Buying text links. It's all the rage.
Is it evil? Is it good? Will it help your search engine rankings? Will it get you banned? Will it increase your PageRank? Will it increase your link popularity? Will it bring targeted traffic to your site? Should you do it? Should you hire a broker to do it?
These are the questions on webmasters' and search marketers' minds. What follows is my take on buying text links.
There's nothing wrong with purchasing an ad on a website that links back to your website. Advertising your site is good. Advertising it on popular sites where your target market hangs out is even better. After all, the name of the game is to bring in targeted traffic. Your advertisements on other people's sites are none of the search engines' business and will not get your site banned or penalized. They will not hurt your site in any way. How you market your site is completely up to you, and you don't need to worry about the search engines if you decide to purchase text link ads.
So what's the big deal?
Here's where it gets tricky. A good portion of ads that are bought on websites are not purchased for the targeted traffic they will bring, but as an attempt to artificially inflate the link popularity of the site being advertised. No big news to you, I'm sure, and no big news to the search engines. Since having a popular site can often help with natural search engine rankings, people have been looking for cheap and efficient ways to boost their site's popularity for years.
Ya gotta do what ya gotta do -- but so do search engines.
To the search engines, a link is supposed to mean that someone found a site useful and wanted to tell others about it. This may very well have been true at one point in time many, many years ago. But today a link could mean something completely different. A link might be a simple trade between webmasters, or an ad, or even a vote *against* another site. With no way for a search engine to really know the intent of a link, things have really gotten complicated for them.
Ads used to have tracking links so that webmasters could measure their return on investment; however, today's text linkers often prefer to keep the tracking codes off because their web analytics software no longer needs them. And besides, if you're going to buy an ad, you might as well get the possible link popularity credit that comes with it. That's more likely to happen with a plain old, stripped-down href link.
Unfortunately, this is wreaking havoc with search engine algorithms. On the one hand, they know it's not their place to tell people whether they should or should not advertise on other sites -- especially since most of the engines are advertising companies in their own right. On the other hand, without any way to figure out which links are truly a vote for a site, and which are simply a paid ad, the relevancy of the search results for any given keyword phrase can be skewed towards those who are willing to put their money where their mouth is.
The good news for search engines (and I guess the bad news for link brokers) is that most text link ads and the sites that sell them tend to leave noticeable "footprints" behind in the code. It would be no trouble at all for a search engine to do a little digging into what the latest footprints are, seek out all pages that have them, and simply not allow them to pass any link popularity. This is not a penalty, mind you. It would just be a way for the search engines to count only votes and not ads. Your ads would still be worthwhile for the exposure and direct traffic they bring, but not for providing you with link popularity. So although your site wouldn't technically be penalized, its rankings could drop if it was dependent upon the link popularity of paid links.
For those of you who don't believe the search engines can or would do this, you obviously haven't been paying attention over the years. What do you think every major update at Google has been about? They haven't been specifically about purchased link ads, but they have been about finding a subset of pages that all have similar characteristics and no longer allowing them to count the way they used to count towards rankings. Which means every page using the technique in question suddenly finds their rankings have dropped like a rock.
It's not a matter of *if* this will happen with paid text link ads, but *when*. It could be next week, next month, or next year. Regardless of when the engines decide to lower the boom, you can bet we're going to hear a lot of crying in the forums about it! For now, if you're buying text link ads, or have been thinking about it, I wouldn't really worry about it. Just make a mental note to yourself that whatever boost to your rankings they may provide now could vanish at any time. It's no big deal if you're getting real traffic from your ads, or if you're simply using them to jumpstart your SEO campaign. It's going to be a problem only if your livelihood depends on buying or selling text link ads to boost link popularity.
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CEO and founder of High Rankings®, Jill Whalen has been performing search engine optimization since 1995 and is the host of the free High Rankings Advisor search engine marketing newsletter, author of "The Nitty-gritty of Writing for the Search Engines" and founder/administrator of the popular High Rankings Search Engine Optimization Forum. In 2006, Jill co-founded SEMNE, a local search engine marketing networking organization for people and companies in New England.
High Rankings is an internationally recognized search engine optimization firm located in Framingham, MA specializing in search engine optimization, SEO consultations, in-house training, site audit reports, search marketing seminars and workshops. High Rankings has a 100% success rate for substantially improving client rankings and targeted traffic.
Jill speaks at national and international conferences and has been writing about SEO and search marketing since 2000. She's been quoted in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report and The Washington Post. Her articles have appeared in numerous print magazines and online websites including CIO Magazine, CMS Focus, The Internet Marketing Report, ClickZ, WorkZ, Inc.com, Entrepreneur, Lycos Small Business, WebProNews, SiteProNews and others. Jill has also appeared on many online and offline radio programs such as Entrepreneur Magazine's E-Biz Radio Show, SearchEngineRadio and the eMarketing Talkshow.
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