In the great race to the top of search engine result pages, there are many “short cuts” tempting companies to boost their ranking quickly and, in some cases, unethically along the way. Chief among these risky and problematic techniques: link buying. Also known as black hat techniques, these short cuts are used to gain higher rankings by breaking search engine rules, and if caught using these techniques a site can be penalized, including being removed from the search index. And while you may be keeping a clean nose by steering clear of link buying schemes that can put your site at risk of penalty; if you see your competition buying links for SEO, you’re probably wondering if it’s your place to call them out or report them for doing so.
Determining whether to call out your competition for link buying is more complicated than a simple yes or no answer. So, to help you better determine what might be the best course of action, let’s explore the implications of link buying and the reasons why you may or may not want to blow the whistle on someone.
What does buying links mean?
Link buying involves purchasing links from another site that has a high PageRank in order to try and artificially boost your own site’s ranking by receiving a link from them. These paid links are intended to manipulate a site’s ranking in Google and other search engines, a short cut taken as an alternative to patiently building a site’s reputation and visibility through quality content and relationships.
Why is it wrong?
While buying links may be tempting for a site looking for a quick ranking boost, the practice is ultimately wrong for a number of reasons and bad for SEO. Buying and selling links dilutes the quality of search results. In most cases the links are coming from spammy, disreputable sites and apart from the chance that they may not even work to boost PageRank, you can also end up in hot water for using them.
Google considers any link that’s intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in search results to be a violation of their Webmaster Guidelines. If Google discovers that you have been participating in link buying schemes, and they eventually will, you will have betrayed their trust and they will likely impose a penalty that will severely lower your ranking and drop your search visibility, and in some extreme cases complete removal from search results.
While in most situations link buying is a fairly straightforward transaction (i.e. money is exchanged for links that pass PageRank), there are also a number of other ways that Google determines a paid link, including exchanges, loans and more. Any way you cut it, they’re not a good idea. Additionally, link buying schemes can potentially run afoul of the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines for online advertising and marketing, and that’s probably not a place you want to be.
Why should you call out competition?
So, now that we’ve gone over why buying links for SEO is problematic, you may wonder: what do I if I discover if my competition is potentially participating in the frowned upon activity? It can be infuriating if you’ve been abiding by the rules, and suddenly discover that your competitor has been ignoring them or intentionally breaking them.
And while you may not want to feel like a tattletale, if someone is breaking the rules and gaining an unfair advantage by doing so, you could justify that they should be reported to help level the competitive playing field and improve the overall quality of search results. So, in that sense, you are doing a public good by reporting paid links to Google. And as a competitor, many would consider letting your competition break the rules to get ahead to be a foolish business decision. Reporting link buying by your competitor can help your business gain an advantage over them, especially if you are smaller business battling a bigger competitor.
Why shouldn’t you?
On the other side of the fence, you could run the risk of incorrectly identifying a paid link scheme and end involving an innocent party. In some cases links that are sold have a “no follow” attribute (denoted by a rel=”nofollow” line in the source code), which means that page rank isn’t being passed on.
You could also argue that it isn’t one company’s place to report on another company, and the determination should be left to Google. From this point of view, it’s considered better to focus on beating the competition by utilizing sound SEO practices, then to try and clobber them with a penalty.
There’s also the possibility that your competitor may be a victim of negative SEO from another competitor, who is building low quality links to the site to try and get them penalized. In this case you would only be further punishing the victim by calling them out.
Is there a moral dilemma?
Determining whether or not to call out the competition for buying links could potentially pose a moral dilemma for some. You may feel that reporting on someone is an underhanded and unfair way of turning them over to the authorities and ratting them out, but you may also feel obliged to report rule breakers and maintain a level playing field. For some it may be a clear-cut decision, others may find some grey area around the practice of reporting.
Would you or have you reported on your competition for buying bad links for SEO? Let us know in the comment section below.
- “Why Buying Backlinks is Bad for SEO” (Entrepreneur)
- “Google’s Webmaster Guidelines for Link Schemes” – (Google)
- “How Google Determines What’s A Paid Link” (Search Engine Land)
- “SEO 101: Meet the White Hats, Gray Hats, Black Hats & Asshats” (Search Engine Watch)
- “Would You Report A Competitor To Google? (Search Engine Journal)