Weve all gone down the rabbit hole. You see the rabbit out of the corner of your eye and you follow it for hours. This happens when you click a link, read some content, click another link, click another link and so on. It keeps going. The internet hosts an infinite amount of rabbit holes.
I want to talk about another kind of rabbit hole, though"paid links. On the surface, a paid link is any exchange of money for a backlink that passes Page Rank, but it goes deeper than that.
How far can we go down the paid link rabbit hole? Lets find out.
A Traditional View of Paid Links
A few years ago, paid links were simple. You slipped a webmaster some cash for a link to your site. That link might have been embedded in a blog post, a resource list or anywhere else on the site. Or you might use a paid directory or pay for 1000 links on a blog network.
Most of those practices arent sustainable now, but some people still get rankings and avoid penalties when they buy links. Its just more dangerous now.
These days, Google is okay with paid links if they carry a no-follow tag. No-follow links dont pass on Page Rank though, and every good link portfolio has plenty of healthy, relevant do-follow links. So while no-follows arent a bad thing, you probably wont rank unless you have some healthy do-follows.
What actually constitutes a paid link? It seems like a slippery slope.
In this video, Matt Cutts says that if youre guest blogging for links then its best to no-follow the links.
Were all in it for the links, arent we? So, naturally, the whole internet started to some apart at the seams.
Who Runs Bartertown?
Google runs Bartertown.
The internet is basically built on a barter system. If youre not paying for a link outright, youre bartering with the strength of your content, your personality/charisma or the value of your page itself. We trade value for value. A helpful resource in exchange for a link.
Even if a super-high quality guest post with a natural link isnt paid, its still bartered. Your time and effort puts a great piece of content on some webmasters site, and then they give you a link back for it. Even trade.
But when that link is a do-follow does it count as paid? Not right now, but how far down the rabbit hole are you willing to go?
Say you pay for a classified ad on an association website. It has a do-follow link. Thats a pretty classic paid link transaction. But what if you just get a nice do-follow link as a bonus for joining the association? Where do we draw the line?
Say you help a mommy blogger out with some CSS issues because its an easy fix and you enjoy her work. In her next post, she links to you as a thank you. Theres still an exchange going on there. You helped her with some CSS problems and, in exchange, she throws you a link. Even if it wasnt a conscious effort on either part, a transaction happened right there.
Say you make a good connection on Twitter. You have a small people we like section on your site, and you add a link to that connections site. You genuinely like it. That new Twitter connection links you in the same way. Its not some crazy, egregious link scheme"its natural. But you traded a link for a link. It was a transaction.
Were also obsessed with trying to catch Google in the act. When Google unveiled the name for their new Android OS, KitKat, people were quick to point out that Google posted a do-follow link to the Nestle candys website. Theres a transaction.
In this BBC article, Google says that no money was exchanged. Well never know the whole truth, but at least theyre covering their tracks.
Google runs Bartertown. If they go that far down the paid links rabbit hole, theyre either going to devalue or penalize any transaction link.
Enough is Enough
The rabbit hole is endless. If you kick it around in your head long enough, you can define just about any link as a paid link, especially if youre working in SEO. Even if youre working in more general online marketing. Were all trading something for something.
Were all subject to penalties. Were all breaking the webmaster guidelines. We need to abandon guest posting immediately. All of our resource links need to carry a no-follow tag. All we can do is net some no-follows and pray that we earn some links for our great content, right?
Its easy to fall prey to paranoia and get all worked up about it, but the truth is that not every link is a paid link. Even if youre getting something (rankings) out of it.
Google can sniff out some paid links. Theyre cracking down on directories and advertorials. If your footprint is obvious, they might figure out that youve paid for a nice link that passes on some Page Rank.
ITs affected some rankings and burned some otherwise good pages, so were quick to point the finger at Google. They keep dodging us and we keep trying to accuse them of paid link schemes and other conspiracies. I dont know if any of its true, but what I do know is that we can sidestep the paid link rabbit hole pretty easily.
Quality and Natural
Go after do-follow links for your guest posts, but make sure the link makes sense. You can still be proactive about links if you keep it relevant. Make sure its a link that makes sense to click. Thats all there is to it.
If that link doesnt make sense then youre not looking in the right place.
If you get a no-follow link its not the end of the world. No-follow links are part of any natural, healthy backlink portfolio. They dont boost rankings as much, but theyre certainly not a loss.
And, above everything else, reduce your footprint. Keep it human. Vary your anchor text and dont only pursue one tactic (like guest posting). Change it up.
If Google ever does crack down on every single guest post with a link in the authors byline, the internet will turn into a much larger hurricane of outrage than we can even fathom right now.
As Bill Sebald said, sites like Moz, the Huffington Post and many others will get the boot. Those are all valuable sites, and Im 100% sure Google doesnt want to kick the best content on the internet down to page 10 because of some do-follow links.
For right now, a paid link is still a paid link in the traditional sense. We can fret and wring our hands all we want, but the fact of the matter is that a piad link still means the outright exchange of money for a nice do-follow link. Google runs Bartertown, but we havent reached the apocalypse just yet.
Jon Ball is the CEO of Page One Power in Boise, ID. P1P is a link building firm that focuses on relevancy, transparency and specialization. Jon is also an avid mountain biker and photographer.