Should you pay for links in 2021?

Oli Graham
SEO
February 26, 2021
6 MINUTES READ


Buying links in an attempt to improve your website’s search engine rankings has always been a controversial topic.

The strategy is seen as at best risky, and at worst something that should be completely avoided. Those against the strategy point towards Google’s Penguin update and the threat of manual actions as reasons why you absolutely should not be buying links. Experienced SEOs, however, know that there are no absolutes when it comes to building links, and that in some situations buying links is the most cost-effective way of getting the rankings required to achieve your wider business goals.

The rest of this post will cover two questions:

  1. How can you determine whether buying links is a worthwhile strategy.
  2. How to buy links “the right way” and minimizing risk of either wasting your money or doing damage to the long-term health of your site.

Before we answer these questions, it's worth going through the role that paid links play in link building in 2021 so we can contextualize our advice when it comes to buying links yourself.

The state of paid links in 2021

Buying links has come a long way since Fiverr gigs and black hat forums. One of the big turning points in the history of buying links has been the explosion of the utilization of “blogger outreach” as a link building tactic, and in particular the rise of SEO agencies who offer “blogger outreach” as a service.

Blogger outreach involves emailing content publishers (often bloggers, but also trade publications and online magazines) and asking if they can either publish a guest post, insert a link to a page on their site in an existing article, or offer a product sample for them to review.

Since SEO agencies maximize their profits by operating at scale, online publishers have been bombarded with these emails over the last few years, often being sent several dozens of these each day.

Quickly, bloggers and publishers realized that links from their sites were valuable (as businesses were being built around selling them) so started asking for money as “publishing fees” in exchange for links. 

SEO agencies knew that they could still make a margin even when paying these link fees, so were happy to regularly pay them. As buying links meant that agencies and website owners could guarantee themselves a consistent stream of links, the market for publishers selling links grew to what it is today.

It must be noted that it is still possible to get links for free through unpaid guest posts, content marketing and PR activities, and that there are countless agencies that sell links where no publishing fees are involved.

Therefore in 2021 link building campaigns that involve both paying for links and earning unpaid links are routinely performed at scale. Both are options for site owners and SEOs.

Site owners should therefore decide both whether they will get a better ROI on strategies that involve paying for links or earning links, and if they decide to pay for links they should understand what makes a link worth paying for.

How to decide whether you should pay for links or not

Buying links offers several advantages and disadvantages when compared to earning links. Your strategy of choice should depend on the overall aim you have with your site, as well as any constraints that you may have such as budget. Here are the main factors to consider when making this decision.

  1. The role that SEO plays in your overall marketing strategy

If you choose to buy links, chances are that the only benefit that you will get from link building is better rankings.

Contrary to popular belief, Google cannot tell the difference between a properly placed paid link and a “white hat” earned link. Therefore both will pass SEO value to the linked-to site.

Earned links can, in many cases, offer wider marketing and business development benefits over paid links. To earn a link, you need to build an authentic relationship with another website editor in your broader industry. Such relationships can lead to future opportunities for collaboration and even referrals.

Paid links are a simpler business transaction. Such collateral benefits are therefore much less likely to occur. In addition to this, most sites that sell links sell them regularly, meaning that you are just one more customer on their list. The “relationship building” aspect of link building is therefore all but lost with paid links.

As paid link building often takes less budget (for reasons that we will explain shortly), if your only aim of SEO is to achieve a certain position on the SERP for specific keywords, then paid link building may be your best option. If SEO is one of your main marketing tactics, and you want as much business development from this tactic as possible, then unpaid link building may offer a better ROI in the long run.

  1. The expertise in your business and your ability to create high-quality content

One of the biggest reasons why many businesses prefer paid link building to link earning is that the latter requires the consistent production of a large amount of high quality content.

To get a free link, you need to provide enough value to a target site in your content alone to justify having them link out. This rarely, if ever, can be done cheaply. It requires either a large time investment from in house writers, or outsourcing to a high-quality content agency.

With paid links, you provide value to a publisher by paying them in addition to giving them content (either as a guest post or as something to link to). The quality of the content required is therefore lower with paid links than it is with free links. 

With paid links, you can also have much more control over the content that your link is embedded into, as well as the anchor text (in many cases you can explicitly dictate what this is). This can, if done correctly, drive SEO benefit more efficiently than with paid links that have to be made “for the reader” rather than with only SEO in mind.

  1. The niche of the site that you are trying to rank

As earning links involves persuading someone to link to you without incentivising them with money, industries that people are cautious to associate themselves with (think pornography or gambling) can be very hard to build free links to.

Earning links in these industries often involve running costly and often low-relevance digital PR pieces to get viral coverage. 

With no guarantees of links, and a potentially large upfront investment, it's little wonder that paid link building campaigns are the norm in these types of industries.

This factor also runs at a page level, as well as at a niche level. Sales pages are far more difficult to earn links with than non-commercial content. Strategies that involve earning links to blog posts, and buying links to sales pages are therefore very common.

In short, your SEO needs, and the role that you want SEO to play in your wider marketing strategy influences whether you should consider buying links or not. Often this can vary on a page-by-page basis, leading to a sitewide strategy that combines buying and earning links.

How to buy links the “right way”

If you do choose to buy some links you need to take a lot of care to ensure that each link represents value for money. Bought links tend to be (but are not necessarily) lower in quality than earned links.

Due diligence is therefore needed when checking paid links for quality.

Here are some of the core factors that you need to consider when assessing the quality of paid links.

  1. How many links is the target site selling?

If you are buying a link of a website owner, chances are that they are selling links to other companies. When buying links, you need to think of the “link equity” of a selling site. If a site is selling links at a faster rate than they have links coming in, then the value of their link to you will diminish over time. Buying a link off such a site is therefore akin to investing in stock that is losing value.

Two ways of checking how often a website is selling links are by looking through their recent post history and using a backlink analysis tool. If the majority of a website’s recent posts are guest posts (whether explicitly labelled as such or not) then you may want to consider whether buying a link on that site would be a worthwhile investment.

Ideally you want to be getting links on sites that are publishing more of their own content than guest content, and where the majority of their content does not have any obvious paid links embedded in it.

  1. What is the standard of the content on a target site?

All links, whether earned or paid, should be on sites that are making an effort with their overall standard of content. Links on sites with traffic are more powerful than on sites without traffic (regardless of what their “link metrics” are), and sites that do not take care to produce high quality content are unlikely to have good levels of traffic in the long term. When you are vetting a website, concentrate on evaluating the quality of at least a handful of their articles. Just ask yourself “would someone interested in this topic gain something from reading this article.” If you cannot honestly say yes to this then it probably is not worth paying for a link on that website. The flipside of this is that, even with paid guest posts, you should aim to keep a decent standard of content with the articles that you produce. One of Google’s primary aims is to improve the overall standard of content on the internet, so any type of link building that uses poor content as collateral could risk being penalized.

  1. Who else is the target site linking to?

Google is essentially building a birds eye view of everyone’s link networks. The search engine can therefore (theoretically at least) associate sites based on mutual linking partners. The other sites that a potential linking site is also linking to should therefore be considered when buying a link. One way of determining whether a website could be part of a “bad link neighbourhood” is by Googling: site:[url] “[bad link niche]”. So for example, if you wanted to check whether The Huffington Post regularly linked to online casinos you could search:

Site:huffingtonpost.com “casino”


You then want to manually check some of the ranking posts to see if they are guest post style articles. Websites that link to other websites in industries where buying links is rife often sell links en masse and therefore are likely to lose link equity over time.


  1. What is your interaction like with the publisher?

Another warning site that a site may not be worth buying a link off of is if they have systems set up to sell links at scale. One of the most obvious signs to look out for is if the publisher has canned responses with link prices that are automatically sent to outreachers. These are usually easy to spot. If a publisher automatically talks about pricing without mentioning the topic of your pitch, then they are likely to sell links to anyone who stumps up the cash, regardless of their niche, offered topic, or quality of content that they can provide. Again, we want to avoid websites that sell links at scale and do not care about the standard of content they publish. Canned responses quoting prices are indicative that an approached site may fall into this undesired category.

A final note on buying vs earning links


Before we wrap this up, there is one last point that you should consider when embarking on a link building campaign that may have a paid element to it. This point concerns terminology among link building agencies. Currently link building agencies often refer to any link built through outreach as “white hat”. Therefore you can buy “white hat” paid links from an agency. If you are using a link vendor, ask specifically whether they pay publishing fees to linking sites. If they do routinely pay publishing fees then they should be transparent about this.I f the agency claims to not pay publishing fees, but you are getting links from websites that have the hallmarks of selling links, and the content that your link is embedded in adds little value to the website in question, then you might want to take the agencies claim that they are earning links with a pinch of salt.


About the Author:

Oli Graham is a digital marketer with 6 years of experience working in SEO, content marketing and digital PR. He is currently the Marketing Manager for digital content agency RightlyWritten.

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