Lee Odden

The Real Cost of Buying Links for SEO: $4 Million

Lee Odden     Online Marketing, SEO

stack of moneyI was reading a copy of the Inc. 500 issue on my flight back from Dallas this weekend and came across an article about a seasonal online retailer that was “penalized” right before the Holidays for paid links. He estimated the revenue loss due to plummeting organic search visibility at $4 million in sales.  Now he’s “thanking” Google for the spanking because he’s mended his ways and is reborn as a social media enthusiast.

I’m not sure I buy the “social media has turned things around” story exactly, but I do wonder how many companies and consultants roll the dice and take shortcuts and loopholes to get ahead only to find out later it’s worthless? The notion of paid links is an old story (Paid Links Evil? Dec 2005) but many of the tactics used to shortcut results for SEO will always be a fresh topic of discussion.

It turns out the retailer in the Inc. story was doing SEO internally then hired two SEO companies to help out. The story goes on to say that a SEO company was to “reach out to relevant sites and ask them for links. Instead, one of the companies admitted it was paying for links.”  That’s worded in a way that makes you think maybe the retailer didn’t know the SEO company was buying links.

We don’t buy links at TopRank Marketing.

We never have. Not ever in 10 years of being in the search marketing business. As far as the retailer in the Inc. article, it’s surprising because buying links isn’t cheap.  If a company didn’t know the SEO consultant was buying links, it’s peculiar any way you look at it. Where did the money come from to buy the links? How did the SEO company not report what it was doing? How did the company owner not know what the SEO company was doing?

I polled followers of @leeodden on Twitter whether they or someone they knew knew had ever been penalized for buying links. Almost all of them said yes. When I’ve mentioned that we never buy links to other search marketers, the disbelief was like I told them I didn’t need to breathe air.

The point of relating this story to you isn’t so much about the risks and rewards of paid links, defining exactly what “paid means” (what about a 3 way barter?) or even judging those that sell and buy links. The point is that the online retailer in the story says social media tactics were largely ignored and now they’re committed to blogging, Tweeting and being active on Facebook. He claims all is now well in their SEO world. “We’re back on top.”

The point:  Why didn’t the online retailer commit to a better online marketing strategy in the first place?

It’s been promoted for years that paid links can carry consequences.  People like Google’s Anti-Spam Czar Matt Cutts make their perspective clear and make it easy to report paid links. Right or wrong, it’s the way search engines want to play.  Obviously, paid links with the right anchor text from very authoritative and relevant websites have a positive impact, or SEOs and website owners wouldn’t participate.  It’s important to note that Google doesn’t have a problem with paid links per se, but with paid links that pass PageRank.

The question I have for companies that rely too much on shortcuts and loopholes is, “Why not suspend the “free money now” attitude and invest in a smart and competitive online marketing program that can get results AND stand the test of scrutiny?”  Won’t a customer focused marketing effort that provides optimized and linkable content to a growing social network earn more links, more traffic and more revenue anyway?

I don’t think there’s much reason to put your brand and revenue at risk if you have a long term view of how the search and social web works. The investment in understanding and engaging customers plus the staff, software and time to implement content, analyze performance data and ongoing content marketing is well worth the cost and there’s virtually no risk.

“Don’t bring a sword to a gun fight”

Years ago at a search conference discussion about black hat and white hat tactics, Tim Mayer, ex head of Search at Yahoo! made the comment “”If you’re being entirely organic and going after ‘Viagra,’ it’s like taking a sword to a gunfight. You just aren’t going to rank” when discussing acceptable tactics in really aggressive industries like “PPC” (pills pron casino).

The temptation and pressures to profitability are great in industries that are flush with heavily optimized and marketed web sites.  However, most companies don’t fall in that category and I think smarter and more creative marketing can still win for the vast majority of websites, especially in the long run. We’ve seen it happen with our own clients nearly 10 years.

Why rent when you can own?

The reason I’ve never participated in link purchases or endorsed the practice isn’t as much about Google’s rules on paid links that pass PageRank. It’s because I could never understand why anyone would “buy” something with such risk associated with it when they could “earn it and own it”?   With roots in Public Relations, our online marketing agency has been accustomed to earning media placements and often times highly desirable links since we started the business in 2001. It can take more time to see aggressive results, but when you focus on making creative content and doing the hard work of promotion to earn traffic and links, the cost is one of investment vs. the often higher cost of advertising with no equity in what you’ve purchased. Then there’s the cost if the links are devalued by the search engines and subsequent lost revenue. I’d rather build, promote and earn those links that will be in place indefinitely.

Using that strategy, Online Marketing Blog has accumulated a substantial number and quality of links (according to Majestic SEO). The devil is in the details with this sort of thing of course, since it matters very much what the topic, anchor text and PageRank are of the link sources. But suffice it to say, we experience very good results in each of those areas as evidenced by over 21,000 different keyword phrases that sent organic traffic each month and top visibility for important and challenging keyword queries.

Gross Backlinks Accumulated

What’s your experience with managing risk with SEO tactics? Have you experienced what the online retailer above went through and focused anew on a sustainable and longer term online marketing strategy?


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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. Spot-on post, Lee…and like you, we too do not buy links for any clients — with the associated risk being the most important factor. As shown by the florist firm in the piece you refer too….risk is something our clients pay us NOT to provide…and we follow that direction at all times!rnrn:-)rnrnrnJim

    • Hey Jim, funny to run into you here as well.

      I can’t imagine anyone outside of a short term affiliate site wanting to buy links with the goal of SEO gains. What happens if your site is de-indexed? If you’re running a business, it’s hard to recover from that.

  2. In today’s world, we expect fast returns. People that have the money to go out and bend the rules a little bit are in competition with each other.nnFrom the way things look, if a company is not using shady tactics to bring in links, they are letting their competitors beat them at the game. Sure there will be people who get caught doing it if they do not play it smart, but do not be fooled to think that your competitors are not doing similar things to leave you in the dust.

  3. I don’t buy links either (with the exception of an occasional business.com or yahoo listing). I know that some competitors do it, so it’s tough when they are outranking me in some instances. But I’m not willing to take that risk.

  4. I just read that article last night and was, perhaps naively, surprised that their SEO firms were buying links. How can they offer a service which can put their clients at risk like that? Glad to see you take a stand on the issue.

  5. As far as Google’s guidelines go, I don’t think they include directory links in the same category as buying a footer or article link from a blog or news site.

  6. Personally, I don’t believe the company was unknowing about the link purchases. The SEO firm would convince the company that buying links is worth it, then the company would pay more for those thinks.

  7. A. Singh, we much prefer people use their names instead of keywords.nnIt’s true that plenty of marketers are buying links undetected. Agencies like mine can earn those kinds of links, although it’s harder and takes time, without having to pay a fee every month. The links are pretty much permanent.

  8. Risk management is a choice for both the agency and the client. Many blackhat SEOs fully disclose the risk of their tactics to brands and the brands are under such pressure in competitive categories that they choose to take those risks.nnRisks aside, I am simply a more interested in cost per link acquisition. A project we completed for a Fortune 50 client resulted in a lifetime cost of $6 per link link vs. $120 – $1200 per year per link if purchased. HUGE difference in cost, zero risk and much greater return over time.

  9. That sir, is a pretty link graph. Congrats (and nice post!!).

  10. I read this same article yesterday and also had a strong reaction to it. I think I got exactly what he was saying with the “social media has turned things around idea” 1. by engaging more in social media, they are seeing an annuitized SEO benefit through UGC created and added regularly through their site 2. by engaging in more social media, they are more in-tune with what their customer wants, which ultimately is invaluable and is likely a big reason for their recent accelerated growth.

  11. First, congrats on your success in organically obtaining links! Second, I think one false belief is that the search engines will never find out unless the website is using a link broker to buy their links. As your post points out though, anyone could report a paid link. This does make one wonder…are there people out there accepting money for links and then turning around and reporting the people that paid them for the link? No condoning of paid links, but if that is going on, it does seem like quite a scam that website owners should look out for.

    • Avatar Lisa | SEO Brisbane says

      I agree with you – even Google are the first to admit that they have a hard time working out whether the link is a paid link or not so they must have been doing something very silly.

  12. I agree. Buying links does not work. I really like your post and the strategies you give. Buying links is a very risky tactic and the risk most certainly outweigh the benefits. It’s always tempting to take the shortcut but it’s very ill-advised. Put in the work and you’ll be reworded. Great postnnJean-Guy FrancoeurnAuthor, Answers You’re Aching To Knownhttp://www.JGFMarketing.comn

  13. Avatar social tool says

    I read about that article, and man talk about a serious loss in that SEO mishap, he should have known better to pick better people for his brand.

  14. Agreed, that would be wrong on all levels.

  15. The outcomes of UGC and being in tune with what customers want makes total sense, whether achieved through social media or any other communication channel. What I wonder is, why companies need to get spanked to realize that?

  16. It’s interesting – every knows Google is opposed to dofollow paid links, but one of my colleagues did some research the other day and found that Google allows websites that openly sell such links to advertise on AdWords with them. Search on Google for “buy backlinks” and you’ll see what I mean. Thanks for the great post!

  17. Avatar Eric Weidner says

    This simple math may be the best argument for whitehat techniques; i.e., it takes longer but it is a heck of a lot cheaper! Love it.

  18. Avatar Lisa | SEO Brisbane says

    Agreed but I am sure they would be keeping a close eye on the websites activities as well as advertising on them…

  19. I saw Ryan Abood speak at the Boston SEO Meetup a year ago, when he was campaigning to win the Guinness Book of World Records for Largest Cupcake, which I blogged about. The big take-home here is Abood is always experimenting. Paid links became a no-go, so he moved onto “earned” links, getting tons of coverage with the cupcake quest.The Inc. article is another “earned” success. It’s interesting to see how an innovator innovates: He grew GourmetGiftBaskets.com from his parents’ flower shop.

  20. Can someone please explain what exactly is a paid link then?

    If we were going to pay for an article we wrote on feature on a website does this count as a paid link or can google distinguish between advertising and paid links?