Many major SEO firms make it a standard practice to recommend the purchasing of links to their clients. The search engines actively discourage this practice, and do their level best to detect those paid links. Here are 15 things they can use as signals that a link is possibly a paid link:
- Links Labelled as Advertisements: The search engines can scan for nearby text, such as “Advertisement”, “Sponsors”, “Our Partners”, etc.
- Site Wides: Site wide linking is unnatural, and should be a rare part of your link mix (purchased or not). The only exception to this is the interlinking of all the sites owned by your company, but this presumes that the search engine will understand that all of your sites are from your same company. In general, site wides are a serious flag.
- Links are Sold By a Link Agency: Of course, link agencies are knowledgeable about the link detection methods listed here, and do their best to avoid detection with the links they sell.
- Selling Site has Information on How to Buy a Text Link Ad: Search engines can detect sites that provide information on how to advertise with them. This combined with other clues about links being sold on the site could lead to a review of the site selling the ads, and a discounting of the links.
- Relevance of Your Link: It’s a powerful clue if your link is not really that relevant to the page it’s on, or the site it’s on.
- Relevance of Nearby Links: Another clue would be the presence of your link among a group of links that are not tightly themed.
- Advertising Location Type: The search engine can detect when your link is not part of the main content of the page. For example, it appears in the left or right column of a 3 column site, and the main content is in the middle.
- Someone Reports Your Site for Buying Links: Who would do this? Your competitor! If your competitor submits an authenticated spam report to Google, it will get looked at, and acted upon.
- Someone Reports Your Site for Some Other Reason: Perhaps your competitor does not recognize you are buying links, and turns you in for something else. Once this happens, the search engine will take a look at all aspects of your site, not just the reported issue.
- Someone Reports the Site you Bought Links from for Selling Links: A competitor of yours can do this, or a competitor of the site selling links can do this. Once a search engine figures out that a site is selling links, it’s possible that this could trigger a deeper review of the sites that were buying those links.
- Someone Reports the Site you Bought Links from for Some Other Reason: As before, this can lead to the search engine discovering that the site is selling links, even though it was not the core subject of the Spam report filed against it.
- Disgruntled Employee Leaves Your Company, and Reports Your Site: For decades, many companies have had a practice of escorting fired (or laid off) employees out of the building. The reason for this approach is that people get upset when they lose their job. However, even this practice would not prevent such a person from reporting your site in a spam report to a search engine. Even though that may be a violation of the confidentiality agreement you probably have with your employees, you would never know, because there is no transparency in spam reporting.
- Disgruntled Employee Leaves the Agency Your Used, and Reports Your Site: This same scenario can play out with an employee leaving the link agency you used. This form of disgruntled employee can report either your site directly, or the agency itself.
- Disgruntled Employee Leaves the Company of the Site Your Bought Links from, and Reports Your Site: Finally, it can also happen with someone leaving the company you bought the links from. This type of disgruntled employees can report your site, or the site they used to work for.
- Internal Human Review: Last, but not least, the search engine can do a human review. In general, search engines don’t do spontaneous reviews of sites, and wait for things detected algorithmically, or a spam report, to trigger a deeper review. But, you could certainly imagine that search engines could make an overt effort to clean up the search results in portions of their index they perceive to be spammy.
Search Engine Courses of Action
In the case of Google, it is known that one of the basic policies is to punish sites who sell text links by terminating that sites ability to pass link juice. This is essentially a first course of action. Once this is done, Google could look more closely at the selling site, and the purchasing sites for other signs of spammy behavior.
The search engines also take stronger actions at times, such as an algorithmic penalty, or banning a site from their index. I don’t know exactly how those determinations are made, but I believe that there are 3 major triggers for such action:
- It can be the cumulative affect of several signals of poor site quality.
- The search engine determines that a site has bought links on a large scale.
- Upon human review, the search engine detects a clear pattern of an intent to deceive them.
Plenty of businesses are successful with a link buying strategy. However, the search engines are investing more and more effort into their detection. At STC, our preference is to focus on obtaining links through great content, and making people aware of what we (our clients) have. But we place a very high priority on very high value links.
These are the types of sites that are very difficult to buy links from. For one thing, when these higher profile sites sell links, it does not take that long for it to become public knowledge. Just ask United Press International, who recently promoted the sale of links for improving page rank. UPI has discontinued the practice because of the furor it created.
This also has great synergies with the notion of investing time in developing great content for users. In a world with increasing personalization by the search engines, this is increasingly very, very important, and over time may well have a larger impact on your rankings then the links you get. You can see the search engines shifting from having web sites vote on your site, to having users vote on your site. One way or another, this is coming to a search engine near you.