paid links in seo

What are Paid Links in SEO and Do They Work?

Wondering what paid links are and whether they work for SEO?

There’s a big market for paid links. Despite the fact that Google may penalize sites that pay for links, some SEO consultants recommend buying links.

In this article, you’ll learn about paid links, how they work, and why people use or recommend them. After reading this, you’ll be equipped to decide whether you should use paid links.

Paid links are purchased backlinks. People who buy backlinks expect them to boost their site’s ranking in search engine results.

It’s easy to see why site owners are intrigued by the idea of paying for backlinks. Paid links are marketed as a shortcut for climbing higher in search engine rankings. And higher rankings mean more conversions and sales.

So why not pay for backlinks if you’ll earn more in return?

To get an answer to this, let’s take a closer look at the role of backlinks in SEO.

Backlinks, or inbound links from other websites, are a recognized ranking factor.

But not all backlinks are helpful.

When it comes to impact on SEO, the quality of the linking site is key.

When trusted sites link to yours, search engines view this as an endorsement.

Examples of trusted or quality sites may include:

  • Local chambers of commerce
  • Local or national news media
  • A blog by a subject matter expert
  • Industry associations
  • Universities.

The more prominent the linking site, the more impact the link may have on your SEO.

By contrast, low-quality sites include scam sites or sites that exist only to sell links.

The appeal of paying for links is clear, but your site could be penalized by Google.

It’s against Google’s guidelines to buy or sell links in order to boost rankings.

This activity is viewed as a link scheme. If detected, it can result in search engine penalties that ruin your SEO.

You may wonder, “What if Google doesn’t detect that I paid for links?”

Commonly, paid link activity leaves a trail that few can hide.

Like the cat that sneaks behind a curtain but doesn’t realize its tail is sticking out, it’s easy to think your online actions are hidden.

But Google has gotten extraordinarily good at detecting unnatural link patterns. A single wrong step by a site owner can trigger a red flag.

Suffice it to say that most sites engaged in link schemes will eventually incur penalties. If not right away, then a future algorithm may sweep them under.

What About Advertorials?

Paid links aren’t illegal, though. Google expects sites that charge for link placement, guest posts, or advertorials to add a “sponsored” and/or “nofollow” tag to those links.

Links with these tags don’t pass on PageRank value, so the sites offering them won’t be seen as selling links to manipulate rankings.

Google also penalizes “excessive link exchanges.” These are “Link to me and I’ll link to you” arrangements.

To avoid these penalties, it’s best to avoid link exchanges unless they’re useful for readers or between sites or businesses you own.

Money Anchors

Poor use of anchor text can also give away link schemes.

Specifically, excessive use of money anchors in backlinks will raise red flags. Money anchors are commercial or transactional keywords, like “buy gold wedding ring.”

Money anchors used repeatedly for backlinks create an unnatural pattern that Google can easily detect and penalize.

Now let’s take in inside look at the paid link building industry.

The paid link ecosystem has a range of operators but most use the same tactics.

Here are some of the characteristics and differences.

Low-Level Players

Low-level players openly advertise large numbers of links for low fees. And they often advertise “page 1” rankings on Google.

To educate their readers on paid links, the Isotropic Agency conducted an experiment. They bought 90,000 links from Fiverr for a test site.

Results?

  • Isotropic received 12,000 of the promised 90,000 links.
  • Most were nofollow links, which means no SEO value.
  • All the links were all from low-quality websites.

The test site received no SEO benefit and faced Google penalties.

fiverr paid links ads
Fiverr.com freelancers offer many types of paid links, including those placed in blog comments.

Middling Players

Middling players send cold emails pitching targets on paid links.

These emails often include price lists for multiple sites, either in the body of an email or, typically, via a link to (of all things) Google Sheets. (Nothing like broadcasting your link scheme directly to Google.)

What do they offer?

  • Paid guest post placements (which include a dofollow link).
  • Link placement within their existing articles.

Some middling players offer to write your article for you for an additional fee. And others insist on recurring annual fees for links.

The pitch might promote “high DA” websites. High DA doesn’t always mean high quality, though.

ahrefs domain rating score example
Above: Ahrefs uses a “Domain Rating” (DR) score as a proxy for quality of a website. “Domain Rating” is Ahrefs’ version of a “DA” (“domain authority”) score.

Often these players will buy high DA domains that have recently expired. Then they fill the site with low-quality junk from anyone who wants a guest post and a link.

The Role of Spam Blogs and Private Blog Networks (PBNs)

At the center of these link farms are spam blogs (splogs). These are websites created with the sole purpose of selling links.

As a result, they often (but not always) featured an odd mix of topics. One splog we saw featured cover stories on:

  • How to buy a tractor
  • How to cure toe fungus
  • How to sew your own prom dress.

In other cases, the website may be on a single broad topic like healthcare or finance. In these cases, it may be hard for a novice to detect the site is a splog.

Commonly, splogs are part of a Private Blog Network (PBN). A PBN is a ring of multiple splogs controlled by one entity.

Sometimes paid link operators strive to create at least one spam blog that appears to be legitimate. These efforts typically fall short.

Why all this effort? There’s big money in PBNs.

Researchers estimate some entities are earning $100k/month and more selling links on splogs and PBNs.

pbn paid links packages
The site above openly advertises PBN links, with packages ranging up to $1380.

High-Level Players

The last group are high-level players who have profitable websites in very competitive niches.

They’ll cut backroom paid link deals with a select few but will carefully avoid any mention of this on their site.

The sites they do business with would be high-quality sites in a niche that’s complementary (but not directly competitive) to their own. So these links would also benefit their readers.

The high-level player may also decide to negotiate ongoing link exchanges instead, via guest posts. In this case, they’ll bypass fees.

Their leverage is they occupy a favorable ranking in an industry that’s nearly impossible to get traction in.

And that brings us to what may seem like a contradiction: why some SEO consultants advise their clients to pay for links.

This is an open secret discussed in various quarters, including in industry blogs such as the Link Research Tools blog.

The consultant’s recommendation would be for the links from high-quality sites.

And their reasons are those we’ve listed: for the most competitive niches, it may be perceived as impossible for a site to advance far enough in rankings to become profitable without paying for links.

Most sites engaged in black hat SEO link-building will wind up penalized, though.

The best alternative is to earn links.

What are earned links? These are backlinks from sites that find your content to be helpful, interesting, and beneficial for their readers.

Start with a goal to create 1-3 “share-worthy” pieces of high-quality content, on topics that are relevant to your audience.

Choose a keyword first. (New to keyword research? Start with this beginners’ guide.)

The overall goal will be to create content that’s better than the competition’s, so you can rank well in Google search results and attract links.

Optimize Your Content for Search Engines

Next, learn how to optimize that content for search engines. Remember: the higher your content ranks, the more links it will attract.

This is where a plugin like All in One SEO (AIOSEO) comes in. It analyzes your content and provides simple recommendations.

Click on the All in One SEO sidebar to get recommendations for boosting your SEO.

The plugin has thousands of 5-star reviews on WordPress.org and it’s currently used by over 3 million people.

Get started by downloading All in One SEO (AIOSEO).

aioseo homepage

One of the key benefits of using All in One SEO is it simplifies SEO. You’ll learn by doing. And the plugin will provide your action steps.

To get started, explore these options:

Rich snippets typically lead to higher click-through rates (CTRs), and that can lead to more backlinks.

rich snippets example
These eye-catching search results are called rich snippets. Creating rich snippets is easy with All in One SEO.

You can add schema for all sorts of articles, including

Once your share-worthy content is optimized, make a list of sites that may be interested in linking to it.

Your list might include bloggers, podcasters, or local reporters who cover that topic.

Next, create an email to tell them about the article and to ask them to share it.

  • Make the email short and conversational.
  • Highlight why your article is of value for their audience.

What’s Next?

We hope this post helped you learn what paid links are, why some pursue them, and why they may result in penalties or fail to boost your SEO.

Next, explore the difference between referring domains and backlinks. Check out our link building guide. And find out how to turn your traffic into leads.

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author avatar
Sherrie Gossett Content Writer
Sherrie is an SEO nerd based in New Hampshire in the United States. When she’s not busy researching, implementing, and writing about new SEO developments, she can be found hiking and playing guitar.

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