Ok, technically anyone who hires an SEO to do link building is doing paid linking. They are paying someone with expertise and dedicated resources to do link building and much of the time it is specifically to manipulate Googles search results. It does not make good business sense to rely only on organic links to compete for search results. This may work for Brand related searches. If you are interested in ranking for any generic terms however, you will need some help or to spend your own resources doing the link building; neither of which is free. Paying someone to do link building is different than paying for a link, but both have the same goal.
While Google may want all links to be organic, I believe that they know that is not even close to within the realm of possibility. They know that non-organic link building will always be a part of the search landscape and have begrudgingly come to terms with the issue. Understandably however, Google has to draw a line somewhere. Its up to us as SEOs to understand where that line is and for the sake of our clients, not to cross it.
So where does Google draw the line?
Normally I would say intent. This is the ad hoc metric Google uses to determine whether something is evil or not. If the intent is obviously to manipulate their results, then more often than not it gets a busted. However, since almost all link building is done with the intention of improving a pages/sites position in search results, intent cannot be that line.
Par for the course with Google, the line is a little fuzzy. They can tell us something is not acceptable on one hand then on the other, SEOs show us that it clearly has impact. Google does not think it is fuzzy at all by the way. They tell us what they expect and lead us to believe they have the technology to enforce it. SEOs have shown over and over again that their enforcement tends to have holes.
Examples on both sides of the line.
The recent J.C. Penney paid linking issue uncovered by the New York Times was an instance where the intent was obviously to influence rankings. Its a great example of either not understanding where the line was or not caring if it was crossed. The search firm who handled the Penneys site either allowed the creation of or actively created thousands of links using paid link networks. With what I personally consider a gross disregard for the basic principles of link building, these links were place on totally non-relevant sites which was the cause of the overall JC Penalty debate started in the New York Times. Google has told us that paid link networks were stepping across the line over and over again.
When was the last time you saw traffic from the Yahoo! Directory in your sites referrals? Thats a $299 a year link and the only reason most people even bother anymore is because of the strength of the site and the potential link juice it can pass. I just checked, those links are still without the no-follow tag. How far would the sales drop if Yahoo! decided to add no-follows; pretty far I am guessing. Quality directories are a rather safe bet from a paid linking standpoint. When a directory is hand edited and is full of useful links across its categories, Google will normally see value in a link on that site and give it a pass.
How to deal with the line.
Lets face it, many clients and unfortunately many SEOs dont have a clear understanding of how much work goes into building quality links. Its a time consuming and expensive process. Remember, I said quality links, sure you can get links cheap, and paying for links is an easy way to get the job done efficiently, hence its popularity. But in this case, cheap and easy usually equal dangerous and risky; just ask J.C. Penney. The tactic of quantity over quality is not viable anymore.
Dealing with the far side of the line is easy. Just stay away from link networks and brokerage houses. If a company has a List of Publishers you can choose from then its most likely not a list you want anything to do with. If a company has an exclusive network of sites, they are probably not sites you want anything to do with. Use common sense, any service that automates a link is probably not a service you want anything to do with. Quality link building is neither cheap nor easy. If a company or service disagrees with this, assume they are on the wrong side of the line.
Draw your own line.
A few weeks ago, Michael Martinez of SEO Theory wrote an article similar to this one. It was somewhat tongue and cheek, but focused on the point that since all linking is paid, its hypocritical to allow some and not others. And it may be, but there is a point at which Google decides that SEOs have gone too far and its at that point that the site or page gets slapped. As SEOs its up to us to decide for ourselves how close to the line we are willing to venture and since its a fuzzy line its a subjective decision. Some SEOs dont mind pushing the limits while others stay as far from the line as possible. In the long run its up to us as SEOs to draw our own line remembering that in most cases it is not our sites which will be in the Google crosshairs if the line is crossed.
Personally, my line was pushed to far beyond my comfort zone where I was before, I am glad to be at a place like SEER where the line is mine to control once again and all the people around me have the same regard for the clients and their sites as I do.
This was my inaugural post here on the SEER blog. I am glad to have both the time and a place to write about the industry I love once again. If you are coming over because I mentioned this post on the SEO101 Radio show, thanks for dropping by.