Blog > Are Paid Links Evil? The Debate Between Matt Cutts & The Black Hats

Are Paid Links Evil? The Debate Between Matt Cutts & The Black Hats

This is a transcript of the live session in San Jose, August 20, 2007. Subject to typographical errors.

Are Paid Links Evil?
Search engines, especially Google, say don’t do ’em. But some search marketers say paid links work. Are paid links subverting search quality? Or are they simply a fact of life, here to stay? We explore the issues, in this session.



Opens up with a joke – a new tag – the make me #1 tag! Funny video clip. On the Home Rental Blog.


Matt Cutts:


Want’s to tell us if its a good strategy – not evilness. It’s the wrong question. Do paid links violate SE guidelines. Yes, they do. Clear. Background info. The FTC was asked about word of mouth marketing, and if you get paid – it should be disclosed.

It’s about disclosure. What’s the user of the web- robots, machines, people. You need to disclose links in a machine readable way. They care about this. 5 ways to do it- meta nofollow, nofollow tags, robots.txt, etc. All OK for telling the machines that its not passing PageRank. Google is OK with buying links – as long as they don’t pass PR. Companies like AdBrite are OK. Shows slide of paid link site with casinos and bad neighborhood. The text above the links are an image – labeled sponsored links. These are images that are not machine readable. This stuff is not good for the web. It’s like littering and going into the carpool lane with one person. Disclosure should be clear and machine readable. What you want to do is create good content is create a good video like the one he showed. It’s gonna get alot of links. Even if you think your doing a good job buying links – you can be dealing with a sloppy seller – in with a crappy crowd of links. Also, you can get duped by cloaking. The seller can make it look like you are seeing links, but the SE doesn’t see it.


Google’s approach: Use algorithms and humans. Have a paid link form to tattle on competition. Google and most search engines take strong action, and strong focus.


Michael Gray:  


Wearing Google shirt. Google is not the government. Not a They have no agenda but to make money.  Don’t listen to corporate propoganda. This is not the way the real world works. They expect you to change your site for them and their flaws. Google wants you to sacrifice profits to make them more profitable, and want you to do it for free. When nofollow was instituded it was supposed to combat blog spam. They changed the rules. Now supposed to be used for paid links. Google took advantage to keep them more profitable.

What is a paid link? Google checkout even had an ad on the page with paid links. Google buys links, we are going to blog about the Google dance. You really don’t know whats a paid link as long as your one of the 2 people involved. Google doesnt like paid links because they work. They dont want you to mess with algo. Nearly impossible without paid links. Reported paid links is shooting self if foot.

Google is trying to give false propoganda, the FTC was an opinion. Google is not the government, cannot pass laws or judge ethics. They create fear of losing rankings to create fear. Google oversteped its bounds. Mission is to organize worlds info. Not to tell you how to build site or how to sell or buy ads or run your business.


Follow up question: Would you agree Organize is subjective? Michael – Yes. Q: If you were deindexed, would you have a problem? M: Yes – it’s their index.


Todd Malicoat:


7 Reasons why hei s a link Libetarian.

1. When is a paid link paid? Direct $? Buy pizza? Buying a company? Does that constitute a paid link? Is that related to paid links? Every link has a relative value of cost. Even creating a video has a cost.

2. Blame the algorithm. The PR bar gave us a micro economy of paid links. Helps people buy links. Risky, but not illegal.

3. Economics: Sure they can fight it, but it will be balanced out by efficient market. Eventually there will be a price point where people will stop buying links.

4. Transparency and relevancy: Never been fully transparent – games, movies, have ads – no disclosure. Consumers like disclosures, as an advertiser – not your job. Bill Gross proved paying for links can be more relevant.

5. Fear buys time for the algo.

6. Adsense needs a competitor. Fuels advertisers.

7. It’s a billion dollar industry – text link ads, Google, Yahoo, text link brokers.


Design sites as if no search engines. But there are. In an ideal world buy links for traffic.

Risks vs. Rewards: There are risks – competition is looking at your backlinks – price of link goes up. Theres the invisible nofollow. May incur a penalty. Rewards: It works and converts. Size matters. Small brands – link buying.

Intent and extent. Don’t fish with dynamite. There is no black and white line.  Buy under the radar.


Never report paid links. If you think it’s OK, don’t report. Eventually we will all get tired of links and move on. Stay relevant, make it obvious. Don’t include disclosures.


Todd Friesen:


Not much more to ad. There is a middle ground. Matt shows the casinos and spammy sites. Never see him show other stuff. It’s more fun for him to show gambling sites. Are you going to go out and buy many off topic links, or buy them as media placement and buys? You have to play in the space and compete in your vertical. Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight. If you follow all the rules, you won’t compete and buy Adwords. Point is go in with eyes open. Worse case scenario – wasting money. As Michael pointed out, noone knows except the buyer and seller. So Google in good conscience cannot prove it. If that was the case there will be a new industry of link sabotoge. Shoemoney does free T shirt friday. Gives links in exchange of links. Is that paid? Be careful – don”t buy run of site. Just realize you need to stay in space, and follow rules that govern your vertical.


Greg Boser:


Matt mentioned pollution of the web. His examples are too extreme and off topic. You cannot apply that to everyone else. The video we started with – will get many off topic links. That’s polluting the web. Like those top 10 lists on Digg. That’s pollution. Makes fun of Neil Patel. Site owners make good editorial decisions. Review your advertisers, excersize editorial judgement – don’t have to put a link condom on a link! The Yahoo! directory – they say its not a paid link – but it is, and its filled with crap. So the notion of the impact of the web is nonsense. Makes fun of Yahoo paid listing policy. Rumors about SELand paid links. Danny has a good rep. Trust his judgment and those links should count.Site owners should make good judgment about buying links. If you select good sites, and make deals – thats your business and Google should stay out.


Andy Baio:


An outsider perspective. Agrees with Todd. If there is editorial judgment and pay attention to quality, should worry in his opinion. That doesn’t pollute the web. is part of Yahoo but not representing it. Not part of SEO world, invited because of articles on his site. No self interest in the issue. Speaking on behalf of users. Everyone wants web to be easy and meaningful – everyone has a stake. Feels strongly  that it might be a form of spam and to be wary. Comes to ethics – are you improving the web or making it worse? The industry of middlemen trying to make a quick buck – brokers . Many of us would not do email spam or comment spam even though cheap and effective. But it’s unethical and can damage image. Paid link brokers – if the focus is traffic – the head is in the right place. But brokers are there too trick search engines. That’s the intent. Get’s shady – don’t use Java like legitimate ad networks  – so links pass juice.  Advertise the PR not the site. The top 10 – you should be different from competition – in reality if you are good you dont need link brokers. We are at a state where link spam is effective, but over time will backfire. Going back a few years – popups were novel and advertisers loved them. Yahoo! ran them. The more popular they got, the worse the web experience got. So browsers killed popups. Now paid links seem innoculous.


Matt: People understand why SE’s are against it. Brave of Andy to come up and take SE’s sides. For the most part, it comes down to whether it’s worth money. 5 years ago, guestbook links made alot of money, and SE’s took care of it. Want to look at long term. Want the links that will last. Looking for the white hat ways, will be a better long term strategies.


Michael: Casino links are not deceptive – your getting what you click on.


Greg: Buying links that are on target is so not comment spam, and rediculous to say this. Brand damage? BMW – how many people bought Mercedes because of this? WordPress – got banned for 8 hours because of Hot Nacho. And now WordPress is a great product. The google algo is flawed and its not our problem. Many big brands play both sides of the fence. Believes in long term strategy, but when people are playing hard you got to play hard too. Fixing this problem is dedicated resources is equal enforcement. Google doesn’t treat big brands equally across the board. At some point need to go out and compete – even if might drive you out of business. Would like to see this issue fixed, but the reality is that this is the world we live in.


Matt: So many options for ranking well. Just starting a blog can have a tremendous effect. So many white hat ways.


Q: Does Google want to ban big brands permanently that behave poorly – not the BMW’s?


Matt: BMW was out for a week. And you dont hear about the other sites  – like one guy who got banned for 43 days. People need to be aware of risks.


The Search King case – The trial courts ruled that Google can remove you from index, and they don’t owe you anything.


Todd F: Expected sites to get burned, and churned. But that was the game.


Michael: Google created the monster and looking for us to fix it.


Todd F: If go to broker and buy lots of links, and look at indivudual sites and it makes sense to be there – you shouldn’t have to worry – even if it’s relevant.


Matt: Response: Are they labeled as paid? Do people know they were bought?


Greg: Most are labeled paid, but  for us its temporary. Takes sometimes a flow of juice in the site – and then earns reputation. People find sites to link to from search engine. Now need links to get in to get the natural links. Sometimes you just need 3 – 5 links to get in. Job is to get results.


Rand: Building a viral video like in the intro. Gets into it! Wouldnt google prefer to find links without nofollow? many people dont know about nofollow. What’s the point of nofollow?


Matt: First line of defense is algorithmic.  Supposed we have a Japanese job board –  that noone at Google’s manual team can look at. Let’s them take control. If there are two software packages – one has nofollow built in, one has none – the nofollow will sell because it will get links. The idea is that all search engines look for paid links – nofollow is a self service mechanism.


Q: AdSense is not as good user experience as text links sometimes. Less attractive.


A: A directory that looks for things to add – and do editorial review – puts you at the high end spectrum of a directory. Become a good resource.


Q: Define excessive?


Matt:  Use common sense. Off topics,  automated exchange.


There is no substitute for creativity. A video was made saying “Google” over and over again.  On one hand – it may be easy to buy the links. The creativity is missing.  If you are in a place where links are bought, comes down to who has the pocket book. Good example is after Katrina – Red Cross was $50 a bid. Don’t wan’t to get into that.


Michael: Sometimes creativity is expensive. People need to outsource it because not creative.


Matt:  Lets talk about non commercial. Some guy asked why he wasn’t #1 for english to japanese translation. The #1 site was a better resource. Did the same thing, but the #1 was a better resource. There was no depth. Don’t have to shell out money to get creativity. Everyone knows there are white hat ways that work. Content cost vs. link cost.


Q: XML, etc. had voting power taken away – do you penalize sitewide, or individual.


Matt: We can hit sites, directories, individual links, etc.


[tags]SES, Search Engine Strategies, Paid Links, Matt Cutts, Text Links, Text Link Ads, Paid Links, Blackhat SEO [/tags]

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