What Is A “Paid Link”?
Today I wanted to talk about paid links, and specifically,
what are the Web Spam Team’s criteria for paid links?
Now, this is kind of interesting,
because the vast majority of the time, things
are incredibly clear.
People are paying money outright for links based on page rank,
flowing the page rank, trying to get higher rankings.
So here’s an example spam email that I got.
“We are offering our high-quality, genuine PR
five-to-nine sites for selling text links.
We maintain these quality with our sites.”
And they talk about unique content
with maximum of five outbound links.
They’re selling these no fake PR, no drop domains,
that sort of thing.
So 99.9% of the time, it’s abundantly clear
that these are links that are being bought and paid and sold
and all that sort of stuff.
But every so often, people like to split hairs
and they’ll ask questions, like, OK, Matt,
but what about if I don’t give the guy money,
but maybe I buy him some beer and some pizza,
and then he happens to write about my site?
Those sorts of things.
So I wanted to walk through the criteria
that we use when we assess whether a link would be paid
And the main thing that I want to say up front
is, these are some of the criteria, but just like the web
spam guidelines, basically say, look,
anything that’s deceptive or manipulative or abusive we
reserve the right to take action on.
It’s the same sort of thing.
If we see a new technique that people
are trying to exploit people’s trust or something like that,
we’re willing to take action on that as well.
But if you look at it in a pretty clear lens,
you can see that people like the Federal Trade
Commission, the FTC, have actually defined, what does it
mean to have a material connection if you
And so if I don’t cover the criteria or the examples
that you’d be interested in, I would actually
encourage this check out the FTC’s guidelines
on that, or similar guidelines from other governmental
agencies, because we actually hew pretty closely
to the spirit behind those.
So first off, what is the value of what you’re getting?
Even Google’s Code of Conduct recognizes that if you get
a $1.00 pen or something like that,
that might not change your behavior.
And so if you go to a conference,
and you pick up a free t-shirt that’s probably
pretty low-quality, that’s probably not
going to change how you behave.
That’s not going to change your behavior.
On the other hand, if you someone pays you outright $600
to link to you, that is clearly a lot of value.
And so on the spectrum between a pen and a t-shirt,
all the way up to something of great value,
that’s one of the criteria that we use.
Another good one is, how close is something to money?
So, again, the vast majority of the time, people
are actually giving you money.
Sometimes people might say something
like, hey, I’d like to send you a gift card.
Well, you know what?
Gift cards are pretty fungible.
You can convert those to money and back and forth not too
On the other hand, something like,
I’m going to give you a free trial of perfume,
or I’m going to buy you a beer, or something like that–
that’s less of a connection.
But we do look at how close something is to actual money
whenever we’re looking at those kinds of things.
If somebody goes in buys you a dinner,
and then you write a blog post four months later,
and the dinner wasn’t some huge steak dinner with 18 courses,
or something like that, that’s probably not the sort of thing
that we would worry about as, as you would guess.
Another criterion that we use is whether something
is a gift or a loan.
So imagine, for example, that somebody loaned out
a car for someone to try out for a week versus giving them
There’s a big difference there.
Because if you’re loaned a car for a week,
you still have to maintain the insurance on your car.
You still have to make sure you’ve got a place to store it.
Whereas if someone gives you a new car,
that is it something of a completely different nature.
And so if somebody’s giving you a review copy
and you have to return it, that’s a relatively
well-respected thing where people understand,
OK, I’m trying this out.
I’m a gadget reviewer, or whatever.
I get to see whether I like this camera or whatever,
but I do have to send it back.
Whereas if someone sends you a camera and then says,
oh, you know what, just keep it, that’s
going to be something that’s much closer to material
compensation, in our opinion.
We also look at the intended audience.
And it can be hard to judge intent, but bear in mind
that the vast majority of the time, the intent
is crystal clear when someone’s giving you actual money
to buy links.
But for example, suppose someone went to a sales force
So they’re at Dreamforce, and they represent a nonprofit.
And so they manage to say, OK, I’m a nonprofit.
I’d like to try out your service.
And so, at sales force conference, or Dreamforce,
they got a year’s free use of the service.
Now, the intent there was not to get someone
to embed paid links within an editorial blog post.
The intent was to try to sign somebody up, see how they liked
They can be someone who could tell other people about it.
Maybe it’s a subscription or a trial where
they get six months free, and then
after that, they have to either convert
or start paying money, or something along those lines.
That is something where the intent is not
trying to get links for SEO value.
It’s so that people can try it out.
Similar sort of thing if you go to a conference, right?
And it’s intended for programmers,
like Google I/O. And you’re giving them a Nexus 7,
or something like that, because you
want them to write more Google Apps for tablets,
or something along those sorts of lines.
The difference would be, we have encountered
people who are supposed to be reporters, who would say,
if you give us a laptop, then we will write a nice story
And it’s giving me a laptop, not borrowing a laptop.
I’ve certainly dealt with a few consultants who said something
like, if you make sure that I get a really nice monitor,
I’ll make sure that your report from this consultancy
looks really good.
And that’s not the sort of thing that we do,
and it’s not the sort of thing that we
would want to– you would want that to be disclosed.
So another thing to consider is whether it would be a surprise.
So if you’re a movie reviewer, it’s not a surprise
that somebody probably lets you into the theater,
and maybe you watch the movie for free.
That’s not something that’s going to be a surprise.
If it was a reporter for a tech blog,
and they said, give me a laptop, and I get to keep it,
that would be a surprise, and it was
something that was not reviewing the laptop.
It was just like, I’ll write about your startup
if you give me a laptop.
That would be the sort of thing that
really should be disclosed.
So when you’re looking at the criteria,
first off, it’s how close is it to money,
and how valuable is it?
Because it’s normally money, and it’s normally
the amount of money they’re paying to get links.
We look at whether it’s a gift, whether it’s
a loan, the intended audience– if somebody’s
trying to get you to try out the product versus trying to get
you to write about it, sponsored blog posts,
and we’ll give you a little bit of free merchandise,
but we really want you to write about it–
those sorts of things.
And then criteria like, would it be a surprise?
Would people expect that as you’re writing a review,
or you’re trying out some product?
Or is it something that’s completely off-topic
that is really not germane to writing
about in a particular blog post, or something like that?
So that gives you a little bit of the idea
of the sorts of things that we look at.
Again, most the time, it’s really clear
because money is changing hands.
But, in general, those are the sorts
of things that we look at.
If you have more questions, I’d encourage
you to check out the FTC’s guidelines.
They’ve got a lot of different examples,
and most of the stuff that we view
falls right down the same principles as the FTC.
Hope that helps.