Paid link building isn't as easy as it used to be because Google's paid link detection algorithms keep improving. SEOs who use link building as a tactic are having a harder time figuring out where to find links that will count.
One of the biggest aspects of this is that competitors can figure out you're buying links and report your paid links to Google. That means your paid link building tactics must be clever enough to fool a human review by your competitors. Good luck with that.
To create such a link, you have to go through a substantial amount of conversation with the link seller, and very carefully specify what you want. This goes beyond simply specifying that you don't want a nofollow on the link. You have to go into great detail on the placement and integration of your link, so even a hostile human reviewer can't prove that it's paid.
This is a much harder task than calling up a broker and saying, "I want 10 more links this month, let me know where they are, and how much they cost" (that sounds easy).
White Hat/Black Hat
A significant part of the panel was spent talking about different ways to acquire links. During the discussion, I asked the panel if they recommended black hat tactics as part of their SEO strategy. Every panelist said no.
Friesen and Naylor added that they would, however, buy links for clients, and that they didn't consider that a black hat tactic. It gets more interesting though when you dig deeper.
Neither of them advocates a long-term link buying strategy. They talked about the notion of buying a selected set of links as a way of getting a site off the ground. They talked about quickly shifting into a natural link building strategy designed to get links without paying for them.
Why Not Buy More Links?
This question reminds me of a discussion I heard at another industry trade show where the panelists maintained that they could accomplish with link buying in three months what would take two years to achieve with a purely natural link building strategy.
However, you need the complete context. Trying to rocket to the stars in three months is a churn-and-burn strategy. You would never take this approach with a site you were building for the long term.
Making the leap from being an unknown to the top is just asking for trouble, because the people you compete with will certainly notice what happened. The site will rocket up, and then disappear. It might make some money in the meantime, but you need to treat it like a throwaway.
Even if you take it more slowly, and build links over a long period of time, you still face significant risk if a large percentage of your links are paid for. Google, and your competitors, are hunting for you.
So the distinction between those who represented the black hats (Friesen and Naylor), and those who represented the white hats (Heil and I) was really quite small. Friesen and Naylor recommended starting with a select and discrete dosage of paid links to get a site off the ground. Heil and I recommended engaging in natural link building from the start. None of the parties recommended taking substantial risks.
Even We Build Pages, which used to be a bastion of link buying, recently announced that paid links aren't worth it (congrats to Jim Boykin on taking this step).
So there may be some validity to the notion that some quick link purchases can help a site get started, but it isn't easy and comes with risk. In addition, if the heart of your link building strategy is the development of natural organic links, why not start there? It's safer, and it gets you to the core of your SEO strategy that much sooner.