A Practical Guide to Buying Links in 2020

Jake Sheridan
Apr 22

It’s no secret that Google uses links to help them rank websites and climb the SERPs. And thanks to updates like Penguin, the search engine now focuses on link quality over sheer amount of links.

Semi-controversial opinion time:

Sometimes, buying backlinks is the best link building strategy.

Link buying has many shapes and forms. Some black hat, some white hat, others somewhere between.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • How links are being bought/sold today
  • How to hire good link vendors every time
  • How to ensure quality links every time

Sound good?

But before we get started, let’s address the elephant in the room:

Should you even buy backlinks?

It would be an understatement to say that a lot has changed about buying backlinks.

Google is much better at figuring out which links are relevant and which ones aren’t.

Buying any and every link is no longer an effective strategy.

On top of that, you will hear a lot of people tell you not to buy backlinks at all because it’s black hat and that Google will penalize your site if they figure out that you paid for links.

But here’s the thing:

No matter how you do it, you’re still buying links.

But is that true? Is there a way to buy backlinks in a safe way that won’t get your site penalized?

First, let’s lay out a definition:

What is backlink buying?

Buying a backlink refers to any time that you pay another website to add a link of any type back to yours.

This could be:

  • sponsored posts
  • guest posts
  • link placements (or niche edits)
  • product reviews
  • or any link that you paid to have published on another site

It also includes if you send a free product or pay for someone to try a service to write a review.

Why should you consider buying links?

Aside from the fact all the cool kids are doing it:

  • More link buying than ever before
  • All shades of hat, all sizes of companies
  • As prices rise, more companies are taking a stab at bringing it in house.

Google has gotten much better over the years at figuring out what links have been bought.

At best, they’ll just ignore the SEO value that the link could have passed onto your website. If (and it’s it’s a BIG if) Google determines your link is paid that is. And at worst, they may penalize your website – especially if they find you’re doing it a lot.

Side note: 5 Times Google Penalized Itself For Breaking Its Own SEO Rules 🤦

But that puts website owners and SEO agencies in a tough spot, because backlinks are still a very important rank factor.

SEO is also very competitive. More businesses invest in optimizing their website and improving their search engine rankings.

The truth is that buying links is still a common practice, and there are good reasons you should consider it too:

  • Easier Outreach: reaching out to websites to ask for a link takes a lot of time and can cost money if you use a paid tool to help manage it. Finding websites that accept paid links can make the process a lot quicker.
  • Faster Results: getting a post published or link added to such websites also usually goes much faster. This gets quicker results to improve your Google rankings.
  • Competition: like we said, it’s still a common practice to pay for links and this is especially true in some industries. You can try and avoid it but that will likely hold you back if your competitors are doing it.

The important thing is link relevanceaka to buy quality backlinks that are highly relevant to your website.

Relevance and quality are what Google cares most about, it’s the low quality, irrelevant and spammy links that they don’t like. That’s why buying links can still be effective.

Why should you NOT consider buying SEO backlinks?

However, that doesn’t mean that paid links don’t come with some risk. If you don’t do it right, you can still dig yourself a hole that takes more time, money and effort to get out of again. For some people, that risk is enough that they don’t want to bother with it.

Here are the reasons to NOT buy SEO backlinks if Google figures you out:

  • Waste Money: you can go through the trouble of paying for a link and having it published, only for Google to notice. You’ll have spent the money and not gotten any benefit.
  • Damaged Link Profile: some websites that accept paid links can get penalized by Google. If you have one or more links from them it can damage your whole backlink profile and hurt your rankings.
  • Manual Penalty: if Google thinks that you are practicing a campaign of buying links, they may decide to apply a manual penalty to your website. That can be devastating to any website and takes more time and work to recover from.

Google aren’t dumb. They’ve been playing the cat and mouse game with people trying to game the system for more than two decades now.

What does Google say about paid links?

These are murky waters.

Ultimately, the problems associated with buying links comes from Google’s stance on the matter. Here is what Google says about paid links in their quality guidelines:

Here’s the thing:

If you read the whole page you may come away with the impression that Google is against any kind of link building or solicitation.

That includes just asking for it but not paying. However, the reality shown in tons of studies looking into this question is much different.

You could argue that Google themselves sell paid links through Google Adwords. But that’s an argument for another day.

The truth is that Google doesn’t like extreme manipulation tactics.

They ultimately want to offer a good experience to users. Being tricked into showing a user a lower quality and less relevant website is what they want to avoid at all costs. That’s what will lead to penalties, and that’s why Google often emphasizes natural links.

So how do I get natural backlinks?

Natural links are when you have no say or influence when someone links to your website.

They choose to do it themselves for their own reason. Google’s quality guidelines say that great quality and highly relevant content will lead to people linking to it on their own. This is what they would call “white hat” link building.

There are many benefits to using a strategy around generating natural links:

  • No Outreach: you save time not scouring the internet for relevant sites and trying to contact them to see if they’ll link to you.
  • No Cost: You don’t need to pay for link building tools to help find opportunities or manage your outreach, you just focus on writing your content.
  • Great results: when you hit on a great quality piece of content that goes viral, you will get tons of natural links. That will have a bigger impact on your rankings than buying links one at a time.

So, how much do backlinks cost?

Who’s selling links? The main locations that links can be bought are from:

  • Brokers
  • Manual outreach
  • Webmasters & contributors
  • PBNs

But, what are they selling?

This will vary from site to site, but here are some things you should expect to see:

  • PBNs, disguised as real sites
  • Guest posting sites
  • Links in existing content
  • Community posts (just because comm, doesn’t mean anyone can post)
  • Features/interviews
  • Contextual links on real sites (text links on web pages)tips

The question everyone cares about:

How much do backlinks cost?

How long is a piece of string?

Like many things in SEO, there is no straightforward answer here.

If you are thinking about purchasing links, cost is always going to be a factor. But the cost of backlinks can vary greatly as there are a lot of considerations to make.

We are pretty transparent with our pricing. You can see exactly how much our authority links cost + what kind of metrics they have.

Link building pricing factors

Dozens of different factors go into the cost of a link. Below are some of the most critical factors and the role that they play in the link’s value.

  • Content: Sites with excellent content don’t have trouble finding people who would love to trade links. They can afford to be choosy with their partners and demand higher prices.
  • Creative Control: It’s important to protect your brand’s integrity. However, long lists of standards for acceptable sites will increase the time to place and result in more expensive placements.
  • Brand Strength: A strong brand can save you money in link building. If you have a presence online already, your emails get answered far more often. That leads to quicker offers from valuable partners
  • Link Quality: Sites that are older and have excellent link metrics are naturally going to be much more expensive and difficult to pitch. Many of these sites strictly limit the number of outward links they build in a month, and they’re sitting on backlogs of desperate pitches.
  • Industry: Certain industries attract a lot of traffic with buying intentions. For example, finance bloggers can connect their audience to anything from microlenders to credit card offers. They have a lot of offers. Prices generally go up in any niche dealing with money, including casinos and real estate.
  • In-House Costs: Your in-house costs are part of your expenses if you’re link building on your own. This kind of effort often takes at least a couple of full-time employees.
  • Agency Costs: It will be factored into the costs of your links if you are building as part of an SEO campaign or purchasing À la carte.

Now that you understand the factors let’s take a closer look at what the data says you’ll pay for link building services.

Link building pricing (according to 3 case studies)

Below are three case studies that were performed to look into the question: how much do backlinks cost?

Considering them together, you should begin to have an idea for what the first round of link building will cost you.

1) Ahrefs

Source: Ahrefs 650 Blog Link Building Survey

Ahrefs reached out to nearly 700 websites to find out what bloggers were charging to have links placed. From those numbers, the author created an average for what it costs to place the link.

Takeaways:

  • Notice that the research found many sites that didn’t charge partners for hosting links at all. High-quality partners may care more about the mutual benefit of the link.
  • Remember, this guide is several years out of date. It has been updated several times, but your mileage may vary if you are approaching similar sites now.
  • Average price estimate: $361.44 (excluding labor and outreach costs)

2) Siege Media

Source: Siege Media Link Building Cost Analysis

This analysis comes directly from a renowned content marketing agency. While it doesn’t include direct data, it is based on insights from a lot of experience.

Takeaways:

  • This analysis separates the needs of businesses with low brand requirements and those with strong ones. The difference between what’s acceptable at these levels can range from $150-$1000+
  • Average price estimate: long-term price-per-link of around $500

3) Authority Hacker

Source: Authority Hacker Link Building Services Field Test

This field test saw AuthorityHacker working with six different link building services to determine what they were charging for the average link. they found that there was a vast difference in prices that didn’t always translate to better metrics

Takeaways:

  • Many low-tier link building services delivered PBNs instead of guest posts.
  • Average price estimate: $100-$1000 with wide gulfs in quality

What’s a good cost per link?

The right cost per link will depend on your needs.

While there are cheaper links that don’t appear to be harmful, the data seems to suggest that quality begins at around the $500 level.

It’s still possible to find some useful links at a lower price, but you increasingly run the risk of getting PBNs.

Should you outsource link building?

Outsourcing link building gets a bad rep.

You start thinking of things like this:

No offence Fiverr, but these are not the types of links you want to be outsourcing.

These are the types of outsourced links you want:

An example of our authority links.

Outsourcing your link building can be a good idea when done right.

If your goal is to scale affordably and expand your capability, outsourcing will allow you to adopt a team that already works.

That’s in addition to the other benefits of outsourcing:

  • Save money: Existing teams streamline their operations to outperform in-house teams. If your link building plan is happening in the next year, you aren’t likely to save more by creating an in-house team.
  • Borrow expertise: Get access to all of the SEO experts you need by outsourcing to a complete team with different members handling, strategy, outreach, data, and other functions.
  • Worry less: Meeting your goals is the problem of another team when you outsource your link building. Let them worry about making you happy.
  • Get more insight: An experienced team will be able to tell you more about how your link profile compares to the hundreds of others that they’ve developed.

Buying process (+ FREE checklist)

Before you jump into buying links left, right and centre: temper your expectations.

Keep in mind that:

  • Contributors have bosses to answer to
  • Lots of humans involved in the process
  • Turn around time (TAT) often varies
  • Lots of sites going NoFollow only on outbound links
  • Anything good is going to be over $200/link

What makes a high quality backlink?

This is pretty subjective. But for the sake of clarity, a high quality link is a dofollow backlink from a high authority and niche-relevant site. It can be best summed up like this: it’s the type of backlink you wouldn’t be ashamed to share publicly.

If you are considering buying a link for the first time (or even if you’re a season pro) it’s vital you do some due diligence.

To help, we put together this backlink quality assessment spreadsheet. Work through it, grade your analysis and get a better indication of whether a link is worth getting.

Here’s how to use it:

  1. Run the backlinks you want to check through Ahrefs batch analysis tool and import to the ahrefs-input tab.
  2. Get Moz & Majestic data + add to moz-majestic-input tab. If you have subscriptions, use those tools and just add the data to correct columns (C, G & H). If you don’t, use this for free.
  3. Now you will need to manually grade your results (more on that later).
  4. Play around with the controls and trim your list down to see the good stuff.

You can grab a copy of the Google Sheets template 👉 right here.

1) Assess your minimum criteria

First up, you should think about what your minimum criteria is.

Good vendors will love this as they’ll know what type of links to show you (and which ones not to show you). Bad vendors will probably tell you to take a hike.

Personally, I like to buy Domain Rating/Domain Authority greater than my own site.

2) Run through this backlink quality checklist

When buying backlinks, don’t forget the basics.

To help, we put together this simple backlink buying checklist. Give each check a pass, fail or ok and the sheet will generate you a grade.

You want to check for:

  • DNS, no A record (use this)
  • Domains that include bad words (3Ps)
  • Is it indexed? (don’t forget to check how many pages are indexed too)
  • When you do a Google search for the URL or brand name, does it show up?
  • English TLDs & Language
  • No hyphens in domain

You can obviously take it much further with your checks (and you probably should). Here’s some more specific things to check backlinks for:

Quantitative Criteria

  • DR of >20-30
  • DA or >20-30
  • RDs of >50
  • Organic traffic >500/month
  • >5 pages
  • I also like Majestic TTF and TF to CF ratio
  • No https can be a useful filter
  • >1 change/new piece of content in 30 days

Qualitative Criteria

  • Limited anchor abuse
  • Which RDs and what type of referring link
  • Upwards, organic traffic trajectory
  • > 50% traffic from country of origin
  • Of most recent content, how many read like paid posts? > 50% is a no go.
  • Wayback Machine & Tineye

Side note: more qualitative criteria

  • Unnatural o/b links
  • Who are the authors, where are they from? Are they real?
  • Does the content read like $10 SEO content?
  • ‘Write for us’ can be a bad sign
  • What is the site about, and what do they write about?
  • Free stock photography

3) Ask (the right) questions

Don’t forget the simplicity of just asking a vendor or whoever you are purchasing a link from some questions. Good questions lead to good outcomes.

Here’s some things you could ask:

  • Do I get to see the links first? (deal breaker)
  • What is your relationship with the websites?
  • What is the TAT? If we go beyond? Refund policy?
  • What is your link guarantee? If it goes NF?
  • Samples of recently published links?
  • May I speak to a couple references
  • Will ‘sponsored’ appear in the URL or elsewhere?

Paid link examples to avoid

Here’s a bunch of examples of links you should avoid. Things like: unnatural outbound links, sidebar and footer links, spammy anchors, linking to weird sites

As a general rule, ask yourself: would you click the link? If the answer is no, maybe it’s not a link you want.

Example #1 – Spammy outbound anchor text (on every post)

Example #2 – Footer casino links and essay spam

Example #3 – Poorly written content + fake author

Example #4 – No relevance (+ questionable content quality)

Summary

Now you should be closer to knowing if buying backlinks is for you and how much they (roughly) cost. You should also have a basic understanding of the process of buying and assessing backlinks as part of a link building campaign (and avoiding a Google penalty).

When vetting your links, just remember:

  • Assess each link against your minimum criteria (you ideally want high DA relative to your site)
  • You ideally want Do follow links (not no follow links) so you can pass link juice
  • Run through quality checks for all backlinks (using our simple step by step checklist)
  • Ask (the right) questions to vendors

If you do due diligence, have a solid vetting process and set realistic expectations, buying backlinks can be an effective SEO strategy.

Just remember:

When done properly, there is little risk of penalty because it is almost impossible to distinguish between a paid link and a natural one.

Written by Jake Sheridan on April 22, 2020

Founder of Sheets for Marketers, I nerd out on automating parts of my work using Google Sheets. At Loganix I build products, and content marketing. There’s nothing like a well deserved drink after a busy day spreadsheeting.

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A Practical Guide to Buying Links in 2020 (+ FREE Checklist)

Buying backlinks can be a dirty word in some SEO circles, but it doesn’t have to be. So we put together this practical guide to buying links in 2020.