss in pagerank from the sellers site?

The premise is that links to a site indicate relevancy and importance. While this was true a long time ago, the value of this premise has obviously degraded and will continue. I have a site now that ranks at the top of two valuable query strings and there are very few inbound links, so inbound links are not a need in order to be at the top. The challenge for the search engines is how to determine a “valuable” link verses a “bogus” link. Are people really following an adword thinking, “I bet this is a really relevant link for me!” Obviously these get thrown out. How do you yourself determine if a link has value? There is the challenge for the search engines, matching our logic in determining a link of value.


The bottom line is if you want to rank in any even remotely competitive niche, then purchasing links is required. Even paid links have editorial standards. And with a difficult economy, a many webmasters are willing to monetize their websites by most means.

I wish Google would penalize sites that are buying paid links, but I haven’t seen much action in this area as far as my client sites are concerned. On behalf of my clients, for whom I do strictly white hat SEO, I have reported competitor sites that are blatantly both buying and selling links, over a period of years. But the buying of paid links continues in all of the reported cases. I have yet to see a single one of these sites penalized. The contrary is true — they just do better and better in the SERPs.

I have pretty much given up reporting them. It doesn’t do any good. Yet it would not be difficult for a Google employee to go look at some of these sites and draw the same conclusions as me. Why doesn’t Google have hundreds of employees doing nothing but following up on the reported cases? Too much to handle? Give me a break. If they can send employees out in cars to photograph the whole planet, inch by inch, they could do a heck of a lot better at manually following up on the most egregious reported cases of paid links, and actually DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!

Until they do, I share Bruce’s pain, but I personally think this is all a bunch of noise out of Google, with the idea that if they make enough noise about how they are going to crack down on it, it will appear that they are doing their job. And maybe the noise will make a few more people hesitate before buying links.

I know people will say oh, but what about competitors “setting you up.” You know what? Before Google penalizes a perceived buyer and seller, they can contact all parties. It can be done! Not rocket science. If Google were to pick say the top 250 categories of sites, and then analyze the top SERPs in each category for perceived paid links, and then manually investigate, they could then BAN the guilty parties in each niche, with much fanfare. That’s the way to do it. Make some examples, scare some key players. Word would get out real fast.

But they don’t do anything like this. Why not?

You tell me Google is getting serious about paid link penalties — at this point, I’ll believe it when I see it. And so far, I am seeing no evidence of a concerted, meaningful effort to root it out.

I recently moved from a position where i worked as an in-house SEO providing 100% white hat links. Having visited many SEO seminars and hearing the industry leaders preach about not buying links i was startled to find that having contact them (some of the biggest names) and discussed proposals for assisting in my SEO activities, that they all cited paid links as the majority source of their link development activities!

Sad but true!

Amen to that. I don’t work in a position where I talk to these people, but looking at how my client’ competitors are ranking, I see it every day. It’s paid links.

While I can appreciate what Matt says I also feel it’s also slightly hypocritical of Google to suggest paid links are bad when they sell Ad Sense which is a paid result. I don’t participate in paid links but the reality is most of my competition does. As a result most of these people for now are raking in a fortune. While it’s being suggested that there’s an inevitable penalty the reality is most of us white hat SEO professionals have been waiting for it forever. Most of these companies are prepared to take an eventual temporary ranking drop for huge earnings because they know that they can also recover any penalties that they get hit with. Most of the pro companies that do link wheels etc. scrub their links in a way that looks natural to the search algorithms. You’d think that when there’s a huge spike of links it might raise some red flags but with so much of it going on it’s not humanly possible to monitor without being reported. It’s only the most blatant of abuse that seems to be getting hit. Even then a lot of stuff remains untouched.

While there’s a lot of people being really successful abusing the system there’s just as many being every bit as much ethically. It just takes some time, creativity, and the ingenuity that others don’t have.

Brian Robinson

There’s nothing hypocritical about Google saying paid links that pass PageRank are bad and then promote Adsense since Adsense links don’t pass PageRank. Also, Google has provided a way for webmasters to link without passing PageRank via nofollow.

I do agree, but do you really think Google cares enough to do anything? They’re more concerned with the spam clogging up the SERPs at the moment.

Google have to been seen as active in this field and cannot be seen to allow non relevant lunk development.
To many seo’ers are scared of being associated with paid link building, Google have millions of sites in their index and would be near on impossible to determine what is a relevant purchased link.

Big issue which I think should be strangled to the forefront of SEO discussion again.

It’s been a long time since Google cracked down on paid links, but it’s progressed so little since the initial wave.

Brent, I wasn’t dogging on your comment, but after re-reading mine I can see how you thought so. I totally agree with your perspectives. I just tire of the whole paid links thing (as you can tell).

Even though most think of me as a link builder, the vast majority of what we do is create content. Therefore my angst with the scrapers and the spammers.


I love the “what you can do” advice. If you bought links for yourself (with exact anchor text) and you remove them or nofollow them, chances are you will fall in rankings for that exact phrase.

So remove those paid links but then pay someone to get you “free links”

Yes, you’ll be safe from google, but who cares if you’re safe sitting at #20 in the rankings?

people have talked for years about “can’t I just buy links for my competitors and get them banned?” I know that chances are, if you buy links for your competitor, they will probably rise in rankings, and chances are that they’ll get penalized is about 1 in several hundred thousand.

Yes, we’ve heard this stuff before, “Look out, Google can penalize you”. Yes they can, and those who buy links know that but we also know that most of the top 10 sites in any major market are dominated by link buyers. I’d rather take the risk and be in the top 10 then play it safe and not rank.

if you buy links for your competitors, chances are your competitors will just rank higher and not get banned… that’s the chances.

One more thing Arnie, I think my point of that post was that it would be difficult for Google to penalize the actual site purchasing the links because how would they know it wasn’t a competitor buying the links. I know it’s been discussed ad nauseam before on V7n, WF, SEOChat but if they are barking penalties to come.. it just doesn’t compute for me!


I totally agree.

Affiliate and Adsense-Only sites ranking via profile links and blog comment links. It’s frustrating to see.

And, FYI, anytime Google brings up killing paid links, I’ll bring up the fact that they are picking and choosing which paid links are “bad” — my time on forums tells me the majority of people active in this industry haven’t been around since 2007, so if it’s redundant to you feel free to not read it!

Hasn’t web behavior taught you anything? People need to be told 10,000 times before it sinks in anyways ;)

How about just don’t use a link broker that forces you to fit into a format? A contextual link in the body via link request is much harder to spot than sitewide links rotating in new domains on a regular basis.


I really despise buying links, especially automated. But when I’m faced with a project and a target, I need to show some effort and results. I’m terrible at link baiting and my attempts at outsourcing have failed to justify the cost to say the least.

The only way I can actively grow my backlinks is to manually ask for a link placement. I really really don’t want to pay the guy anything because Google will punish us, but regardless how I explain this to the webmasters they still demand payment..

It’s ok if it’s only a personal blog or an information portal website, but it’s a commercial corporate website with budgets and traffic and revenue targets, which leaves me with no choice.

I think this whole discussion is odd as paying for links (with or without no follow) is an indication how serious you are about your business, and that you are willing to advertise/spend money on the internet like you do in magazines TV, etc, It’s the reality of the Internet economy, and as soon a corporation like Google start to fight this, they are fighting reality.

In many cases the sites that rank high are simply sites that contain content which people are searching for. These are not scam sites, just proper businesses doing a proper job to build up an audience.

Maybe Google is missing the point on all this?

On a personal level i love this though as i do not have a huge budget to buy links.

My first thought after reading this was “are we still talking about this?” I swear with a little research I could find extremely similar posts dating back 4, 5 or even 6 years ago.

We can all find examples where paid links hurt someone’s site. Recent Google updates and SERP changes are getting some press. But when Bruce sounds the alarm, it tends to get people’s attention.

I am sure the next thing we will do is debate what is a paid link and what isn’t…. similar to Brent’s comment above.

Personally, I would love to see Google, Bing and others do a much better job of detecting & punishing spam. Spam comments, spam content, spam links, all of it. In my opinion spam is doing much more to harm the SERPs and pollute the web than paid links. All of us see it every day.

I’d rather lose rankings to a fortune 500 company that can out spend me, than a spammer willing to pound forums for links.

However, it seems Google is focused on link renters and they get to make the rules. So for now, link buyer/renter beware.


Hey Arnie, what if it’s a competitor creating those spam comments and spam links and buying/renting links. How is Google supposed to figure that out?

I have to agree that obvious link buying is a dumb thing to do and what constitutes “obvious” is going to become more and more refined as Google refocuses on fighting spam. There are quite a few discussion threads about why sites got spanked this past week in the SERPs though none of them mention link profiles. The claim that some “low” quality sites like eHow and Mahalo didn’t get hurt by the update, but they don’t mention what the link profiles look like on the sites that did lose traffic.

I’ve seen a site drop from mid first page for numerous commercial, high traffic, two word phrases to low on the 3rd page overnight. Looking at their backlinks it was obvious they were buying links. There IS a penalty for getting caught and it IS severe.

When I start a new job, or look at purchasing a domain or online business, one of the first questions I ask is “have you ever purchased links?”. The back door deals will never be detectable (I’ll send you $100 to write a blog post and link to me) but obvious large scale link buying is only good for domains you are willing to burn and walk away from.


Hey thanks for the post! Unfortunately it’s come a little late for my website, although I knew what I was doing when I was buying the links you always have this mentality that since it’s working great you may as well keep doing it.
So the end result for me is that I was ranking highly for some very competitive search terms for the last 2 years and all of a sudden I’m on page 2, if not 3. I believe either my home page is penalised or that the 2-3 major keywords my paid link purchases were centered around are penalised.
This happened just before Christmas (Google didn’t wait till after my holidays!) and I still don’t have my rankings back.
I’ve removed all my paid links and reworked my home page with new content etc and i’m about to do a reconsideration request for the second time now that the paid links are gone.
I was wondering if you had an opinion on whether now I’ve removed the links I will be given a second chance? It’s cost our business thousands of dollars… I wish I had the benefit of hindsight!!


Did you buy sitewide links or contextually relevant links? How long before Christmas did your drop in rankings happen. Did you lose pagerank? There was an algo update near the end of October. If you were penalized, it’s likely you wouldn’t even be within the top 5 pages. I’m thinking you were just affected by the algo update.

@ Jeff,
The just before Christmas drop, I have seen on several verticals. It was not a direct paid link factor, in fact it was a -30ish over optimization penalty on the “specific keywords”. Your backlink profile triggered the no longer natural anchor text look of your backlinks.

Look in webmastertools or Majestic(paid) to see your backlink anchor text. If those main 2-3 keyword or combination keywords make up the largest percentage of your backlinks, then you triggered the filter penalty. (Google change – to kill spammers-blackhats)

The main thing to do, is change as many of those link you can to anchor text that is domainname, http://www.domainname, or some other lower level keywords that do not include your “Penalized keywords”. Build all future links without those keyword terms and build links as domainname, or http://www.domainname.com as well as garbage keyword to create a more natural backlink profile. These days your “Money Keywords” need only to be about 15-20% of your total backlinks to achieve good rankings.

The penalty you and i have seen is over-optimization of our backlinks, rather then paid links. Work on diversification of backlink profile and allow 60 + days to see the penalty potentially lifted.

I don’t want to sound like broken record, but at some level everybody buys links.

Not that I even buy links outright, but this really annoys me.

Be it a membership to the chamber of commerce, BBB, SEOmoz or SEMPO (for the directory, the Yahoo/BOTW directory, press releases, or ads on sites which do not know enough to employ rel=”nofollow” tags. I know this argument is long played out, but if they do end up penalizing enforcing strict penalties for the link sales sites what’s to stop my competitors from buying links & using my site as the destination URL?

Is it not true that Google is changing the way the web works to fit into their algorithm in this scenario? Shouldn’t the responsibility of identifying and devaluing paid links fall on to their shoulders & not ours?

Did recent BCI testing reveal something new about paid links influencing ranking results? As I understood it recently, the majority of penalization’s were happening to the site selling links, not the site buying links.

I will say one thing, sites like TLA would be very easy to track & identify.. so I could see those participants seeing fallback soon. Between this and content farms, we could be seeing a cleaner index soon =)

i heartily agree with Brent Rangen.

google invented the nofollow stuff. Not saying it’s evil, but in one aspect google is forcing a unnatural rule on what link should or should not be. In a sense, google force this to web masters so that that it is easier for GOOGLE to do its job.

this backfires, and now we have the the huge paid link market.

it’s hard to see a technical solution that can solve this, as others mentioned here.

i think Google should abandon the nofollow rule. Change their algorithm for page rank to not use link so much, or something. It’s their job to do search ranking, they should not force a unnatural rule on webmasters.

if natural links (paid links) screw up google search, too bad. Perhaps other search engine would do better.

i think it’s kinda crude in today’s tech advancement that webmasters need to manually deal with follow/nofollow links. By w3c html spec, link is just a link, there’s no such thing as nofollow. I don’t see any benefit of introducing this nofollow thing to humanity in general other than just benefiting Google.

when google stop the nofollow rule, the paid link problem will probably naturally dissolve too. And i doubt that search result quality, may it be Google or others, will degrade.

This is such a complicated and hard thing to deal with. On the one hand, you can’t just let people buy their way to the top of the SERPS via links. On the other, you can’t penalize a site by its inbound links, or you could buy your way to the top of the SERPS via links…to your competitors. How do you not only protect yourself from people in your company who might foolishly buy links, but also protect yourself from unethical competitors who can go out and buy links to your site and send spammy links your way? How does Google even know the difference?

My biggest issue with saying paid links will hurt you concerns industries where everyone buys links. What advice would you give clients in ultra-competitive niches like gambling and payday loans? How can those guys avoid link buying?

You’re not supposed to worry about where you’re ranked, let Google decide. Worry about making a search engine friendly Web site with good content that people want to link too. If you rise to the top, consider yourself fortunate.

I’m sure this answer goes down well with clients who are getting very little ROI…

that’s not really the type of answer I was looking for…that, to me, says if you’re not concerned with rankings in a competitive niche, it’s because you are on page 11. Or lower. You’re saying to avoid link buys by not caring, which might work for people who don’t care. For people who do depend on high rankings for traffic and conversions (again, like gambling), does anyone have any advice other than “don’t care” on how to compete without buying links?

Paid links is like speeding on the freeway, sure its wrong but if you dont go at the same speed as the other cars they are going to get there first.

Just dont do 200mph…

I feel that every self respecting agency has to have a public policy of not buying links, I prefer to look at the evidence I see and act accordingly.

Great comment. Stay relevant and keep your link profile natural.

I’m sorry, but there is just no way that these giant SEO firms are NOT buying links for their huge clients. They know they have very little risk if they do so, and they go a-link-shopping. I can specifically point out paid links of sites who are clients of major SEO firms. Need examples, tweet me and ask.

Also, why wouldn’t you just start buying links for all your competitors on crap sites then? So that they eventually get penalized? There is no way that Google can penalize all the links without knowing WHO paid for them.

Are you saying I have no respect? We publicly admit to buying links. We tell clients this, we advise them about the risks, and we let it be their choice. If they want to buy links, we’ll do it as safely as we possibly can.

It’s erroneous to think that all paid links are spam, btu that does seem to be the common misconception. I’m still waiting for someone to give me a quality example of how to compete in an industry where everyone buys links WITHOUT doing the same.

Grace Morris

I think Sean is saying the idea is to not “worry” or try and compete with people that are buying links unethically by doing exactly what they are doing. I think Sean’s point is that Spam will always be part of the SERPs, and as an ethical SEO you don’t want to focus on how the spammers are beating you–in the sense that you don’t want to copy what they’re doing.

I believe a lot of SEOs/SEMs are most concerned with doing their job as best as they can (following their own best practices) while staying under ethical code of conduct standards. I believe by doing so, they believe the spammers will eventually get weeded out and search engines will eventually find them. It might not be as quickly as we like, but competing with spammers at their own game won’t work nor is it a good idea because you will eventually get ousted as well.

Matt Cutts has said SEOs/webmasters have the right to do what we wish with our sites, but if they find something wrong with what you’re doing (by not providing relevant results to the user experience) then you very well may get penalized….and don’t get mad or be surprised about it.

If anyone knows anything about export compliance, I’d relate these two situations. Exporting goods is not a right, it is a privilege. Just as owning a business and creating a Web site. You have the choice to either export lawfully and ethically, or go about it as you see fit (which is usually the easy way out). Either way, sooner or later you may end up with a penalty or penalties and no longer have the ability to exercise the exporting privilege.

Sean, am I right in what you were trying to explain?

Julie, I didn’t notice anyone answer your question directly about what you CAN do, or advise clients to do. Your niches represent the most competitive to be sure, but consider this in the case of gambling:

Bing and Google are using Social signals in their algos now. No secret there–while they’ve only recently confirmed it, we started seeing evidence before it was “official”

Gamblers are fanatical. You could initiate a great linkbait campaign by sponsoring an event with a big or unique jackpot–gamblers would pick up on it and their chatter in forums and social networks contribute to your quantity of links and link profile.

Social networks have surpassed adult sites in terms of traffic, but also in terms of tactics–can your clients develop a badge system, or anything that is easily shared via a social network? These won’t just build your link profile but could also generate organic new business.

Budget-wise, I’d spend time developing a unique jackpot vs a big jackpot…lessons with a pro? Can you offer them any level of fame and respect in the gambling community? I don’t know, as I’m not into gambling, but you get the idea.

I have a feeling that this type of effort would pay off even in your competitive niche precisely because everyone is competing so hard on the latest loophole or trick that sometimes they miss the basics in the white-hat category. I might be optimistic here, but I imagine that the white hat “planning time/ creative effort costs” are about equal to the black hat “investigative time/ adjustment effort costs.”

Hope this helped in some small way!

I’m not commenting on payday loans. Sorry.



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