Paid Links are Steroids

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.


Adam Dorfman said...

If you are speaking specifically of links from link brokers or off-topic sites, then I could see this analogy working. However, there are plenty of examples I could give of me advising clients to spend money on an industry association or event sponsorship. The branding/direct traffic benefits of these are minimal at best but the additional link from a PR7 domain is often a steal for the price you pay and the boost in rankings it can cause.

Also your entire premise is one I don't really agree with. If somebody wants to risk their body/site on steroids that's their business, not mine.

Dave McAnally said...

I think the easiest answer to why somebody would inflate links is that it works. I don't think whether or not it creates a fair/unfair advantage enters into their stream of consciousness. I doubt it enters into A-Rod's thinking either :-)

In many cases (such as with Resolution Media clients), it doesn't work. That's because inflating link popularity by the way of link brokerages isn't really a long term success tactic.

Aaron Goldman said...

Good video from Matt Cutts today talking about white hat linkbait. Bottom line, there are creative ways to get links that may involve spending money but are clearly white hat as opposed to pay-per-post or other link-farming tactics.

Bryson said...

Adam and Aaron, I agree that there are some areas in which advertising leads to links, of course. Larger brands spend millions on advertising every year, which creates brand awareness that could lead to quality links. I think there's a difference between that and directly paying for a PageRank boost, however, which is currently considered manipulation and banned by Google, the governing body in this case. What Matt Cutts is talking about is like paying a public relations agency or SEO to create content that people will want to vote for with a link. It's not about paying for the votes directly as a way of subverting the PageRank algorithm, which is what I'm talking about when I refer to paid links.

Adam, it seems to me that you don't disagree with my premise that paid links are steroids so much as you don't think that it matters if they are, because you don't think it's harmful to you. Do you feel the same way about someone like Bernie Madoff, who cheated a lot of people but probably not you? A lot of people, myself included, want to see that guy rot in jail for cheating the system, even though he didn't do anything to us specifically. And if you think that athletes and SEOs who cheat are just hurting themselves, consider that keeping public relations and advertising separate is in all SEOs’ best interest; as if the search results were only advertising, all SEOs would be out of business.

Dave, I totally agree that A-rod's not thinking of whether or not the tactic's fair. That could be why he's reviled in the baseball world, even among some Yankee fans. To me as a sports fan, part of what makes watching these games interesting is that everyone agrees to play by the same rules at the beginning of a contest. If they didn't do that, who would care about watching a bunch of grown men in long socks and tight pants running in irregular circles for points? To me, the game (and sports in general) is meaningful and exciting because it's a contest of natural ability, blind chance and sheer willpower. Many of the rules are in place to protect this, including the ban on performance enhancing substances. If MLB allowed everyone to use performance enhancing substances that would be fair, but completely uninteresting to me and people like me who like baseball for what it is. For A-rod, the game is about money above fair competition, which to me makes him and others like him something more like criminals than competitors.

With RM, the issue isn't really whether or not the tactic works. I know you're more pragmatic about these things than I am, but I don't think that we would violate Google's guidelines and disrespect the webmaster community even if the tactic worked for our clients. We're here to make money for our clients, but one of our core values is "we are part of the community", and I'm proud to work here because of it. I’m guessing you have other reasons for heading up the serve-a-thon this year besides it being a long-term success tactic, no? It’s true, this tactic is not profitable to marketers and businesses like ours with a lot to lose, but I still think that’s only part of the story of why we don’t engage in it.

Dave McAnally said...

I guess I'm not a big enough baseball fan to follow this analogy all the way down.

Any black hat tactic disrupts the natural ebb and flow of the natural order of search engine. That's the very essence of it. For Resolution Media clients, that natural order works to their advantage because they have solid content, are trusted domains and are typically dominant in their space. I'm pragmatic about these things because I know what side my bread is buttered on basically.

But at the same time, if this analogy was an all encompassing view of buying brokered links doesn't translate to the business world as smoothly as it would for a ponzi schemer. I can't imagine a scenario where a SEO agency would tell a client (let's say Best Buy)..."Hey Best Buy, there is a way to bump your listings right to the top of the serps but we won't be doing that because we believe that creates an unfair advantage for the folks doing SEO for Sears".

Rather, my take would be "Well you can inflate your link pop, and you may see your results spike for a week or so, but the cost of that spike is that you may never be ranked for a term again...that's too great a risk for you and your brand equity Best Buy"

Same conclusion, different perspectives

Adam Dorfman said...

Bryson, you continue to posit that what's good for Google is good for all website owners which is not always the case. Enterprise level sites that have been around for ten years and accumulated thousands of inbound domain links just due to the amount of pages they are offering are going to have a huge head start if they decide to offer a new product.  A new, independent, niche site in a semi-competitive field is pretty much required to buy links (directory listings, press, free products to bloggers, etc) just to get Google to index their site, much less rank it for competitive phrases.  For instance, if I was to open a new hotel in the loop do you honestly think putting "good content" on the site like Google suggests would be enough to rank competitively for queries like "Chicago hotel" or even "downtown Chicago hotel?"

I won't get into the Madoff analogy except to say that it's akin to invoking Hitler in an argument and taking an issue with many shades of gray and trying to turn it black & white. Sites buying relevant links/sponsorships/etc are doing nothing to harm their competitors or general population except to be smarter with their advertising dollars.

Bryson said...

Interesting discussion, everyone, and I really appreciate the feedback.

Dave, we seem to be in agreement, mostly. I would say that the pragmatic perspective that you're approaching this from is the same one I did in my post, in fact. I did say that those who aren't compelled by the ethical argument should understand that this is a temporary solution, and that paid links will not have a positive long-term effect on a client's business. Not sure what you mean by the natural ebb and flow of the natural order of a search engine, but it seems we agree that paid links are like steroids in this area, even if we don't agree on why those steroids shouldn't be used, no?

I also suspect that what you're calling the natural order of the search engine may be the ethical part of this that is tied to pragmatism for larger brands. For example, I doubt anyone at Best Buy would hack into their competitor's web site and fill it with porn spam in order to sabotage it in search results, even though it's theoretically possible and would lead to better rankings for Best Buy because 1) it's illegal and 2) it's unethical and 3) it's impractical because the PR fallout from the unethical and illegal act would be catastrophic to sales. It could be that some people would not care about 1 and 2 and only be persuaded by the practical aspect, but in my mind they are tied so closely together that it doesn't matter that much.

Bryson said...

Adam, I don't know you but if you're local I would encourage you to attend the Chicago SEO Meetup some month and discuss your views with the group. I'm sure you would have many there who would agree with you, but beyond that I think it would be valuable to you to meet some of the people behind the search results. It's one thing to see the search results as ten blue links that you need to move your client up in, and it's quite another to see them as the webmasters that are competing for the same keywords in the search engine optimization game. All of us are working with the same tools because we agree to the rules of the game ahead of time. If someone goes beyond that they're disrespecting not just Google, but the community that agreed to the rules at the start of the game. I haven't seen an argument from you contrary to that point, even though I know you disagree. If you want to give it I think it would lead to a productive discussion.

Also, I have to say your comments are surprising to me. I'm not sure which article of mine you read, but I don't think I'm turning this into a black and white issue, and I know I haven't said what's good for Google is always good for all webmasters. I'm talking about buying link equity directly for the sake of unnaturally appearing higher in search results only. Furthermore, I admitted that advertising or public relations done to indirectly influence a site's link popularity might be considered paid links to some, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I would also disagree that buying links is necessary in the examples you mentioned, as the number one result for "downtown chicago hotel" in Google has a fraction of the links of the larger hotel chains, and is largely there because it controlled the keywords in domain, which the larger sites typically can't. Also, above that web result for me is local results, which are there largely because of inclusion in the local business center, and not because of paid links. There are also a number of free directories and other ways to get indexed, including Google Webmaster Central, which I've used to index domains bought at sunrise before sundown. Finally, I didn't mention Hitler. I mentioned Bernie Madoff, which was germane to the conversation in that the question was about empathy toward people who are not you. It seems to me that's still a relevant question that you haven't answered, but I'll phrase it differently since you're getting hung up on the name: does an action have to be directly harmful to you in order for it to be wrong?

At any rate, I'm enjoying the discussion here. It's starting to move toward that notion of a community of competitors that I mentioned in the article and I thank everyone here for their participation!

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