Paid Links: A Black Hat/White Hat Discussion

Those expecting a knock-down, drag-out brawl at the “Black Hat/White Hat” session at SES Chicago may have left a bit disappointed. It looked like the sparks could fly, with Dave Naylor, director of search marketing at Bronco, and Todd Friesen, VP of search at Position Technologies there representing the black hat side, and Eric Enge, president of Stone Temple Consulting and Doug Heil, owner of ihelpyou there defending the white hat side.

But, as Friesen so eloquently said, “As it turns out, Doug’s actually a nice guy.”

So despite the lack of violence, the session turned out to be an hour-long discussion of techniques that will or will not get you banned by Google, the ethical considerations of search marketing, and a few black-hat tips thrown in for good measure.

Much of the discussion centered on buying links for SEO purposes, which is frowned upon by Google. Naylor and Friesen both said buying links should be allowed, noting that paid links are still relevant, since they bring a user to the page they promise.

“If a user clicks on a link that says ‘Buy Viagra’, they’re going to land on a page that’s selling Viagra,” Naylor said.

The difference is that Google sees a bought link as an “unnatural” link, since payment has entered the picture. But that argument gets muddied when it comes to bartered links, or other kinds of non-monetary rewards given in exchange for links.

To be safe, Enge says, “Google makes the rules. If we want to have a stable business for the long term, we have to follow them.”

The paid links debate is muddied further by the issue of links from trade organizations, which usually charge a membership fee. Enge pointed out that the reason those are OK in Google’s eyes is that there is some kind of review process involved, as there is with a quality directory listing like Yahoo or Best of the Web.

In Heil’s view, it’s a matter of authority. Sites that have earned the authority to vouch for a business, or sponsor an event, for example, should be allowed to do so with a link. The caveat, of course, is that they don’t abuse that authority and start linking out without any kind of quality oversight.

Naylor outlined one of his favorite white hat methods of getting links: press releases. When you issue a press release with links in the copy, you will often get people that reprint the release on their site with the links intact. He also recommends getting your site’s content into Google News.

Everyone on the panel agreed that dropping the PageRank meter from the Google Toolbar would be a good idea to help curb buying and selling of links for SEO value, and it appears that Google is headed in that direction. “It’s a beast they never should have unleashed,” Naylor said. It would also help if Google’s algorithm stopped relying so heavily on links as a measure of a site’s quality, they said.

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