The Great Link Buying Debate

I've just returned from Search Engine Strategies San Jose 2007. This is the first time I've gone to the San Jose conference and expo. I don't know what I was waiting for. It was a great show in a great city. I'll definitely be adding it to my yearly tour schedule.

Buying Paid Links

The topic of links was in no short supply – particularly paid links. There is a great deal of discussion raging right now about what was important to take away from SES San Jose 2007 about paid links. Do a search at blogsearch.google.com for a phrase like "ses san jose paid links," and you can read all about it to your heart's content.

Virtually every side of this issue has been beaten to death. And, ultimately, nothing has changed since the beginning of the debate. If you believe in buying links, you are going to continue to buy links. If you don't, you won't.

But, like all topics, buying credibility or exposure in any realm is never as black and white as we would all like to believe. My wife, Rocky, worked in the print publishing world for years. Who do you think got feature stories written about them? The companies that spent the most money with the magazine, of course. I have a friend who does search engine optimization in one specific field. He calls up his blogger friends in that industry and asks them to do a "review" or two of a "new and exciting" company he just happened to get as a client. He's wildly successful in his optimization.

It's all very grey, and the debate itself is meaningless, in my opinion. Everyone is so focused on where the next link is going to come from, they forget why they were supposed to be getting links in the first place. Let me refresh your memory.

Before Google...

Before Google, the big search engine was AltaVista. It still exists, if you want to go check it out for fun. Clients would come to me myopically focused on AltaVista. They just wanted to come up for their major key phrases in AltaVista. If they weren't successful in AltaVista, the whole campaign was a failure.

It's pretty funny thinking about it now. But it was painfully serious at the time. There were two reasons people stopped visiting AltaVista: old results and poor relevancy. AltaVista took forever to update its search index. And, when they did update, the results were not particularly great.

Link Popularity

Along came Google. Why was it successful? When you typed in a search query, the results you got were great. You quickly found what you were looking for. You loved it, and you told your friends about it. Google didn't need to advertise. Google was so great at doing what it did, it changed the face of search by creating the largest viral campaign in history.

You know why Google was so great, right? It was because its algorithm relied heavily on link popularity. The Web sites that linked to you gave Google great insight into what you were about and how important you were in the Web landscape. Google also did a great job of refreshing its index on a regular basis.

So, poof, Google now has between 50 percent and 60 percent of the U.S. search landscape and oftentimes a much greater portion of search share in other countries.

To Buy or Not to Buy

It's easy to see why both sides are so impassioned about the link buying debate. In order for Google to continue to be successful, links need to be organic, deserved, and free. In order for everyone else to be successful on the behemoth, Google, they have to buy links because they aren't creative enough to generate something worth linking to. Clearly we have a love-hate relationship going on here.

Here’s a fun analogy: In an ideal world, Americans would drive less and reduce their global carbon footprint, and businesses would make useful, interesting sites that others would believe were valuable enough to link to. When’s that happening? Only when the pain of status quo practices outweigh the pain of doing something different. In other words, when gas goes to $10 a gallon and when buying links gets you thrown out of the search engines, then you’ll see some change.

Until then, carry on.

About the author

Sage Lewis started his online marketing company, SageRock.com, in 1999 during a time when most Internet companies were failing. SageRock, however, has thrived under Lewis’ direction -- growing an average of 30% every year, while also being recognized as one of the top ten search engine optimization firms in the U.S. by a third-party resource in the industry, Marketing Sherpa.

Regarded as a web marketing expert, Lewis speaks regularly to business organizations like NEOSA and COSE, serves as a resource for press about industry trends, and teaches a recurring class on search engine optimization at Cleveland State University.

Lewis has created a unique company culture that values the individual employee and client, and he has built SageRock around one principle, “The concern, respect and empathy for the individual people we come in contact with at SageRock is our single core value.”

Lewis lives in Akron with his wife, Rocky, and son, Indiana.

Read more of Sage Lewis's columns at ClickZ.