The floor was open for audience questions as representatives from Google, Yahoo, MSN, and Ask.com addressed issues on the importance and value of inbound links.
One question seemed to resonate throughout the entire session. How can a search engine identify whether a link is paid or organic in nature? Shashi Thakur of Google replied that through both manual and algorithmic methods, the search engine is able to determine the nature of a link.
But why are paid links so bad? Thakur suggests that generally, purchased links are intended only to deceive search engines while adding little to no value to the user.
However, Peter Linsley of Ask.com and Sean Suchter of Yahoo agree that purchased links are not necessarily evil so long as they provide some sort of value and relevance to the user.
One audience member advocating paid links questioned why the same negative stigma was not attached to purchasing services where stories are submitted to social news sites like Digg and Netscape in an attempt to gain inbound links. Danny Sullivan, moderator of the Q&A session, replied that the success of a linking campaign by means of social news submission (paid or natural) still depends on the quality of the content. Compelling copy is a requisite for success in Digg and Netscape. As such, there exists the idea of reciprocity, valuable content in exchange for inbound links.
After much debate, the search engines seemed to agree that any link whether paid or organic in nature, failing to bring value to the user is always frowned upon and may be penalized.