What are Paid Links in SEO? (+Risks You Need To Know)

Brody Hall
Mar 15, 2024
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Google preaches that “content is king,” authority isn’t that important, and paid links are forbidden. But, as anyone who has been in the SEO industry long enough knows too well, what Google warns against and what real-world experience tells us are often worlds apart.

To cut through the noise, I’m going to break down the fors and the againsts of paid links.

Spoiler alert: things aren’t always so black and white—often, they are grey.

What are Paid Links?

Paid links are backlinks acquired by payment or exchange of value—money, free products, services, or anything else Google might deem a reason for linking outside of editorial merit.

Paid links can include

  • sponsored posts,
  • guest posts,
  • link placements (or niche edits),
  • and product reviews.

In contrast, organic links are placed voluntarily by a website because they view your content as valuable, and earned links are backlinks you gain through outreach efforts like providing expert insights on HARO.

Google’s Official Stance vs. The Real World

Officially, paid links are against Google’s guidelines. The search engine wants you to earn backlinks naturally—something they call organic link building.

In this video, Matt Cutts defines paid links as ” People paying money outright for links based on page rank, flowing the page rank, trying to get higher rankings.” He then gives examples of scenarios that would make a paid link a paid link, including mentions of exchanging pizza, beer, and $1 pens.

Pizza, beer, and pens? It’s ambiguity overload. Matt also forgets to mention how Google can tell the difference—an admission not missed by the video’s audience.

If you scroll down to the comments, you’ll notice some pushback. The first commenter asks, “How would Google know if I bought them a pizza or an 18-course dinner?”

Someone else says, “This video is pretty weird because it gives the criteria Google looks for when assessing whether or not a link is “paid,” but it doesn’t give us the slightest inkling as to HOW they begin to make these assessments. Am I missing something? How would Google know if money changed hands?”

Matt didn’t answer these questions, but the below section does.

How Google Knows if You Bought Backlinks

Here are some ways the search engine can tell between a paid and an organic link:

Obvious Red Flags

  • A sudden increase in backlink growth (high link velocity).
  • A disproportionate number of links from low-quality or spammy sites.
  • Overly optimized or irrelevant anchor texts that are used consistently.
  • Unnatural link placement, sitewide links, or links within manipulative networks.

Advanced Detection Methods

  • Identifying groups of sites primarily engaged in link selling (PBNs).
  • Investigating sites suspected of violating guidelines (manual reviews).

Caveat: Here’s the catch for Google, though. Their systems are far from perfect. If you’re informed about buying backlinks, meaning you aren’t participating in blatant link-building schemes, it can be challenging for Google to know whether a site is paying for links or not. This imperfect system is why selling and buying links remain so common.

Just Google “link-building services.” You’ll see for yourself.

Why Backlinks Matter, Even If Google Says They Don’t

Backlinks are the most potent way to signal to Google that your website is an authoritative force, ripe with high-quality information that Google users will absolutely love. The more authority your website signals, the higher Google is likely to rank your content on the search engine results pages (SERPs). This isn’t just a hunch. When asked about the most important ranking signals, Google’s Andrey Lipattsev once stated, “I can tell you what they are… it’s content and links pointing to your site.”

Despite Andrey’s statement, which Google has repeatedly echoed, some company spokespeople have recently suggested that backlinks aren’t as strong as people think.

When Google’s Gary Illyes was recently (September 2023) asked at an AMA (Ask Me Anything) at Pubcon Pro whether backlinks were still a top three ranking factor, Illyes stated, “I think they are important, but I think people overestimate the importance of links. I don’t agree it’s in the top three. It hasn’t been for some time.”

John Mueller has also shared Illyes’ sentiment. In 2020, Mueller stated, “Links are definitely not the most important SEO factor.”

The problem for these gentlemen is that there is plenty of evidence to counter their statements. I delve deeper into this evidence in just a moment.

Before we do, though, why don’t we quickly speculate on why company representatives like Gary and John would steer us away from the importance of building backlinks?

Google is always fighting black hat practices that aim to manipulate search results. Releasing how its algorithms work, in this case, how much weight it places on inbound links, exposes its preferences to scammers. This, of course, invites nefarious actors to exploit Google’s algorithmic preferences and cause mayhem on the SERPs.

Google does a fine job of this themselves. Zing!

Challenging Google: Loganix’s Evidence-Based Argument

All right, hot take: contrary to recent sentiment from Google, links are very likely a top-three ranking signal.

Just check out these three websites—a budding website that’s quite literally just starting out, a medium-sized website that’s been around for quite a while, and a large website that gets millions of monthly views. Check out how organic traffic closely follows referring domains.

The newly launched, budding website:

The mid-sized yet very respectable DR website:

And the large ranking-for-nearly-two-million-keywords website:

Those orange lines seem to be tracking awfully close to the blue lines, don’t they?

Okay, a bit of correlation = causations going on there, perhaps. I’ll give you that. As further evidence, let’s turn to a platform that Google has been ranking as an authoritative source of information recently: Reddit. Here are some Reddit users discussing the nuances of paid links. The OP of this post asks:

The top reply:

Great points. The following most upvoted comment:

These are more great points that further speak to the link-building successes experienced by budding, mid-sized, and large websites.

Not every backlink will boost rankings, though. In fact, backlinks originating from low-quality, spammy sites will do quite the opposite.

The Problem With 99 Percent of Link-Building “Services”

Here’s a spam email I received a little over a week ago. My inbox is flooded with them. First, it’s very low-effort outreach because if Josh Mitchell (I’d bet my bottom dollar that’s not this person’s name) did their due diligence, they’d know Loganix is a link-building service provider. We ain’t in need of someone else’s services—particularly at this low caliber. I mean, the email landed in my spam folder. It’s not a good start for “Josh.”

As indicated by the arrows above, I clicked on the first two websites for research purposes.

My antivirus protector, Bitdefender, flagged the first site. It’s pretty safe to say that a backlink from this website isn’t exactly going to be “high-quality.” Malware is a likely culprit.

The second website looked like this. It’s built on a free WordPress theme, and, as you can see from the topics covered in this screenshot, it covers an array of different topics. The topics below the fold tell the same story. They are all over the place. A sure sign that Google won’t view this website as an authoritative source of information on any subject. Using Originality.ai, I also tested the “The Power of Interpretation” post for AI writing. You’ll never guess… Yep, it returned a test result of 100 percent AI writing.

I did some further digging on Ahrefs. It looks like this website was launched only 2-3 weeks before I wrote this post. The email claims this website receives 5,600 clicks a month, but I’m not so sure that’s true either.

Collectively, these signals point to only one thing: Google will view this website as spammy AF. Even if a backlink from it only costs $10, it’s definitely not something you’d want pointing to your website. No, let me rephrase that. It’s definitely not the type of backlink you want pointing at your website.

Why waste your money and risk your site’s reputation? After all, $10 is $10. You might as well keep that money in your pocket and stay on theme with Matt Cutt’s sentiments: buy yourself a cold beer.

The Smart Way to Use Paid Links: The Loganix Difference

Forget the spammy approach. Here’s how Loganix’s approach to link-building looks:

Strategic Sourcing

We understand that link quality is far more important than quantity. Unlike those spammy emails promising thousands of cheap links, we prioritize finding sites that align with your audience and are likely to pass long-term value.

Diversification is Key

The smartest SEO never relies on a single tactic. We’ll help you build a balanced backlink profile, combining any paid links with the safer, long-term gains of earned links through content, outreach, and other white hat strategies.

The Proof is in the Pudding

Don’t just take our word for it. Clients like Rankings.io have seen firsthand how our approach delivers results. Their in-house team struggled to build authority backlinks to the site. Thanks to the help from our link-building team, Rankings.io secured a bunch of high-quality backlinks and is now getting seven times more keywords on the first page of Google. Nice!

Read the Rankings.io case study here.

Conclusion and Next Steps

Nathan Gotch, co-founder of Gotch SEO, says it best: “There isn’t one way to do SEO. Choose your methods based on your risk tolerance.”

That’s at the core of what we’ve explored today. Building backlinks is a non-negotiable, but that isn’t to say that some approaches don’t come with a level of risk. At Loganix, we understand this.

Whether your goal is the long game of earned links, carefully incorporating paid links, or a balanced strategy, we will help you build a backlink profile designed for sustainable SEO success.

🚀 Ready to dominate the search results? Head over to our link-building services today. 🚀

Hand off the toughest tasks in SEO, PPC, and content without compromising quality

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Written by Brody Hall on March 15, 2024

Content Marketer and Writer at Loganix. Deeply passionate about creating and curating content that truly resonates with our audience. Always striving to deliver powerful insights that both empower and educate. Flying the Loganix flag high from Down Under on the Sunshine Coast, Australia.