What Does Google Consider A Paid Link? Matt Cutts Gives The Definitive Answer
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The author's views are entirely his or her own, and don't necessarily represent the views of Ahrefs.

Matt Cutts, Google’s head of search spam, talks about link building in his latest Webmaster Help video posted early this week. Specifically, Matt answers a question that all SEOs and webmasters should be concerned about: what are the Google webspam team’s criteria for paid links? 

First of all, in case you’re wondering why you should be concerned about paid links it’s because Google penalizes them harshly. As a webmaster you are not allowed to be paid for an inbound link, and as a marketer you are not allowed to pay someone in exchange for a link.

The vast majority of the time, the difference between a paid link and a non-paid link is very clear, Matt says. A paid link is simply people paying money outright for links to flow PageRank from one site to another to get higher rankings.

Matt says 99.9% of the time it’s abundantly clear when links are being bought and sold to manipulate PageRank, but every so often he gets a question thrown at him that blurs the lines a little bit. For example, what if you took someone out for lunch and they ended up writing favorably about you with a link back to your site–is that considered a paid link?

For those who are unclear about what Google considers to be a paid link or not, Matt Cutts put together his recent video to go through the criteria of what exactly Google’s webspam team looks at when assessing paid links. What follows are some of the key highlights.

Google’s Criteria For Determining Paid Links

Will the value of goods exchanged change a person’s behavior? 
Google takes into consideration the value of what you’re getting in exchange for a link, and whether or not it’s enough to change your behavior.

For example, if a company is giving out free t-shirts at a tradeshow and you end up writing about them with a link to their site, that won’t necessarily be considered a paid link because there was very little value exchanged. On the other hand, if that same company paid you $600 for a link to their site that would most definitely be considered a paid link because there was significant value exchanged.

How close is something to money?
Most of the time when a link is being bought it’s actual money changing hands. There are some instances where a company offers other things instead, like gift cards, that can easily be considered the same as money.

Sometimes other things are exchanged like free trials of products and services, or lunches like in the previous example, that may eventually result in an inbound link. Matt says Google doesn’t consider these things to strongly resemble a monetary exchange and suggests not to worry about it being considered a paid link.

Is it a gift or a loan?
When something is exchanged for a link, Google considers whether not not it was a gift or just a loan. Google weights gifts more highly than loans when assessing whether or not something is a paid link.

For example, if a car was loaned to you for a week in exchange for you doing a writeup about their service that would definitely not be viewed the same as someone giving you a car. Gifts are much closer to monetary compensation in Google’s estimation.

What is the intent? 
Matt points out most of the time the intent of gifting goods and services is crystal clear: they want inbound links. However, sometimes companies genuinely want to give something away for no reason other than to see if the potential customer likes the product.

Companies frequently do giveaways to try and sign up customers, or get them to tell other people about their products and services. The intent there is clearly not to get links for SEO value and would not be considered as an attempt to buy links.

Is it a surprise?
Matt gives the example that if a movie reviewer was given free tickets to see a movie so he or she could write about it, that would not be a surprise because it’s entirely expected.

If a blogger out of nowhere writes about something completely off topic because they were compensated to do so, that’s something Google would consider a surprise and also a paid link.

Things Could Change At Any Time

Matt adds the disclaimer that Google reserves the right to change or add to these guidelines at any time. What may not be considered a paid link now may be considered one in the future, and vice versa.

As in most cases when it comes to SEO, use your best judgment. If it feels too much like a paid link, but Google doesn’t specifically state that it is one, use your best judgment.

To hear Matt’s full explanation, please see the video below:

Matt Southern

Matt Southern is a marketing, communications and public relations professional. He has a bachelors degree in communication and an unparalleled passion for helping businesses get their message out.

Also in: Industry's Insights, Link Building.

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  • Darren DeMatas

    Matt – thanks for highlighting the important topics surrounding this gray area.