Like Me? Follow Me.
I read something on Search Engine Roundtable earlier in the week that got me steaming mad. An industry expert allegedly said the following to a roomful of people at the Search Engine Strategies conference in Chicago:
"Yes; he buys links, but buys them for large .com's with lots of quality incoming links. That's a big difference from the small to medium who are buying those links. If Todd buys 5 links for someone like amazon.com, I call that buying paid advertising. NO risk at all."
Excuse me? So it's one rule for big business and another rule for everybody else?
Exactly how is it advertising if Amazon.com does it but if I purchase a link to my widget shop from Bob's widget enthusiast blog, I'm gaming the system? Surely that paid link is still advertising seeing as how people who like widgets will visit Bob's blog and see my link about my widget shop and those same people might want to buy one of my widgets.
If I didn't have that link they might not find my shop.
Ok, yeah, I will probably see a boost in my rankings from that paid link because it improves my link popularity and PageRank but won't Amazon see the same thing? We're both just trying to drive traffic to our sites! It's not my fault if Google haven't worked out how to distinguish between natural and paid links so they can discount the paid links in their algorithm!
I just don't get how Amazon's link buying (or that of any other large .com) is different from my link buying.
No links = no rankings = no traffic = no links
OK, Google has been trying to stop people buying links for the purposes of improving their search engine rankings for a few years.
In theory, if you have a great site with great content then people will naturally provide links to your great site content. Right?
How can they link to you if they don't know you exist because you're not ranking well in search engines? They can't. Link expert Mike Grehan wrote a really great article about this a few years ago called Filthy Linking Rich. It's worth reading.
So how do you get your site in front of people if you can't buy links and you can't get links naturally if you're not on the first page of the search results?
Everybody will always need paid links
Think about it - you're a small business owner just starting out in an internet marketing campaign. Or, maybe you've been around a few years and you're making a small living but you want to really drive your business forward. You don't have a lot to spend so you need the quickest and cheapest way possible to get your name in front of potential customers. You could pay for banner advertising on a CPM basis - but the costs quickly mount up, especially if you show your ad enough times to have even a minimal level of effectiveness.
You could pay for a few links on relevant sites that might send you traffic. It's the difference between spending £100-£200/month and spending a few thousand a month. Plus, those paid links have the added bonus of potentially improving your organic listings so you just might start to see more business that way too.
Google knows this.
If Google started penalising sites - small sites in particular - for simply paying for the most affordable form of advertising available to them then it would hurt their index and people would start using a different search engine. So Google will never simply start banning sites who pay for links. Yes, they might ignore the paid links, but they won't ban you unless you abuse the privilege.
What do I mean by "abuse"? Well, it's one thing to purchase a handful of relevant links that might bring targeted traffic. It's quite another to buy thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of links from anyone and everyone whether they'll offer you relevant traffic or even any traffic at all. But, funnily enough, it's not like your average SME has the money to do that. In fact, the only people who do tend to be large .com sites....
Yes, Google has penalised sites for buying hundreds of thousands of sitewide links but this is only in extreme cases or where the links were quite obviously purchased to improve rankings and not as advertising.
What the SEO expert I quoted earlier probably meant when he said that there's a difference between well known brand name sites and the rest of us is that Google is not going to remove those brands from its index permanently because searchers expect to see those brands and actively look for them. Sure, it may make me angry that they can do things that would get the rest of us into trouble, but it makes sense. Google needs to show searchers the relevant results that they want to find. It just means that it will be that much sweeter when good SEO finally makes my widget shop more popular than widget.com.