When does it make sense to buy links


OK so I know the fashion for SEO blogs these days is bashing link buying or ‘outing’ sites or agencies who are doing it but allow me to play devils advocate for a minute. Forget about ‘ethics’, ‘outing’ or the threat of penalties for a couple of minutes and bare with me while I discuss the right time and place to buy links.

Despite what certain figures in the SEO world would like you to believe buying links is still a pretty integral part of the SEO process for many sites in competitive industries. I have no idea how much the text link industry is worth but I’d speculate hundreds of millions annually- after all Google see it as a big enough threat to their own ad income to have a whole department dedicated to trying to police it.

I think there’s a few reasons link buyings got such a bad rep these days

  • People remember TLA and the mess left when Google kicked that network into touch.
  • There’s a huge plethora of new and even dirtier link buy/ sell networks which continue to pop up and offer absolutely no value to advertisers
  • People associate link buying with sites from dirty industries like gambling
  • It’s a bit of a shady world dominated by under the table, under the radar deals completed over Paypal

This is all fair enough and I see why SEO agencies in particular try to steer clear. Not least of course because every penny a client spends on links they could be spending on ‘link bait’!

Problems with competitor link analysis

Here’s how most webmasters go about buying links.

“our competitors have got links on these 20 sites. We’ll buy links in all the same places and then find a few extra sites to get links from and we’ll outrank them”

This approach is flawed in so many ways I almost don’t know where to start. By using competitor link analysis to find paid link opportunities you’re starting a game of catch up which you can never win.

While the theory of co-citation analysis is sound, what it doesn’t account for is the effect of link age. If you’re competitors already had a link in place for 6 months, a year, maybe more, any link you buy on the same pages isn’t going to be as valuable, because it’s not as old. At the same time for every new outbound link which is added to a page the value of all the other links on that page goes down so while you may be able to buy identical links to your competitors you will never be able to get the same value from them as they have. Furthermore you’re likely to end up paying more than your competitor for the same link because webmasters know you’re going to want it more.

So you’re paying more for links which aren’t as good- not a smart strategy.

The other thing this approach doesn’t take into account is what your competitors are doing right now. Maybe another competitor will come in behind you and buy the same links as you, diluting the value of your link down again- now the link which you might of decided was worth £50/month last week when there was only 1 other outbound link on the page is probably only worth £40 with 2 other links on the page so you’re now tied into overpaying for a link just to keep up with your competitors. Where does it end?!

As a result of this what you see in most industries is the sites who got in early, brought links aggressively back when everyone was doing it and have left them in place continue to dominate. While new entrants can have some success, you can never win at SEO by playing this game of cat and mouse.

So when is the right time to buy links?

Paid links should only ever be the last resort and never the default type of link building which you turn to first, early on in your campaign. This is simply a question of economics. It takes time for the links you buy to deliver improved rankings. Unlike conventional advertising when you’re getting value from the time your ads go live on a site, with text links you might have to wait months to start scraping back the money you’ve paid out for your links. That means you need to minimise the time you’re paying for a link which isn’t delivering rankings. So quite simply, the higher you’re ranking when you start paying for the link, the shorter time that links going to be a loss-leader.

Again most link buyers don’t take this into account. They’ll buy links for a site which is ranking nowhere because it’s the quickest way to get the site to rank somewhere. But nowadays you can’t buy a new site straight to the top in any semi-competitive industry.

To give another hypothetical example let’s say you set up a £10k/ month cost base with paid links for a newish site and it takes 6 months to get that site onto page 1 of google for whatever keyword you’re targeting. That’s wiped £60k straight away from the value of that first page position.

(I started drawing a stack graph to illustrate this example but gave up, I’m sure you can picture what it would of looked like!)

So to spell it out.

  • Do everything you can to get links without buying them.
  • Push your site as high as you can with non-paid link building before you buy links
  • When you buy links target your highest ranking keywords first, that way they’ll start paying for themselves quicker and the indirect effect of the link on your “domain authority” should also improve lower performing keywords as a by-product, thereby reducing the requirement for more paid links for those other keywords.

Think of your link building project as a marathon, and paid links are the bit of energy you keep in reserve for a sprint finish once all your competitors have burnt out!

Managing risk

If you’re concerned about the risk of getting penialised by Google for your link buying then this is definitely the safest approach to take as well.

The reality of paid link penalties when they happen (which is historically rare but perhaps getting more common) is that the buying site doesn’t get penialised at all. All the sites which they’ve brought links from get hit with a penalty meaning they no longer pass ‘link juice’. When this happens top ranking sites which only had paid links see a big ranking drop because it’s as if all their links have been removed at once meaning they go back in the rankings to around where they would of been without any paid links. This is often mistakenly called a ‘penalty’, where actually it’s just Google resetting the rankings to how they would have been before any paid link manipulation.

If you’ve only used paid links to get you from the bottom of page 1 to the top then even if the worst did happen, the lowest you’re likely to drop in any reshuffle of the rankings is back to the bottom of the first page- not ideal, but not the end of the world either.

The other reason you don’t want to buy links from the same sites as your competitors is that you don’t want to go down with their ship. If all the sites they’ve brought links from get hit with a penalty you’re going to see the same drop in rankings as them. If you’ve sourced your own link prospects these are unlikely to get penialised, at least not at the same time, as your competitors linking sites so you benefit from their misfortune.

Feel free to disagree with any of my points here in the comments…