How Google Finds Paid Links


Paid links are something that use to be common practice for most SEO’s and agencies – simply spend, spend, spend and thou shall receive. This all changed when Google stated that manipulating search rankings from paid links should be avoided at all costs and if advertising is carried out then the appropriate “rel=nofollow” tag should be implemented to stop the flow of Page Rank.

While many SEOs headed back to the drawing board to think up new and innovating ways to attract links to websites some SEOs have continued to play the paid links game. I’m not one to judge, if you buy links, there are risks, if the pros out way the cons then go for it. There are plenty of large brands out there who have more than obvious paid links strategy, yet never seem to receive any penalties, in fact they seem to get rewarded by great rankings.

I get questions from people and clients asking “is there a safe way to buy links?” well the short answer is no – but there are ways that websites seem to avoid detection which cut risks. From my analysis of competitors over the last 12 months there are methods which are used:

1. Link Brokers – These give you access to a selection of websites that are willing to sell text ads. Usually the system is automated, sellers place code on their sites allowing brokers to distribute links throughout networks. These seem to be the most obvious method that is identifiable by Google.

2. Unrelated content – If you buy links on a website that has no relevance to your own content then what value does this give the users? None. Organic or natural links more often than not will link to relevant content, providing added value to their website and the users that visit the links.

3. Anchor text – In an ideal world every link established naturally would contain keywords and phrases that you want to rank well for. Unfortunately this very rarely happens, natural link growth will include nofollow tags, banners, brand terms and a selection of utterly useless keywords such as “here” or “this website”.

4. Link relationships – Having 100% followed links with targeted keywords will undoubtedly set some Google alarm off somewhere. A natural link relationship look will have a selection of followed, nofollow, affiliate and tracking parameters.

5. Link increase – Something that is often overlooked by other SEOs is the natural versus manipulated link growth. A natural increase will be slow but generally consistent, with maybe a few spikes due to new content and site updates (which I believe Google checks). A manipulated increase will be quick with many spikes and even overall drops – people do forget to pay for their links. See the diagram below to show how a natural link increase usually looks and a blatantly obvious manipulation:


6. Link placement – A sure way to get found out for buying links is placing your link in the footer of a website where there are no other relevant links or too many external links. If you’re stupid enough to think doing this will give you any ranking value or traffic think again. Natural links usually get listed on resource pages, blogrolls, in blog posts (not paid) and perhaps the body of website copy.

7. Looking for Page Rank – It is true, people still search the high seas looking for page rank, alas this will do no good. Content and site relevance plays more of an important role these days than page rank in terms of obtaining high quality links. If a new website suddenly gets 10 page rank 5,6 and 7 links pointing to it then I fear its life in the Google index will be short lived.

At the end of the day as you can see trying to create a paid links strategy is a long, time consuming process which does hold risk. If you get away with it, you’ll achieve great rankings (which many top websites do) but the more rewarding ethical method is of course to create a linkable website with valuable content. Google will undoubtedly have 101 other paid link identifiers in their algorithm, plus they already have the option to report paid links in the Google webmaster console. If a linking opportunity arises be sure that you are within the Google guidelines to be safe.

Matt Ridout

About the author

My name is Matt Ridout, I've been working in digital marketing for 9 years; worked for agencies and currently Head of SEO at fashion startup called Farfetch. Try to test my own theories.


  1. Great info. I always believe in quality links and not quantity links. Links from relevant content web page is ut most important.

  2. I wanted to chime in here to mention that, in my opinion, while this is a good description of some of the generalities associated to paid links and that a good job was done in explaining the most common situations, I believe there may have been many issues that were overlooked in this case. The tone in this writing is such that it is not leaving much room for variables and situations outside the norm described here. Instead, it seems to discuss issues as fact, pure and simple. I do not necessarily agree with this approach. Instead, I can see several situations that are not mentioned where either a paid link can be detected in a way not mentioned, or the method mentioned does not necessarily mean a link is a paid for.

    With link brokers, you have to keep in mind that not all are the same and each does things a little differently. Some use high quality sites, some use wordpress plugins, while some use a much more manual process. You also have to understand that not all paid links are placed in footers and sidebars anymore.

    Regarding unrelated content, I believe it is very natural for the web to link out to unrelated content. Of course, the ratio weighs heavily towards related content, but just because someone links out to something unrelated does not mean that this is a clue to a paid link. Case in point, look how Aaron Wall often links out to political sites and youtube videos reference civil injustices on his SEO blog.

    While there are algorithms in place that search engines can use to identify what a webpage is attempting to rank for, the way it is described here, it would be quite difficult for engines to understand whether or not a site is trying to rank for “click here” or “this website.” I believe some sort of variance statement or prelude is in order here.

    Again, for the most part, links will increase in a gradual way and you did a good job at stating that there are some variances here but you mentioned that it is due to content updates only when in fact it could possibly be much more. Press coverage and social media marketing are two avenues which can be used to gain many (high PR, and possibly unrelated) links to a website without necessarily updating your content as a direct cause and effect.

    We can really beat this issue to death and the pinpoint ever little nuance and loophole, but I think it is easy to understand that with a piece of content like this to where there are no clear rules or scientific testing to back up your analysis, some form of disclaimer or explanation that states you are only speaking to the middle 90% of of situations and not the 5% on each end that are possibilities as well.

  3. Hi Gennady – thanks for taking the time to read through the post.

    I din’t want to go into great detail in the post, as you said there are so many variables that will usually be taken into account.

    I do have to disagree with your point about websites trying to rank for terms such as “click here” etc – I am 99.99% sure that Google will have some kind of filter which adds exceptions to links for almost worthless keywords.

    I believe that every point I listed is accurate, based on expeience and analysis. I would of course love to write a full detailed report but alas I don’t have the time – thanks again!

  4. I don’t agree with your point that sudden link increases don’t look natural. What about if I get an article up on digg and I get 300 backlinks over night? Is Google going to penalize me?

  5. Hi George – Well I believe that Google takes into account new content and with it any spikes in backlinks so that would be fine.

    However if a section of a website or homepage which has no new content suddenly gets 300 links all with targeted anchor texts – i’d be mighty surprised if Google didn’t get suspicious about it.

  6. Best to take on a blended approach to a link building campaign in order to have a variety of links. When you have one of anything in high quantities you run the risk of get whacked with a penalty.

  7. I agree with that last comment admin. Google is more than likely to penalize your site for that keyword only if they see that kind of activity in play.

    I spend dozens of hours weekly doing backlink analysis and the old and trusted sites get away with so many link violations that would otherwise get someone in trouble…its a crazy fun corner of the SEO world 🙂

  8. Hi,

    Thanks for the usefull post, here is my 5 cts :

    8 – Google ask people to report paid links
    This may be the most subtle but effective method for Google to find paid links :

    Google encourages denunciation and provides this form to enable a webmaster to report directly to Google, a site that had used the method of paid links.

  9. A good broker does everything they can to “not automate” things. Any paid link that is automated is crap.

    A good broker hides links in content, does not publish site info, does not whore out sites etc…

    There are brokers out there that do this.

  10. Oh, and good brokers build dozens of different kinds of links from dozens of sources….

    There are brokers that do that too.

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  12. Nice analysis, but some thing is not very accurate, up to me you forgot the third kind of links.
    The “free” links originated by an reciprocal (or not) exchange.
    They follow the same schema than paid links about link keywords, number increased and many other thing…

    Don’t you think that google hire people to detect these paid links?

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  14. Google has a lot of work to do with paid links. I have seen websites that rank in key terms, with a quick linkdomain check you can see that the top 5 links are paid. I have reported this particular case, we will see if Google does anything.

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  19. Thanks for this post.I enjoyed reading it.It has really changed the way I think about website promotion.


  20. Anyway now buying links in linkbrokers are still effective instrument in seo. For sure getting natural links in long term perspective is better, but lot of clients don’t have a time to wait when the site would get natural links.

  21. Great information – I just hope Google and the other search engines can reallt define this with there algorithms, which would then improve the overall user search experience.

  22. ok, point 5. Link increase – Natural links are given when something becomes popular because it’s really good and this is definitely a SPIKE in link popularity. Then when the buzz is over no more links are to be had. The steady line of link growth is people who are buying links at a constant pace so you have this one backwards.

    Point 7 is also wrong. Content and site relevance gets you ZERO pagerank. The only reason google tells you to write good content is so that hopefully the content will be so good that it will be linked to by others. Only external links transfer pagerank. I am yet to find a page that has high PR without having high PR external links to it.

  23. nice info thanks for the tips

  24. One of the biggest difficulty for Google regarding paid links is the fact that they cannot penalize websites for having paid links pointing to them. Otherwise it would be easy for to buy links for competitors and ruin their rankings this way.

    All Google can really do is to not allow detected paid links to pass link juice and maybe penalize the websites that have paid links on them. But then again, Google will never be able to detect all paid links, especially if the link is placed in a content area and looks completely like a normal link.

  25. The problem with avoiding paid links, is that you are left with very little alternative. Last week I sent over 100 emails to sites in my niche, requesting a link. Only 3 got back to me, and were requesting a link back from my index page for a link on a secondary page (they would get the better deal). As for “organic links”, I really can’t stand this notion. My site has really, really great content, and gets over 2,500 visitors a day. Yet in the last year, I honestly don’t think I’ve acquired a single “organic” link – one that I haven’t acquired myself. Do we need like a million visitors a day, or do we need to post the cure for cancer, before we start getting these so called “organic” links.

  26. Good web directories are an option for decent backlinks. When you buy a directory listing it is “advertising” and not considered a paid link by G. Some directories don’t pass meaningful link juice though if the listings are buried many levels deep, watch for that.

    Also look for local newspapers that aren’t especially web savvy. I used to run an ad on the PR5 front page of the one in my town and they linked to my site with a plain old (dofollow) link. I bought it for the link knowing the paper was read mainly by people who were not my customers. It was not cheap at $50 per month but it was an excellent link. (Dropped it now that rank without it.)

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