Buying and Selling Links to Rank on Google in 2013

Everyone buys and sells links

So, if buying links that pass Page Rank is against Google’s terms of service and to do so means a potential ding to your rankings what should you do? Not buy links?

But wait, what IS buying links exactly? Where is the line drawn?

Are the links that came about due to the hours of research put in to a piece that investigated or highlighted common interest piece {topic}, bought links, or are they free earned links?

It’s a serious question.

The Hypothetical

Journalist/researcher Fred for example is paid by organisation Daily News.

His job is to write good quality pieces for editorial.

Editorial works closely with marketing and they have lots of conversations around how they grow market share and increase general profitability.

Marketing works closely with sales, and sales are always coming up with ideas for helping them succeed online.

Sales suggests to marketing that it would be really cool if editorial wrote a series of pieces that explored holiday venues in Africa. Marketing uses a few online tools and decides to focus on Egypt, simply because they noticed that last year there was huge spike in search volume and that perhaps it would make sense to ride that crest again, by catering to that query space.

Marketing sits down with sales and begins to thrash out a plan. Marketing talks to editorial and mentions that there’s a shed load of interest in Egypt and that it’s looking to create a splash both off and online and will be looking to sell ad spots to support it.

Editorial, tows the line as it knows that revenue is important and trusts the views of marketing.

Editor John sits down with Fred and explains the brief. Fred goes off and researches all the players in the Egypt holiday query space and draws up a big list of players in the market.

Fred passes his early research back to John, who passes it on to marketing. Marketing and sales sit down and sales say thanks very much.

Sales plan is simple, contact players and explain that they are doing a big piece on Holidays to Egypt  and how they’re inviting interested parties to be discussed. They mention how they have a huge readership and how they’ll be likely to rank for a host of Egypt related keywords too, which will likely drive sales and revenue to those who play.

Sales get back to marketing and explain how they have 4 big brands on board, all happy to pony up £xxxxx for the privilege of being discussed in this in depth piece.

Marketing talks to editorial and sits down with John and Fred enthusing that holiday brands A B C and D will be co-operating with them to supply various pieces of information and prizes to help create an amazing textual piece for publication.

Fred goes away and crafts a top quality piece replete with stunning visuals, competitions and what not. The piece links to the various brands where appropriate in ways that are apt and everybody is happy with the outcome. Fred doesn’t care about nofollow or jump links or noindex. Neither does he care about anchor text or brand signals.

He doesn’t know that anchor text isn’t really so important anymore and that actually, the link juice is what matters and that the on site SEO, brand strength and authority of the linked to site will take care of any requisite ranking ability down the line.

Fred isn’t aware of the details that sales made  with brands A B C and D; it isn’t Fred’s job to know, Fred’s just happy to get paid and is pretty pleased that his work will be shown to 1000′s and inform interested parties looking to Holiday in Egypt.

In terms of Fred’s piece it’s simple – If the publisher uses the words ‘Advertorial’ then Google expects them to use nofollow on any outbound links  that may benefit as a result. Google’s view being that it doesn’t want it’s index to be influenced by paid advertising. However, if the publisher does this, then the piece itself becomes less attractive as an advertising proposition as the Advertiser may be primarily attracted by the link juice provided by this premium publication. It knows that the piece is likely to be scraped by other lesser publishers too and that the link juice accrued should help it rank for it’s own list of desired terms.

The Real World

Let’s look at a real world example of how the Guardian newspaper has established various partnerships in the travel vertical. We’ll see that at some point, their partners receive links from the relationship. See if you can determine whether they are paid or earned through merit and if you can then tell me how simple it was for you.

Taking the query ‘cruise the river nile‘ as an example, we’ll see that in Google UK the Guardian’s travel site ranks fairly well at position 3 just below the fold.

serps-guardian

The url of http://www.guardianholidayoffers.co.uk/holiday/2934/cruise-the-river-nile is the landing page and within that page is a link to a page that discusses the partner with a phone number for those who wish to contact them in this case ‘Discover Egypt‘  which links to an internal landing page of http://www.guardianholidayoffers.co.uk/discover-egypt.

A booking link exists also, but this uses a capture to ensure that the partner itself gets no link love from the domain and that any further movement is blocked to non humans.

Safe, compliant and Google friendly, super affiliate, Google partner, no blatant link or advertorial here.

The only site that benefits link wise, is the mothership of “guardian.co.uk” which of course spreads its link juice throughout its domain.

The benefits to the Guardian here are great.

If the relationship with ‘Discover Egypt’ ever sours, the Guardian can easily transfer the relationship to a new partner and continue to rank for their ex partners brand name. Quite a win for the Guardian and of course another reason for the existing  brand partner to stay on board through the leverage of the Guardians SERP strength.

All good huh?

Okay, let’s look take a quick look on the parent domain of Guardian.co.uk  and see if  their partner benefits by way of a link.

Here’s a good page here.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2011/jun/18/middle-east-bargain-holidays-egypt

Not surprisingly, the page also happens to rank for “Holiday deals in the Middle East ” incidentally, it also carries Google Ads.

multiple-do-follows-guardian

This page contains lots of links to lots of suppliers, but nothing to the actual partner, but wait, what’s that at the bottom of the page.

guardian-links-to-other-sub-brand

It looks like a link to another sub brand of the Guardian’s at  http://www.ivebeenthere.co.uk/tips/36923 and low and behold that page links to their travel partner of discoveregypt.co.uk. How very shocking! :-0

guardian-other-brand

 

Putting to one side the complex issue of relationships, and sub branded web properties to one side for one minute, we’ll see that the resource page here http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2011/jun/18/middle-east-bargain-holidays-egypt says nothing about it being an advertorial and we have no way of knowing what motivated the writer or the editorial team to produce it.

We can but surmise, and try and make a judgement call based on our knowledge of how this stuff works but that’s all it’ll ever be.

None of the links on the page have a no follow element and the page itself is freely accessible to spiders and bots. It doesn’t appear to be benefiting any one singular property alone and we’d be hard pressed to prove otherwise.

We can but trust in the integrity of the publisher and assume that all is above board.

We’d have no idea if any of the web properties linked to paid for the privilege  we’d have to ask them individually to find out and even then, they may well have an NDA that prevented them from disclosing. For Google to try and police such a scenario would of course be insane.

A scan of the code  shows that it does contain a good solid do follow link to its other sub branded holiday  property at http://www.guardianholidayoffers.co.uk/holiday/4421/carthage-roman-africa-and-moorish-tunisiaI thus contributing to its ability to rank for related keywords.

Nothing wrong with that either, just sensible sub branding with SEO benefits that flow through. Why wouldn’t a business try and benefit itself? Who can categorically prove that everything it has done in the way that it has is to benefit its ability to rank in Google?

From my SEO perspective it  is clear. Create a high quality reference page that people will cite and perhaps link to.  Get the page to rank and benefit, fill it with related useful links to a bit of ‘UGC’  and put these on a separate domain to ensure separation and licence to thrill and where possible allow users or partners to get customers to comment on holidays they’ve had and who they used, link out to lots of other domains for free and make it difficult to argue that the page exists for no other reason than to help a person interested in that topic.

Clearly today,  the Guardian doesn’t do Advertorials  but it did in the past, just like a range of other papers who’ve seen themselves Google dinged, just go and do a site:guardian.co.uk advertorial query to see a nice selection of its past endeavours. No use of nofollow, noindex, exclusion by robots protocols or anything.

Is this some huge sin to get your knickers in a twist over? No, not really. Legacy systems are always a problem and the biggest headache for many publishers is that what is acceptable in 2009 isn’t necessarily so in 2013 especially as Google lets so many things slide for as long as it does.

The Takeaway

The takeaway at first glance is perhaps simple – create a proposition of value that is sophisticated enough to sidestep the scrutiny of blatant accusations of lazy link buying. Create a quality offering that adds significant value that is compelling and useful to your users. That may seem glib and may be quite hard to digest from an agency with limited budget perspective, but it’s an honest and  realistic way forward.

At second glance, it’s probably a little more intricate as not everyone is a Guardian newspaper or big brand with unlimited funds. If you can’t afford to do it properly then maybe it’s a signal to back off and try something else. If you can afford to though, then it’s clear that with a little time and effort quality arrangements that win in the SERPs and don’t get you dinged can be maintained in a way where all parties can benefit.

The Guardian example is a little tripartite in construct. Mothership, UGC domain, and Super Affiliate Value Add domain that benefit all constituencies. User wins, Publisher wins, Advertiser Wins, as does Google via its ad network and quality answer to user queries.

If we wanted to ask ourselves is the Guardian selling links or are its partners buying links then from the traditional Google type of understanding the answer would be no, however when we look at it all it’s clearly nonsense, as investment has been made and people all over various organisations have worked hard to establish relationships and that they’ve all been paid for doing so. The end product is one that works and is Google guideline compliant… or is it?

Dig dig dig dig

If we dig deep enough and dissect and ask questions then we can begin to skew it all and cast doubt, but I guess therein is the benchmark, if it really is a job to decipher, if it really takes a high degree of experience to ascertain, then it’s probably ok and will stand the test of scrutiny. Google doesn’t want this SEO stuff to be easy, it wants you to work damn hard for your link love and in some cases would rather you didn’t bother or where you did that they get a little kick back in to the bargain via adsense or partner ads.

It’s been said a million times by folks smarter than me but if you buy links in ways that make Google look stupid then you are asking for trouble, if it’s too easy, or too obvious then at some point you’re at risk of it being interpreted similarly by a distinguished Google engineer.

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