This past year, there's been a lot of discussion about Google frowning upon paid links.
I understand that the best links are "earned." But even that gets a little confusing.
Defining Paid Links
We can assume anything that says "Sponsored By" on a Web site is most likely a paid link. Or, if there's an area of a site that says "We Recommend" or "Supporters," that's probably a pretty good indication of a paid link.
But what about the not-so-obvious ones?
What about a Yahoo Directory listing? Does anyone seriously get much traffic from a Yahoo directory listing? Yet, every SEO I know recommends their clients get a Yahoo Directory listing (because "it's a good link to have"). And, more than likely, your SEO will recommend Business.com listings ($299 each), Best of the Web listings ($249.95), or any number of other paid directory listings.
Paid links? I'm certainly not buying them for the traffic. You?
Press Release Optimization
No doubt, there's value to submitting press releases. You can conjure up some decent traffic from submitting these things.
But, if you're an SEO, you're undoubtedly adding some keyword-rich text links to your press release. Are these paid links?
Now, what about a company that provides a free service in order to gain links? StatCounter's Web site has a Google PageRank of 9. How many Web sites do you know of that have that high a Google PageRank value? Not many. Then, because of this very high PageRank (at least in part), StatCounter is able to sell links from their Web site to others.
Here's an example of these (hidden) links:
Guess where StatCounter ranks for "free Web tracker" searches on Google?
They're number one, naturally.
Paid links? I don't know. They're providing a free service. Perhaps they earned the links. Then again, they're reselling the value of these links to their advertisers.
So, on the flip side of things, they're brokering PageRank by -- in effect -- selling links. I know of several interactive marketing firms using hit counters and WordPress template "sponsorship" to gain links.
Social Media Marketing
You pay someone to solicit the social media networks. Perhaps you even provide power bloggers with samples of your product, so they'll write about you.
Sure, you earned the link. You provided something of value. You made the effort to market your business so that people/bloggers will link to you. Still, it's paid.
Reaching Out to Your Partners/Vendors
Certainly these aren't paid links...or, are they? Well, considering that, more than likely, your partners are getting business from you, and your vendors are getting money from you, I guess you could argue that these are paid links.
Again, I'm confused.
I've always considered myself a white-hat SEO, but now I'm not so sure. I recommend Yahoo Directory listings, Business.com listings, optimized press releases, paid search marketing, and social media. Each of these "may" generate direct traffic. However, more often than not, these are all working together toward their complete "turn key" SEO efforts.
What's the alternative? That we don't promote our client's Web sites? Do only the largest of companies get the links for having "cool" content? Let's face it: some companies' content just isn't that cool.
And, how did those large companies become large brands? They advertised. They spent money to influence people's perceptions of their brands.
It's natural for companies to promote themselves through paid means. There's a residual effect from paying for advertising (brand recognition; word of mouth). Paying for advertising on the Web doesn't need to just have a direct effect of traffic.
We do this to further our brand, too. And, the more you further your brand through social media, press releases, paid search, directory placement, etc., the more recognition you should -- "naturally" -- get from the search engines.
Of course, that's just my opinion. And, I'm still confused.