By Bryson Meunier, Natural Search Associate Director, Content Solutions
People who know me understand that I don’t buy or sell equity-passing links, and that I think this activity and others like it practiced by black and gray hat marketers should be stigmatized by the search marketing community, not practiced by legitimate marketers, and not discussed in polite company. And yet in spite of this, paid links are brought up almost every month in our Chicago SEO Meetup as a topic of discussion, and the SES Chicago Advanced Link Building discussion this past year was monopolized by talk of how to get away with paid links. For a while I’ve struggled to find a metaphor that could explain my position in simple terms. This is it: buying paid links or participating in other schemes with the intention of artificially inflating a site’s link equity is equivalent in the sports world to taking steroids in order to hit more home runs, score more touchdowns/baskets/goals or win more gold medals.
To those unfamiliar with the sports world (I’m looking at you, Ballek), the past few weeks have seen a surge in Manny Ramirez steroids searches as baseball fans witnessed yet another fallen idol in Dodgers left fielder Manny Ramirez, who was suspended on May 7 of this year for 50 games for the use of a banned substance. Ramirez joined some of the other big names in the sport, like Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, whose accomplishments on the baseball field will be forever tarnished by their alleged use of steroids. Due to the competitive nature of sports, steroids and other performance enhancing drugs have been linked to top performers in almost all sports, including Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, and Michael Irvin.
The issue here, as in SEO, is not whether or not the tactic works. Anabolic steroids and other banned substances used in doping are taken because of their ability to increase an athlete’s strength or speed, and equity-passing paid links, if undetected, may artificially inflate a page’s link equity and make it possible to compete on terms that it would not naturally bring in traffic for. The issue here is whether this practice is ethical or fair.
In the case of sport, doping gives an unfair advantage to one athlete over another because it is universally banned by the organizing bodies that set the rules of each sport, and if an athlete uses a banned substance, it gives them a tactic for winning that is unavailable to other athletes who play by the rules. It is the definition of cheating, which is inherently unfair. Likewise, paid links may give an advantage to the marketer who chooses to use them, but they violate the rules of the game.
The game here is search engine optimization, which has gone from being something that’s inherently considered unethical, to something that Google and other engines discuss openly and have created tools for better webmaster communication, and which large companies invest in regularly in order to better communicate their relevance to search engines, and to consumers. There are approved ways of doing this that are considered fair to other webmasters and engines, and there are ways that are banned by the community because they aren’t fair to everyone. Paid links are banned, and for good reason. They are a performance-enhancing substance that isn’t available to every webmaster because they are banned by the governing body: Google.
For some reason many in the marketing community still seem to think that rules that get in the way of their ability to make money are optional. At the last Chicago SEO Meetup, one of my colleagues, whom I generally respect, replied to the question of the ethical nature of paid links by saying something to the extent of “But I’m a marketer! We make money for a living.” My question would be, “at what cost?” If you wouldn’t cook the books to fake a profit, and you wouldn’t start a ponzi scheme to live a life of luxury at the expense of others who trust you, and you wouldn’t inject steroids or other banned substances to give you an advantage that others can’t have, why would you buy paid links or do similar things in order to unnaturally inflate your link popularity?
If this isn’t a compelling reason to stop talking about paid links, consider that they’re largely a temporary solution, as Google has put in place measures to enable webmasters to report unfair competition, that larger sites can lose millions from being out of the index for even a day, and that if Google were to legitimize the practice of paid links, small businesses would be wiped off the map by larger corporations with deep pockets, and SEO would effectively disappear.
If all of this is acceptable to you and you still want to experiment with this practice, that’s really your choice. But what you’re doing is not SEO; it’s cheating SEOs and the community of webmasters who agree to not use that particular tactic. My hope is that we start to recognize that in places where we discuss SEO like the Chicago SEO Meetup and SEO conferences, and form a true SEO community of competitors.