Paid direct links are controversial, but marketers risk missing out if they don't understand this rising business.
I generally cover what most of us think of as paid search, where the search engines collect the ad revenue. This includes PPC (define) paid placement, shopping engines, and paid inclusion. Today, though, I'm going to discuss an increasingly popular and controversial type of paid search that bridges the gap between organic SEO (define) and contextual ad placements.
Paid direct links are ad links purchased either directly from sites or through a network. Unlike PPC search links, these are standard HTML links that convey both direct traffic and link power to the advertiser site.
Are paid direct links right for you? Marketers are clearly benefiting by using these links. So let's examine the practice, list some vendors, and cover potential benefits and risks.
Paid direct links are a challenge to way the major search engines do business. Engines' ranking algorithms are based on the concept that a link from one site to another is a vote that conveys reputation and general relative relevance. Google's PageRank, for example, is driven to a great extent by linking relationships.
The other major search engines use link analysis to assist in determining relevance and rank, in addition to page content analysis. The truth is page content often ties with relevance. Link structures -- including the anchor (keyword being used to link) -- the sites doing the linking, and the relative number of links on a page all factor heavily as tie breakers.
No wonder, then, in the last several years marketers have found themselves tempted to buy direct links that can deliver relevant traffic and SEO benefit simultaneously. Text-link networks are proliferating, and some SEO firms have under-the-radar link networks they don't advertise publicly because the engines are starting to invalidate links they believe are paid. Ironically, these link networks are often channel-based by category, making them similar to the contextual ad networks search engines endorse.
Some firms sell these direct links publicly: Text Link Ads, PayPerPost,Live Customer, LinkBuildingDirect.com, AuthorityDomains.com, V7 Network, Textlinkbrokers.com, and Network Solutions, to name a few.
This is only a partial list, but you get the idea. Paid-link businesses have proliferated enormously. Clearly, they wouldn't exist if marketers didn't use them. Perhaps your competition is successfully using them right now.
Search engines have come out against paid direct links as a manipulative process that subverts their natural method of ranking and rating sites. Anyone who engages in SEO knows that off-page link development, regardless of whether it's paid to a site owner, is also designed to influence results. Of course, the engines all have contextual link networks that deliver only traffic, not link power. This irony isn't lost on the SEO community.
Google's Matt Cutts has even talked about potential changes to the Google algorithm designed to reduce or eliminate purchased links' power. There are certainly ways Google can ferret out some paid links by surreptitiously becoming customers of direct-link firms. Google could then either eliminate participating sites' link power (which may cancel some or all unpaid link power as well, throwing the system's balance off) or look for repeatable patterns in the HTML or content to estimate the likelihood a link is paid and reduce or remove the link power.
Paid Direct Link Rewards
Many marketers have indicated that paid links have helped them improve specific rankings. The ability to set the anchor text as well as the destination URL can make a material difference in ranking for that phrase, assuming the page copy is also relevant. Based on the evidence that's been shared with me, the marketers succeeding the best with paid direct links have significant existing link power from a combination of natural links and SEO.
Paid Direct Link Risks
Is your organic SEO at risk if you buy links? Perhaps, but the engines would venture down a slippery slope if they did anything more than reduce or eliminate link power from specific links. If the engines start to penalize a site that has paid links (or links that look like they're paid) pointing at it, marketers may actually pay their greatest competition to get them negatively affected. A scenario in which I can get my competition in trouble through my actions is unfair and unsustainable. The more likely risk in buying links or launching too many press releases with anchor links is those links aren't counted toward your relevance score or PageRank.
Paid Direct Link Traffic
If you choose to use paid direct links, treat any deal as a media buy and the link power as gravy. If the site linking to you is relevant to your content, visitors coming from that site are getting a great user experience and you're getting traffic. You can even use the HTTP referrer in your log or analytics program to get a good idea of how much traffic each site delivers. While the HTTP referrer isn't perfectly accurate, it tends to be directionally accurate and allows you to study comparative traffic and even conversion levels.
The search engines have put themselves in a challenging position if they want to continue to rely on inbound links as a way to judge relative relevance and reputation. Already, a burgeoning SEO business is spending a great deal of time on link development within blogs, message boards, and other sources. Those links are often placed robotically and have little relevance. Even the PR industry has gotten into the act, with most press release services facilitating anchor links. You already pay to release press announcements, so why not get a few inbound links as well? If your press releases don't have anchor links, you're missing an opportunity.
Perhaps Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Ask should embrace paid direct links. If a marketer buys links from relevant traffic sources, those links indicate the marketer is confident that they're relevant for the anchor phrases. Given a fixed budget, marketers will allocate direct link budgets where the "link juice" will make a difference. If your competitors are buying direct links and having success with ranking, you may have to start experimenting with paid direct links. Venture forth with your eyes open, understanding the rewards and risks, and treat link buying as if you were buying media to assure relevant traffic.
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Kevin Lee, Didit cofounder and executive chairman, has been an acknowledged search engine marketing expert since 1995. His years of SEM expertise provide the foundation for Didit's proprietary Maestro search campaign technology. The company's unparalleled results, custom strategies, and client growth have earned it recognition not only among marketers but also as part of the 2007 Inc 500 (No. 137) as well as three-time Deloitte's Fast 500 placement. Kevin's latest book, "Search Engine Advertising" has been widely praised.
Industry leadership includes being a founding board member of SEMPO and its first elected chairman. "The Wall St. Journal," "BusinessWeek," "The New York Times," Bloomberg, CNET, "USA Today," "San Jose Mercury News," and other press quote Kevin regularly. Kevin lectures at leading industry conferences, plus New York, Columbia, Fordham, and Pace universities. Kevin earned his MBA from the Yale School of Management in 1992 and lives in Manhattan with his wife, a New York psychologist and children.
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