digital marketing
By Carrie-ann | Mar 10, 2014 | SEO

What Are Paid Links?

When Matt Cutts, Google’s head of Web Spam speaks, people in the internet marketing community listen. On 3 March Google released a video in which Matt details how Google determines what paid links are. What stands out for me is the way he draws parallels between deception via linking and other marketing codes such as that produced by the FTC (Online Ads Guidance). The point is marketing should never deceive its intended audience whether online or not.

Google’s contention is of course, paid links are undeserved and a form of manipulation. They are intended to give the recipient kudos they don’t deserve.  As you might expect Google is on the case. It is the job for the web spam team, headed by Matt, to determine what links are likely to be paid whether money has changed hands or not. Even if you don’t buy links as such, Google may still conclude you’re guilty of some form of manipulation. The penalties are severe and links can command penalties for additional reasons including issues with anchor text. That said, the focus here is on how Google determines whether a link is “paid”.

Much of this new video focused on intention from either party. Matt Cutts refers to “bad intent” when there is an expectation of a favour. For example, if you give someone a £5 hat, there may be no expectation the recipient has to do anything. But if you give away £500 worth of clothes there may be an expectation they are supposed to do something in exchange for the gift.  This becomes clearer when I go through the various (but not exhaustive, Google likes to hold something back) ways Google determines whether a link is “paid”.

Is the link a gift or loan?

As mentioned above significant gifts can influence behaviour. A loan on the other hand implies there is no lasting benefit to the recipient. In the example above, if the clothes were loaned by a designer to a photographer for a photo shoot, then the expectation would be both parties benefited from that arrangement without any need for additional benefit. Another example would be a car magazine being loaned or given a car for a review. If the car was a gift the expectation might be the reviewer had to be positive about the car. Significant gifts influence behaviour and in ways that aren’t always for the better. They influence judgement.

How close is the Value to Money?

Not all paid links involve money but they can be “close to money”. A free trial or sample may not influence behaviour that much.  However, linking in exchange for say a gift card or voucher with a high monetary value may influence behaviour. Another example would be someone leaving a significant tab behind a bar for a third party. We are talking champagne bars rather than a half of lager.

Is the Benefit a Surprise or Not?

Let’s revisit the car magazine example for a moment. If a journalist is given access to a car and a track for a day so they can review a new model they wouldn’t be surprised. However if they were actually given the car on a permanent basis they would be surprised. The latter example suggests the intention to influence.

Intent of the Audience

This is slightly more subtle.  Think of a mobile phone conference where free hats are given away. These low value freebies won’t influence the behaviour of the audience much. But what if the same conference gave away smartphones to bloggers? The expectation would be that the bloggers would write about the conference.
And finally there are of course paid links where one webmaster sets out his stall to offer links in exchange for cash. This is so old hat now, but clearly some individuals still persist.  If you participate in such an exercise it won’t end well. Businesses wouldn’t get away with comparable manipulation in the offline world. It’s also true, illustrated by my examples above, no money needs to change hands for Google to make the conclusion links are “paid”.
I hope this answers your question as to what are paid links.
You can also view the video from Matt Cutts below