February 24, 2022

The Truth About Paid Links and Google Rankings

When it comes to digital marketing, it’s no surprise that nearly everyone wants to sell you a link. After all, Google spells out clearly that links help to determine reputation, and a site’s ranking in Google SERPs is at least partially based on the websites that link to it. Therefore, we know that backlinks are a ranking factor, but we also know that organic backlinks can sometimes be difficult to come by.

This leaves some businesses wondering whether they can simply buy a few backlinks and reap the rewards. This article will discuss whether paid links can actually help your site rank better and if they’re a good idea for your business.

Are Paid Links a Google Ranking Factor?

Before diving too deep into paid links and why businesses are tempted to purchase them, it’s important to note that Google’s stance on paid links is pretty clear: They’re not thrilled about them, and they don’t want them to influence search rankings. In fact, Google would rather you use your website’s robot.txt file to ensure your advertisement links aren’t affecting search engine rankings at all, as this file gives search engines the rules of engagement when it comes to your website. To that end, Google suggests using the rel=”nofollow” or rel=”sponsored” commands to prevent crawler bots from following your advertisement links.

While this doesn’t mean that paying for links is necessarily “bad,” it does mean that Google would prefer you at least be open and honest about it. Not surprisingly, some businesses try to slip through the cracks, sneaking in one or several undisclosed paid links past Google in an attempt to gain a competitive edge in SERPs. In their eyes, if Google can’t algorithmically detect all paid links, who’s to say that being super careful won’t pay off in the long run? After all, if a paid link can theoretically provide the same benefit as an organic one, is there any harm in trying? The short answer is yes, and here’s why.

Paid Links as a Ranking Factor: Some Quick Evidence

There’s no question that links pass PageRank and impact search rankings. That being said, Google prefers that you always disclose the relationship of your links, especially if that relationship falls outside of the bounds of that link being included to provide valuable, reputable, and authoritative information to your target audience. This relationship is typically displayed to Google through rel attribute values in links’ <a> tags. For reference:

rel=“sponsored”: This tag indicates that the link is an advertisement or paid placement. This wouldn’t pass PageRank, and Google would essentially disregard it.

rel=“ugc”: This tag indicates that the link is user-generated content, and the site using that link isn’t making any endorsements towards its accuracy or quality.

rel=“nofollow”: This tag tells Google to ignore that link, aka not to crawl it, as it’s unlikely to help with the SEO of the site hosting it. In other words, it’s not an authoritative link.

Paid Links Can Hurt Your Chances of Ranking

Given the above, it’s important to remember that while you might enjoy the ranking benefits of a paid link by not disclosing its relationship, getting caught can have some pretty negative consequences. If Google were to find out that you were trying to manipulate the algorithm with paid links, you might suddenly discover that your site was removed from the index. In fact, Google has been clamping down on this type of behavior for years.

While some SEO professionals believe that Google has been ignoring paid links since 2010, and others believe that Google’s algorithm doesn’t always catch them, a 2019 tweet from Gary Illyes highlighted that Google will still, at minimum, take manual action against paid links when they’re spotted. Suffice to say, that makes it clear that Google is never truly idle when it comes to hunting down and taking action against unnatural links, including those that are exchanged for something of value, monetary or otherwise. While Google might not catch a particular business engaging in the practice, that’s not to say their competitors won’t jump at the chance to report you.

Be Cautious About Paid Links

While some businesses and agencies may try to move the ranking needle more quickly by purchasing backlinks, it’s always best to err on the side of caution, as this is considered a black-hat SEO tactic. Whether you’re in fashion digital marketing, manufacturing, B2B marketing, or any other type of industry, building a successful, healthy backlink profile takes time. Additionally, Google’s algorithm is becoming increasingly adept at catching businesses and agencies trying to shortcut this process through underhanded tactics. While link scheme practices might promise ranking results sooner, the loss of rankings as a result of getting caught is never worth it, and repairing the damage can take quite a long time, costing your business valuable revenue in the process. In other words, you’ll invest more money into fixing the issue than you would if you had simply gone the honest, organic approach from the start.

Today, Google’s definition of link schemes is pretty clear, with the following being a few surefire ways to impact your website’s search rankings negatively:

  • Exchanging money for links or posts that contain links.
  • Exchanging goods or services for links.
  • Sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing a review and including a link.
  • Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages used exclusively for the sake of cross-linking.
  • Requiring a link as part of a Terms of Service, contract, or similar arrangement without allowing a third-party content owner the choice of qualifying the outbound link, should they wish.

While the above are just a few examples to be wary of, the key takeaway is that paid links are a huge gamble, and they put your organic rankings at a much higher risk than necessary. Even though paid links can work the same way as any other link, they come with a few caveats. They need to be tagged as “sponsored” or “nofollow” using the rel attribute values outlined above. Secondly, they risk being algorithmically determined to have been manipulated. Thirdly, they can always be manually reported or detected as undisclosed paid links by Google or your competitors. While Google will simply ignore the link if the algorithm detects it or you disclose their paid status yourself, the third possibility could result in a manual action and a potentially dangerous drop in your rankings. In other words, you stand to lose not only the value of the affected links but your other SEO efforts as well.

What’s the Verdict on Paid Links?

In summary, while Google does use paid links as a ranking signal, they explicitly don’t want those paid links to count. Though you can theoretically try and hide your links’ paid status from Google, you do so at your own risk.

To give a better visual, using undisclosed paid links to propel the search rankings of your website is the SEO equivalent of using a leaking, rickety rocket to do the job. If you’re lucky, everything will hold together, and your rankings will blast off. However, you might discover that that rocket has crashed and burned as it was likely going to anyway, taking your rankings and SEO legwork straight into the ground.

Work with the Link Building Experts at VELOX Media

At the end of the day, trying to shortcut your way to higher search rankings with undisclosed paid links is never a good idea. Not only does it go against Google’s guidelines, but it also puts your business at greater risk for revenue loss when things inevitably go wrong. Proper link building requires an honest approach, with a strategy that showcases your website as an authoritative and trustworthy source of information.

By working with the link building experts at VELOX Media, you can set your website up with an SEO strategy that is cost-effective and sustainable. With links being one of the top two criteria considered in Google’s page ranking algorithm, a healthy, white-hat backlink profile is the only way to ensure organic search dominance over your competitors.

Contact the digital marketing experts at VELOX Media today to learn how we can help improve your organic rankings with a healthy, sustainable, and successful backlink profile.


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