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

Posted on Sep 1st, 2010
Written by Lee Odden
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    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?