All Links Cost Something

Let me start this by saying that you should NEVER pay money for links, especially do-follow links; Google can spot those pretty quickly these days, and you’ll do yourself far more harm than good. Still, even links that you earn the old-fashioned way aren’t exactly free.

It’s inevitable, I suppose, that those who’ve just discovered SEO – or even those who’ve been at it for a while – will wonder what’s wrong with paid links. They’ll even ask about it in our SEO Chat forums, as you can see at the link. The first point that comes to mind, of course, is that paid links purchased in order to manipulate your standing in Google’s SERPs are explicitly against the search engine’s terms of service. Period.

If you want to pay for a link on a website just because its traffic might be interested in what you have to offer, that’s different. Say you restore and sell muscle cars and you’d like to get your link on a social site catering to classic and antique auto lovers. Go ahead and purchase the link; just make sure that it’s a no-follow link. Then it’s not manipulation; it’s advertising. Google can tell the difference. And since it IS advertising, you shouldn’t just have your link there; you should contact the website owner’s advertising department about a nice image and text and do a real ad.

Respected SEO Chat forum member Gazzahk gave a list of five things that are wrong with paid links: they cost money; often, the payment is recurring; they do not necessarily help you; they can get devalued after you’ve paid your money, so you’ve lost that investment; and you risk a penalty from Google if your paid links are identified. Not only that, but as Matt Cutts wrote recently in his blog, those who sell links lose page rank when Google finds out, so a transaction like that is bad for both the buyer and the seller of do-follow links.

So if we’re completely clear on this idea that you should never buy links, why would I title this article “All Links Cost Something”? You may pay for a link, but not in money – and you may never even be aware that you paid for it. That’s the kind of link that Google won’t recognize as a paid link, either. And it’s the best kind.

Say you’re an enthusiastic knitter or crocheter. You’ve been doing it for so many years, you’ve started designing your own patterns. You hang out on Ravelry because that’s THE social website for knitters and crocheters; it even has extra features that help you show off your latest projects and sell your patterns. But you still maintain your own website, on which you blog regularly. One day, with some help from a photographer friend, you put together a post that provides a really good explanation for beginners on how to photograph your finished projects.

Since you’ve been on Ravelry for years, helping people, asking questions, and in general being a real person and not a spammer or trying to explicitly solicit sales, nobody minds when you mention in passing in one of the forum groups that you belong to that you put up a new post on this topic. You bother to mention it because you know (again, from your time on the forum) that lots of people want to know how to photograph their pieces properly. You may include a link, which you know will be no-follow on this forum.

So what happens? A bunch of other crafters check out your blog entry. They promptly try out your advice with one of their projects, find out it works, and delightedly blog about it on THEIR blogs. They link back to yours, of course, and those links are do-follow links. Some of them go deeper into your blog, find other entries that they like, and bookmark them. Several even bookmark your home page and set up an RSS feed. Three or four buy some of your patterns. One lady is so impressed by an adorable birthday cake amigurumi you made six months ago for your birthday that she links to it on her Facebook status because this month it’s HER birthday. Of course, this leads to more people checking out your website…

So what just happened? Your website got you a whole bunch of links for which you did not pay any cash. But you DID pay for those links – with a whole bunch of your time and experience. In a sense, you started paying for those links when you started learning to crochet, and fell in love with it – even if that was way before the Internet came to be. All links cost something! By the way, the best part of this is that you got all this traffic, and all of these links, without even once worrying about your Google ranking.

My little story illustrates another point. It’s somewhat peripheral, but it shows one of the ways that links “purchased” like this are superior to links that you pay for in the hopes of manipulating your Google ranking. The crocheter who wrote the blog entry and mentioned it on Ravelry put the link there because she KNEW her fellow fiber enthusiasts were interested in that topic and would benefit from the post. She therefore avoided the typical problem that long-time respected SEO Chat forum member Test-ok observed: “Most people look at links in the wrong light.” He noted that one needs to look at links through the end users’ eyes and not through the search engine’s eyes.

So when you’re thinking about placing a link somewhere, ask yourself: will those who see the link, and especially those who click through to the web page, actually gain something that they will value? If not, then there’s no reason for you to place the link. After all, all links cost something; why should you waste your investment? Good luck!

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