You must have been dead to miss the recent uproar about paid links, started by Matt Cutts (Google spokesman) here and here. He wants paid links to be disclosed to their engine, so presumably they can stop them working so effectively. If you need some background info on this story I would suggest reading the following links.
This has sent shockwaves through the paid link industry, which encompasses everyone from small website owners selling links on his blog to link buying marketplaces and paid blog placements. By attacking the industry as a whole Matt has certainly helped to spread the FUD.
As Robert Scoble wrote though, this is probably more of shot across the bow of the public link selling systems such as PayPerPost.
Why does Google care? Well, Google’s relevancy rankings will be hurt if people can buy their way onto their pages instead of earn their way to those search results pages by doing the best content, etc. Lots of people are doing comparisons of Google’s search results to Yahoo, Ask, and Microsoft’s search engines. If Google’s result set isn’t the best Google’s market share will start to go down as people figure out there are better engines out there. That, in turn, will hurt Google’s advertising business.
Not to mention that if advertisers know there’s a cheaper way to get onto Google’s search engine than by buying an ad, they’ll go with that system. So, Google has a LOT of incentive to swat down PayPerPost and pay-per-link style systems.
To clear through some of the FUD though, in most cases there is no way Google can tell if you have paid for a link. As Rae Hoffman writes:
The only way for you, or Google, to know is to guess without access to the accounting books for both sides.
Link buying was around before Google and it’s not going to stop now. However it has to happen under the radar. A point Jim Boykin, often ahead of his time, was making back in 2005. While I agree with many of the points against this clampdown this may not be such a bad thing for SEO.
All power to the pay-per-link systems but they are making the process easier each day. Maturing services like TextLinkAds and ReviewMe almost make the activity a shopping cart experience. In the not to distant future if this trend continues, savvy companies could bypass the online marketer completely to pick up their link portfolio. Even now I’ve seen agents pop up who offer off-the-peg link packages for clients. None of that serves the SEO/SEM industry well if it’s so effective in the SERPs, it will soon become the one-stop solution for online marketing.
Now link building is going to get harder again, and that means more work for the skilled SEO/SEM. What’s the skills? Selecting the right placements for your client on topical and relevant sites or pages. Negotiating with potential link partners by hand on a site-by-site basis, finding virgin territory to make sure you’re not following the main trail left by the herd. Placing links subtly and in relevant places to ensure you stay below the radar or simply coming up with creative ways to get links without direct payment.
Most importantly dealing with paid links as just one aspect of a client’s campaign to ensure their site grows naturally and under the radar of Google.
The link game isn’t over yet. The rules just got changed slightly. As everyone who has been in this industry for some time, that’s just part of the course for an SEO/SEM.