What Constitutes a Paid Link

Matt Cutts of Google posted a video last week outlining some of the factors that are taken into consideration by his webspam team when deciding if a link is to be considered a poor quality paid for link. To give you some background if you’re not familiar with this, Google’s guidelines forbid selling links and the resulting purchase of links in order to manipulate search rankings.

For some time now many have argued that Google’s view of “paid links” is one dimensional and there are many examples of promotions and services carried out by Google themselves that would constitute a breach of those guidelines and perhaps incur a penalty as a result (incidentally Google has punished other parts of its business in the past but what we’re fundamentally talking about is Google’s core search offering).

In the video Matt talks about several signals that Google use to determine “paid links”

1. How close is the gift or remuneration to money?

It’s clear that if you’re just trying to hide the purchase of a link behind a gift card or some other medium that’s easily transferable (or usable) as currency that’s an attempt to get round the guidelines. What is more acceptable is either a small gift that would be unlikely to influence the individuals likelihood to change their behaviour as a result.

2. Is it a gift or a trial?

A tried and tested tactic for creating a buzz and generating online publicity is to give an individual with a good quality blog or website a product for free in order that they should be expected to write about it and link back to you. Matt states that Google see a loan or trial of a products as not being a problem, allowing somebody to try a product versus giving them one by way of an enticement. Clearly if you’re given a laptop for free there is not only the explicit gratitude for such a gift but also the incentive to deliver what is implicitly expected in return in order to continue to get the freebies in the future.

3. Value

One of the most interesting parts of the video was Matt seemed to suggest Google had a magic figure that constituted the value at which something became an attempt to alter their behaviour. Matt states that a $1 shirt obviously is very different to somebody giving away a smartphone or a tablet (ironic as attendees of Google’s I/O developer conference usually get a boat load of free booty in this vain). What Google sees as this magical figure your guess is as good as mine but if I had to put an exact amount on it I’d say that anything over $30 is more likely to warrant some sort of reciprocal payback.

4. Intention

Has the remuneration been given to the other party with strings attached, or maybe there is an obvious reason for the gift to be given other than to get links. For example when Google give out Google Glass for users to trial they’re giving them out to well known tech bloggers to get their feedback on use rather than because they know they’re going to write about it.

5. Is it to be expected?

As with the above the context and intention are important. If there is a genuine reason for giving something away or remunerating somebody then make sure that is absolutely clear. We all know that a car reviewer is going to be given a free trial of a car, but if somebody were to give me a free car and ask me to write a positive editorial about it there is little expertise I can bring to bear and as such the article I write would be of little value to those seeking genuine information on that subject.

As I’ve covered many times in the past the key is to keep what you’re doing customer focused, sure it important you spread the word about the great things your business does but the starting point is to do great things. Customer service is often poor is the UK so when people genuinely get a fantastic experience they cant wait to share it with others and link building is no exception. Those loyal advocates will not expect to receive payment to link to you, they’ll be happy to do it anyway.

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