Is Selling Text Links Dangerous?

There’s no doubt that selling text links is big business, but is is a risky business? The question, is selling text links dangerous, pops up in web master forums with increasing frequency. For me, two questions really come to mind:

1. Will selling text links hurt my site?

I don’t think there is anything wrong with selling (or buying) text links. But my opinion doesn’t matter. The fact is, buying and selling text links could potentially hurt your site. From Google’s webmaster guidelines:

“Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank”.

Pretty obvious how that fits. Further, Matt Cutts from Google says:

But for everyone else, let me talk about why we consider it outside our guidelines to get PageRank via buying links. Google (and pretty much every other major search engine) uses hyperlinks to help determine reputation. Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and link-based analysis has greatly improved the quality of web search. Selling links muddies the quality of link-based reputation and makes it harder for many search engines (not just Google) to return relevant results.

But can’t search engines detect paid links?

Yes, Google has a variety of algorithmic methods of detecting such links, and they work pretty well. It’s pretty clear that Google, and probably other search engines, frown upon the selling of text links.

Cameron Olthuis from Text Link Ads says:

“The biggest problem I see with people who get dinged for buying links is that they’re lazy. Instead of working on creating remarkable content that will naturally attract links they throw a bunch on money at buying links and call it a day. If you’re guilty of this then you’re asking for trouble.”

Even the company that sells Text Links Ads (disclosure, I use them) knows you can get into trouble and confirms that selling links can be detected.

Though many companies are coming out with products that embed links directly into content, which will be a good deal harder to detect. Google suggests using the “no-follow” attribute for links that you sell and I think we all know that won’t fly. For me, my advice is to only sell links that are as close to relevant as possible, and the same goes for buying. Don’t buy/sell Viagra Links on a Wedding Dress site.

2. When will the bottom drop out of selling text links?

This question is far more compelling to me than the the dangers and ethics of buying/selling text links. It’s happening and will continue to happen as long as there is a market for it. Search engines get smarter all the time, and patterns will emerge over time that the search engines will detect. Buyers and sellers adapt by using smarter placement and more relevant linking and the cycle repeats. The text link business will continue to exist as long as search engines never figure out a way to positively identify them automatically. You hear rumors all the time that Google and other engines are hiring people to specifically hunt down paid links but even that method would only work for a short time as people adapt.

Like any industry, selling text links is bound to dry up eventually, but as long as links are the currency on which search engines deliver results then the buying and selling of text links is going to stick around until something better comes along to displace it.

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  • http://www.brothercake.com/ brothercake

    Google suggests using the “no-follow” attribute for links that you sell and I think we all know that won’t fly

    Why won’t that fly?

  • http://www.www.chrispian.com Chrispian

    Because no one wants to buy a link that doesn’t pass PR. Well, that’s a generalization, the majority of people buy links for the PR. They may pretend they don’t, but that’s what it’s for. So adding the nofollow removes the reason people are buying the links. The link might as well be JavaScript at that point, as far as most link buyers are concerned.

  • http://www.sitepoint.com Simon Mackie

    “For me, my advice is to only sell links that are as close to relevant as possible, and the same goes for buying.”

    That’s good advice. I think as long as the links you’re selling are relevant (i.e links that you might have used anyway, not completely unrelated to your site’s content), they may be useful to your readers, and also it would be very hard for a search engine to detect them algorithmically.

  • http://www.sitepoint.com/ Paul Annesley

    There seems to be a trend, probably led by the search engines, that links are a sacred, democratic voting system. They’re not – they’re just links. Some of them might represent an endorsement or vote. Others represent legitimate advertising, and some represent deceptive advertising. If the search engines want to continue monetizing other peoples markup, they’ll have to get better at identifying the different use-cases of links, rather than frowning upon any and all legitimate advertising deals that involve paid links.

  • apeisa

    Well, that’s a generalization, the majority of people buy links for the PR.

    I have to disagree. I think many of the people buying text ads doesn’t even know what PageRank is, and they buy links for same reasons that they buy banners. Or advertise in other medias.

    Why google adwords are so popular? They won’t make your pagerank up, but they will show (or at least try to show) your link next to relevant content. But that was something you mentioned already.

    So I think that text link ads will be there as long as there is ads in general. PR for sure is a great bonus.

  • http://www.seo-expert-blog.com/ devberlin

    Google can do what they want but I still think that their main reason to ban link buyers / sellers is to weaken competitors in the link marketing business. The justify many things with their webmaster guidelines but breach them themselves.

  • Mitch @ Interspire.com

    Good post, Chrispian. I think a LARGE number of people buying paid text links do so for the PageRank – but they don’t take into account that by buying a text link on that site, the PageRank able to be distributed to their site is dwindling for each paid link that site sells.

    Paid text links bring a lot of inquisitive traffic, but in my opinion very few sales, *unless* they aren’t all grouped together under a “Featured” or “Sponsors” section on the site. If the text links are placed maybe at the end of a blog post, like this:

    “If you need ACME products, why not take a look at ACME.com”

    Just my 2 cents.

  • wheeler

    I’m still bitter that Google feels it has a right to tell us we can’t profit from selling links on our sites without a nofollow tag… I agree with others that the main goal of people buying text links is to get the PR/SEO advantage.

    Removing that advantage takes away the main purpose of buying a link in the first place, hence cutting into the selling site owners potential profits.

    Now advertisers with deep pockets will inevitably buy links that will appear in-content rather than the “sponsored links” section, probably garnering even more SEO advantage than ever before, and hence widening the gap between big business and small.

  • apeisa

    Thinking that people buy text links mainly because PR/SEO is what web developers and -professionals think. Many small business owners, who think it just a good way to get more people to your site – doesn’t know what PR or SEO is. They have maybe heard about it, but they really don’t care that much.

    I have used text links as marketing purposes only – with good results. I’m sure we have text link ads even if they won’t affect PR in any way.

  • Avatarien

    Why does this article seem backwards?

    All the quotes deal with the BUYING of text-links, not selling! Matt Cutts or any other Google person has indicated that sites selling links are being penalized in any way. If you do have quotes indicating this, then please show the citations and link to the original articles please.

    Imagine the bloodbath in the SERPS that would occur if Google actually penalized any and all sites selling any form of link advertisement? All Google is doing is not transferring PageRank from Site A to Site B if they believe the link was paid for… Nothing more…nothing less. I see no reason why you should fear *selling* text links unless your trying to pull a fast one over Google by embedding links into content and not telling anyone they are sponsored links. Now that might well get you penalized and that likely would require manual review.

  • http://geoland.org GiorgosK

    Very well put Crispian, but how a search engine, or even a human will KNOW that the link I place on my blog has actually been PAID for SPECIFICALLY for increasing the site’s PAGERANK ?

  • Anonymous

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  • http://twitter.com/TheBishopWay Doug Bishop

    Hmmmmm…. I find it a touch ironic that Google is talking about penalizing people for selling text links…. I mean in a way… isn’t that exactly what they do?

  • http://www.helpful-ideas.com Anna

    Selling links is just the same as being paid for advertising….and I won’t have Google tell me I cannot do it. ( Hormonal woman on the loose….)
    I also won’t give text links that make no sense….so if they make sense and are relevant to my content then I’m open to offers! I cannot see how Google can detect sensible text links that I am paid for compared to those that I give for free on my blog. I agree with the sentiment don’t sell viagra on a wedding site…but otherwise I have had no problems and my pr has not changed.
    Goblin Google.