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Can Google Find and Spank your Paid Links?

Can Google Find and Spank your Paid Links?

So last week Matt got the SEO industry a little riled up when he asked people to send him information on who’s buying links, and from where.  The Fear Uncertainly and Doubt (FUD) that followed was partially Matt’s to blame, but mostly the fault of those who misperceived what’s going on.

Sure, Google is trying to "not count" links that are paid for.  Websites that are really bad offenders (basically sites that have been deemed to not be worthy of passing link value ) will not be able to pass link juice on to other sites. People can report (and Google can easily find) the "High Pagerank" totally pimped out sites and then decide if they want to outright stop the site from passing link value on to the sites that are advertising.  Look at The Stanford Daily (back in March 2005). If you were Google would you want to count those advertising links? I know if I were Google, I’d slap a PageRank Block on that site…..even if it was my Alma Matar.  Talk about "Above the Radar" link buys….damn, wonder who said "let’s buy a link from the online newspaper of the alma mater of the founders of Google and Yahoo". 

From what I’ve seen, these sites are probably blocked from passing this link juice via a Google Hand Job (You sell so much we can’t trust a thing your site links to…the end). Hand Jobs are hard, harse, and slow. Can you blame google for trying to algorithmically find what may be paid links and just filter those out?

I don’t think that Google is trying to ban entire sites anymore, but to rather be able to algorithmically detect links that might be paid for on any webpage. Hum…If I were Google..let’s see…how could I tell if a link might be paid for….well I know I can get rid of 90% of them by finding words like "Paid links", "Sponsors", Paid Ad", "Paid Advertising", etc….and if that word is followed by a bunch of links going to other sites, I’m not sure if I’d trust those links….hum would I trust links in footers and sidebars? would I trust a list of links all going to unrelated places? would I trust a "stand alone link" (a link that’s not part of a sentence)? What else could they find as "flags" that a link is purchased?

My favorite quote on this whole issue comes from SugarRae:

The bottom line is that good paid links are un-detectable by the search engines. These deals are done via emails and personal meetings in a way that is not obvious and un-detectable by algorithms, when done well. So, Google is making up for their incompetence at detecting well done paid links by enlisting the general public to report what they guess are link buying activities. But, again, good paid links aren’t obvious, so the end result is that Google will be taking these reports and guessing too… *guessing*… whether or not those links truly are paid and possibly penalizing your site accordingly.

So let’s say that your site is reported to Google for either Buying, or of Selling Links. What’s the Penalty?
Danny did a great post titled "Time For Google To Give Up The Fight Against Paid Links?" where he talks about what can happen:

What’s the price? Google is the main search engine that talks about this, with the key penalty being that a site might not be allowed to pass PageRank. Specifically, that means a site might find it can’t transmit any ranking link love to other sites. Fine, sell your paid links, Google says. If we detect it, we might prevent those links from getting any gain.

There’s an expansion and a refinement here, also. The expansion is potentially, a site could be banned from Google. I’ve rarely seen anyone talk about this happening, a site being thrown out because of paid links. As you’ll see, it would really screw Google up to do this, as well.

The refinement is that Google might specifically exclude paid links from passing along link love. It’s not that hard to identify where paid links appear on some major sites, then flag that segment of the page to be ignored or excluded when link rankings are calculated.

Google is constantly evolving and getting smarter at judging what can be trusted and what can’t. Link trading died, 3 way linking died, buying huge above the radar PR links died, buying advertising that detectable will also die too.

Think Stealth. Think Ninja Links:

Go ahead Google, find those paid links. Find those SEO’s who can’t keep up with the changes. We get a rise out of it.



49 Responses

  1. Jim, very good article. One of the things that struck me while reading it is that even if Google does find and discount many paid links, they won’t be able to curb the paid links market.

    Say I own a site that has 50% paid links. If Google catches me are they going to tell anyone? Probably not. So, if they don’t tell anyone, I’ll happily keep selling my links but I’ll be unwittingly ripping every one of my customers off! I’ll still be getting paid, but they’ll be getting none of the value. If Google came out in two months and said, ok, we’ve solved the paid link problem and can now detect 95% of links that are purchased no one would believe them. In order to prove it, they’ll expose their methods and give people a heads up that they need to be sneakier etc. So in a sense, even if Google COULD determine which links are paid for, they’d just be creating a stealthier link sellers and buyers.

  2. Yeah… You need to be discrete with all of your SEO activities.

    If someone is reading the copy and starts wondering why you unnecessarily keep repeating a phrase into every other sentence, they won’t do business with you. Same with links.

    A master of the craft will make the copy and link SEO undetectable by a human or robot.

  3. Discretion is always wise simply because there are enough people out there who are jealous of your success that they’ll look for any way possible to undermine your business.

    Sounds like Google could be aiding and abetting those who practice such deeds.

  4. I been hearing a lot of made SEO Webmaster and link buyers Will this kill the link buying market I don’t think so. It will just give rise to less obvious paid links. The people that can’t make the change will just loose money without them knowing about it. Was the no follow meant for more than just blog spam or was it just a way to introduce a way for google to control the way the Internet is really run.

  5. Well, as per my understanding detecting paid links just by algo’s won’t be that accurate but yeah if ur competitor simply reports ur paid seat I think u would be in trouble. U won’t get banned but simply would never get better rankings and all ur advertising money will be going down the drain. And the worst part would be – You don’t even know that google has “Cherry Picked You”. 😉

  6. Stewart, You said “you won’t get banned, but simply never get better rankings”…

    When you say “never get better rankings”, I disagree. There can be no middle ground. To have rankings at all you need a backlink analysis.

    They can either turn off your sites pagerank (basically shutting you down – and google has Rarely done this in their history, for “offensive majorly over the radar” link buyers, and does it even less now than they have in the past.) You’d have to be pretty over the radar and bad ass to get whacked like that (just going with “history” and my guess of the future as well).

    Their other “spanking” option is to Stop the Link Sellers link juice from flowwing to the link buyer. At this level they would either have to algorithmically detect them…or they would have to manually decide “Hum, is this paid, is that paid, how about this one”.

    You think they’ve got time for that human analysis? Even if they do, I know some of my content “ads” I was able to get published on someone elses website they will not be able to destinguish between what I may/ or may not have/ paid for.

    But even then, are all paid ads “bad”? I think I’ve heard someone from Google say that paying Yahoo for a link is just fine since they have a human review and quality standards.

    Yet the people who I may (or may not) give money to are also humans. So I know then that there’s a human review (“content/ads” are placed by Their hand). I also know that if the webmaster feels that my ad/content is not to par with their site or page that they will tell that we do not meet their quality guidelines. I’m a little unclear on the difference between paying Yahoo for inclusion on a relevant page, and paying a webmaster for inclusion on a relevant page. Maybe I should write to people and say I’d like to pay you for a listing review?

    If i help support a webmaster, and recommend some content and links later is that wrong (and can it be detected)? If I pay a webmaster for his time to add content (I’m paying him for his time, not the for the content) is that ok (and can that be detected)? If I provide someone with 20 additional pages of content for “free” and that additional content has links to 20 great authority sites on that topic, and 1 of those happens to be 1 of my clients is that a “paid link” (and can that be detected)? If a client is paying me $100/hour to “get links” and I get him a “free link” is that paid for (the client paid me to find this)? Things can get murkier than the bottom of my coffee cup.

    If you’ve got stagnant rankings because maybe google has “cherry picked you” then yea, you should take a good look at your backlinks and methods. That might be a good time then to start making sure your site is such a good resource that people are just naturally linking to your wonderful site (or that you can make it at least look that way).

  7. And as far as being “reported”….does google really need SEO Rats/competitors to tell google who may be buying links?

    What happens to Google Spam Reports? How often do they do hand jobs, are for what type of offenders?

    When Google gets spam report they try to analyze how they can algorithmically “fix” this.

  8. “Go ahead Google, find those paid links. Find those SEO’s who can’t keep up with the changes. We get a rise out of it.”

    Beautiful quote… I really see a future in true white-hat seo. The general public is beginning to hear ‘Google horror stories’ enough that I have found being a cutting edge white-hat seo really shines!

    Cheers Jim
    [was the first time reading your blog : ]

  9. I agree with Jim’s last comment. Does Google really want to set itself up as the playground attendant for a bunch of disgruntled internet tattletales?

    Sounds like a headache that would tax even the most efficient tech company.

  10. I’m surprised there was so much fuss over Matt’s post. It isn’t news that Google doesn’t like bought links is it. I do think Matt was ill advised to encourage people to tell on link buyers though. Not nice that, I have more positive things to do.

    What really surprises me is that google can’t pick up paid links better. Generally speaking the links in question don’t relate to the website that has sold the links. So, how hard can it be to detect the links and act accordingly. I see a few heavy duty tech sites that have sold links to hotels. Surely, it can’t be that hard to figure out algorithmically?

  11. Gromo:

    I think it would be easy for Google to have an idea whether or not a link is paid or not. Places that I think Google will first begin to discount would be sidebar links and site-wide links. In addition lists of links on the bottom of pages are usually blatant ads. And if you’re placing your ad in a box with the word Advertisement above your ad you might as well just e-mail Matt Cutts and let him know it’s a paid link.

    I think it would be quite easy for Google to knock out 75% of the paid links and quite frankly I’m surprised that they haven’t done it already.

    Matty C

  12. I’m not convinced at how google could accurately decide if a link is a paid one or not.. i would tend to think that there will be a lot of mistakes made and sites punished incorrectly.

    Excellent read by the way!

  13. Matt Cotter :

    i agree with u but as google smart other also smart, like I will put paid advertisement in my wesite without mentioning word advertisement

  14. Some people are going to spill the beans. That might exacerbate the problem. Meanwhile it is obvious that google can’t find the under the radar links. Otherwise they wouldn’t be asking for help.

    I think I’d be a bit more careful…and add some language/understanding that any transactions for links are of a highly private matter.

  15. First, I think that certain search engines are able to determine which links they will “count” and which links they will ignore based on where those links appear on a page and whether or not those links have text around them. For example, a link has a much better chance at being “counted” if it’s in the middle of a sentence than if that same link is buried at the bottom of a page somewhere.

    I believe that there’s probably certain “tests” or “checks and balances”, if you will, that links go through before they’re counted or discounted. Certainly if a bunch of links show up one after each other and have “sponsored links” or “sponsors” near them there’s a chance that they might not be counted or given credit.

    Like earlpearl says above, there are always going to be people who “rat others out”. But still, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the links will or will not be counted.

    There’s just too many different cases to say whether or not for certain that all or “the majority of” paid links are counted or not. Paid links could appear on a “links page” or “resources page” or they could appear in the middle of a sentence on a blog.

    There’s a better chance that some paid links are counted and some are not counted–it really just depends.

  16. If I were Google I wouldn’t look at text like “sponsored” or “text link” as much as I would look at the temporal pattern of building links.

    Paid text links frequently appear and disappear in 1-month blocks. Unless you are buying text links 1 year in advance, some of them are probably going to accidentally expire in 30-day increments.

  17. to : Adrian Stanila

    I am alos thinking same but see what Matt Cotter Says

    Matt Cotter Says:


    I think it would be easy for Google to have an idea whether or not a link is paid or not. Places that I think Google will first begin to discount would be sidebar links and site-wide links. In addition lists of links on the bottom of pages are usually blatant ads. And if you’re placing your ad in a box with the word Advertisement above your ad you might as well just e-mail Matt Cutts and let him know it’s a paid link.

    I think it would be quite easy for Google to knock out 75% of the paid links and quite frankly I’m surprised that they haven’t done it already.

    Matty C

  18. @Matty C

    Are you seriously believeing that Google does NOT discount links in the sidebars, the footers and navigational areas?

    I think it’s been already 2 or more years that those kind of links stopped working as they used to to…

    the key strategy is to find “Links within content linking to content” just as Jim suggested in his post

    Stay away from “naked” text links

  19. I’ve only been in to web for profit for about 10 months and i just don’t see Googles point. They get paid to put there clients links out on other sites? and they pay us through Adsense to put the links on my site? But i can’t can’t pay someone to put my link on there site? Is it me or is there something wrong with that.

  20. I am not sure why google has to say what to link and what not to.

    ppl pay and ppl get links. what is google’s problem here?

    the same problem ii have with the nofollow rule from these ppl.

    we need to define the line between search as a utility and search as master of the universe.

    why did wikipedia go nofollow? google and wikipedia will dominate the world’s knowledge as we know it. it will happen – slowly, but surely.

  21. google can sell sponsor ads but no one else can
    google can use dmoz but no one else can
    google can control everything but….

  22. I was about to say what Josh have already said. Why would they ban the link juice for sites selling Links, if they them self recommend it.
    This rule should apply to everyone. Yahoo! Directory link juice should be banned first. right ?

  23. Google always try to do everything by its algorithm. How google will trace which is paid link or advertisements. No ad tells that we have paid $$$ to post this Ad in this site.

    It might happen Google detects some sites like TLA and ban them from advt.

  24. I’m just curious that how Google will determine which links are paid and which one are not? What could it be if Google becoming a judge, jury, and executioner, that deciding a link is paid without make sure it, and strike forward to punish that site? I hope that Google will clarify this movement.

  25. humm .. my eyes hurt so i didnt read all the comments but i freaking wonder …
    will all this make room for NOT SELLING / BUYING LINKS CERTIFICATE market ?
    who will be the first to offer this for a fee ¿

    will google offer a paid certification ?

    if you make rich from this, please contactme at miltambores com ar

    : )))

  26. It’s for “better pagerank algo” for sure, but the question is “Since the system is so new(beta,alpha etc),are you ready to be a rat?”

  27. How should google detect well done links implemented into content? I think that this can only be manually done.

  28. It’s getting smarter than you think……. a UK directory, spiderwise. has recently been greybarred from being pr5 with pr4 internal for selling links, which they never advertised for sale, but marketed through telesales. Is GoogleBot listening to your phone calls????? The links are embedded in content, going to nice enough sites. Maybe somebody blew the whistle on them passing on their jooce.

  29. Here is my question. Do you think that Google would sift through all of the publishers posted on TLA, and prevent them from passing link juice?…I would.

  30. This would be the same as opening pandora’s box. Whats would stop me from buying links for my competitor and reporting it or down right be a tattletale and try to discredit other sites. Google Google Google

  31. I’d like to look at the issue from a different perspective, one that I haven’t really seen discussed.

    One could look at this as Google simply trying to improve the quality of search results, or it could also look like anti-competitive behaviour. When is Google going to get hit with the same kind of antitrust suit that Microsoft was?

    Is Google doing what it’s doing simply to push out the competition and force everyone to advertise with them because everyone is afraid of losing page rank?

    That’s what it’s looking like. Nobody wants to mess with the 800 lb gorilla, and people are seem to be getting so afraid of Google, they don’t even want to criticize them publicly for fear of getting blacklisted by them.

    When one player in a market becomes so dominant in the market that it begins to abuse its position, that’s when regulators step in. Whether that’s happening now, or I’m just paranoid, who knows? I’m sure nobody ever thought Microsoft could possibly engage in anti-competitive behaviour…

  32. Heck paid links and ads is just normal business procedure. You build a business and then promote it by advertising as much as you can afford. Same for online and offline shops.

  33. From what I understand about paid links, you aren’t “penalized” other than the fact that they don’t count in terms of an SEO gain. It might seem like a penalty when your paid links have been giving you a boost for a year or two, and they suddenly stop working. I can’t get myself to believe the website that bought the link would get penalized. Otherwise, competitors would just buy the spammiest links possible, and link them to their competitors.

    I’ll pay for links if they bring me legitimate traffic, but have resisted the temptation to do so in an attempt to increase my pagerank.

  34. Blogroll links are not really passing much as far as Google juice either. I’ve noticed they don’t mean much as far as Google goes. It’s seems their leary of the advertising potential blogrolls have.

    I wish we could get bacl to the old days of blogging. No nofollow, and free linking. There must be a way for Google to rank web properties other than focusing on links. Sure….links must count for something, but is there not a way to rank the page content more.

    Betty (perhaps I’m just too green and naive)

  35. I went through a period where I lost 2 pagerank points from each of two of my blogs (July 2006) after having taken part in some viral linking schemes, but the good news was that these pagerank points were restored and improved in October…
    blog one. had PR2, went to PR1, came back as PR4
    blog two, had PR2, went to PR0, came back as PR3
    I have never paid for any linking myself as I am too mean(!), but somehow I fell foul of the Google filter…

  36. Whats the definition of buying a link? If I mow my neighbors lawn and ask him to put a link on his blog – did I just buy that link ?

    If i send a donation to a website, and ask them to link to me if they want – is that buying a link ?

    If I wink at someone and hand them 50 dollars, did i just buy those drugs ??

  37. I’m so sick of people worrying about Google. If you live in fear you will get NOWHERE.

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