Does Google penalize paid links?

There’s recently been a small debate about Google’s stance on paid links in the comments section of one of my posts, and whether or not you run the risk of being penalized if you buy or sell links. Mitch helpfully pointed us to an article by Matt Cutts on the subject. In case you don’t know, Matt is a Google policy maker who had a big hand in drafting the original quality guidelines.

I spent an enjoyable afternoon reading that and a few other related articles (and their comments) on Matt’s site and the official Google guidelines to try and clarify exactly what Google’s position is. Needless to say some of the comment exchanges are fairly heated, with a lot of emotion on both sides. This is my understanding of the issues:

Google’s point of view

  • Google’s stated aim is to provide users with the most relevent results possible, with content represented in the SERPs on merit alone
  • paid links muddy the water
  • taken to the extreme, allowing paid links essentially opens the way for sites with the biggest budgets to dominate the SERPs

The Webmaster point of view

  • Google is not the web and has no right to dictate other sites’ policies
  • Google itself makes billions of dollars via sponsored links, so it would seem hypocritical of them to restrict other sites from doing so.

Read the comments on these two articles if you want more information, but be warned there are currently in excess of 585 (sometimes lengthy) responses between the two posts!

Google’s stance on paid links

Without taking sides, I want to summarise Google’s stance as I understand it.

Sites that sell links can lose their trust in search engines.
(from Matt Cutts’s blog)

Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.
(from Google’s Webmaster site)

In order to stay within Google’s quality guidelines, paid links should be disclosed through a rel=”nofollow” or other techniques…
(from the official Google Webmaster blog).

So it would appear that you’re free to buy and selll links without fear of falling out of favour with Google, as long as these links are marked with the nofollow attribute.

Penalties for paid links

Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank … as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links…
(from the Google quality guidelines).

Matt Cutts says on his blog that

link-selling sites can lose their ability to give reputation (e.g. PageRank and anchortext).

But in the same sentence he also says

Reputable sites that sell links won’t have their search engine rankings or PageRank penalized

Presumably this last bit is referring to sites that use the nofollow attribute for their paid links.

Case studies

There are plenty of examples of sites that have been penalized, for example check out:

  • John Chow – John’s been in trouble with Google numerous times (a good reason why his site’s currently only PR3), but is big enough with enough diverse traffic sources to have survived, or even thrived in spite of it.
  • David Airey has posted in detail about why he got penalized, and what he did to rectify the situation.
  • GoCompare, a car insurance comparison site, also recently got penalized and reportedly lost almost 90% of their traffic as a result.


As I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of resentment around the web about what appears to be Google’s arrogance in dictating how website owners should run their sites. Well, of course each one of us needs to choose how to respond to this: either give Google the finger (and face the consequences), or toe the line. Which option you choose probably depends a lot on how much you rely on organic search traffic. Most sites, I suspect (including this one), would be hard-hit by losing favour with Google, so it’s in our best interest to stick to their guidelines, whether you agree with them or not.

Related posts:

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48 Responses to “Does Google penalize paid links?”

  1. Gravatar of David Airey 1 David Airey

    Yes, paid links can be penalized by Google, but not if you add the rel=”nofollow” code to the link. This condition means you’re less able to buy your way to the top of search engine rankings.

  2. Gravatar of DStudioBali Busby SEO 2 DStudioBali Busby SEO

    I just wonder how Google indentify a buying link ?

  3. Gravatar of Mitch 3 Mitch

    Good post, Rodney, and even a mention!

    I just went and checked the two Text Link ads that are showing on my blog, and the attribute says “miscellaneous properties”. Therefore, it’s neither dofollow or nofollow, but what it means, I have no idea. Tried researching it on Google and there’s nothing on it. So, there’s an interesting situation, to be sure.

  4. Gravatar of Rodney Smith 4 Rodney Smith

    Busby: I’ve often wondered the same thing – I guess there’s no way they can tell with private sales (as long as the buyer is not going around buying all over the place). It probably gets a lot easier for them if you’re dealing with a broker like TLA etc.

  5. Gravatar of Rodney Smith 5 Rodney Smith

    Mitch: If you look at David Airey’s story, part of his problem was using TLA, so I’d be wary. Their name has also come up quite often in other sources I’ve read about the topic. You just have to Google it, and you’ll come up with plenty of info. It certainly appears as if TLA links are dofollow (see here) – which as I explained above is a no-no.

  6. Gravatar of Norhafidz 6 Norhafidz

    I’ve been penalized by Google before with the same reason: link selling. :L

  7. Gravatar of Mitch 7 Mitch

    I’ve done some research, Rodney, and there’s definitely some interesting stuff on this one. I followed your link, then other links other people wrote. On one of the sites they said Google had removed Text Link Ads from their search engine. I questioned that one, so I went to look, and sure enough it’s not there, anywhere, except as other people have written about them. That’s sort of scary if you ask me, since I was thinking it has to be hard actually not finding a site whose name is what you’re looking for.

    I then wanted to take it further, and decided to look it up on Yahoo. And there it is, on Yahoo, sitting right up there at number one, and look what’s right next to it; a Google Adsense bar, with the first thing being advertised being Google Adsense. Well, suddenly, now that’s not fair; after all, aren’t Yahoo and Google advertising partners?

    Still, I know the people who make the rules are allowed to break their own rules for their own purposes, and if it comes down to a billion dollar deal versus a couple of piddly dollars rules are going out the window.

    Still, I’m going to think about it some more. Right now, my blog, the only place I have the ads, only gets 9% of its traffic from the search engines, and makes very little money off Adsense. But I have Adsense on all my sites, and if all of that is at risk, no sir, that won’t be fun at all.

  8. Gravatar of Work At Home Ideas 8 Work At Home Ideas


    Thanks for such informative post. It’s still OK to sell links excluding 3rd party. Without a 3rd party your website doesn’t carry an html code that would be trackable by the engines as linking software hosted at a 3rd party. So if you sold text links like blogroll, this is perfectly OK and no way can the engines trace any selling taking place.

    BTW, I like to use your post to include it for my next Link Love, OK with you?

    Peter Lee

  9. Gravatar of Rodney Smith 9 Rodney Smith

    Mitch: if you’re only getting 9% of your traffic from search, you haven’t got a lot to lose IMO – this site gets around 50%, so I have to be a lot more careful.
    I’m also not sure that your AdSense account is at risk even if you get penalized – back when John Chow got penalized he was still bragging about how much he was earning on AdSense. Don’t take that as gospel though!

    Peter: hey, I can use all the link love I can get – link away!

  10. Gravatar of Blog for Beginners 10 Blog for Beginners

    Truth is I’m not even clearly sure of the impact of using dofollow on my paid review but the only way I could prove it is to risk it myself and see where my PR goes. If Carl Ocab is dofollowing all his paid reviews and still maintaining his PR, I’ll see if Yan is of no exception.

    I wasn’t affected by the latest PR update so let’s see what happen on the next update.


  11. Gravatar of Rodney Smith 11 Rodney Smith

    Yan: that’s one of the frequent complaints I noticed around the net – Google’s apparent inconsistency in punishing some but not others who’re doing the exact same things.

  12. Gravatar of savings 12 savings

    Exactly,after reading aboutr getting penalised for buying links, I looked at a very large organisations strategy who bought links in every site irrespective of relevancy and IP location. A lot of professionals flagged this up to Matt, and in his words “We cannot prove if their competitors are doing that to get them penalised” Now wait a minute,big companies can hire to do that for them – but doesn’t think otherwise..what do you think Rich?

  13. Gravatar of Phil Taylor 13 Phil Taylor

    I think big G is getting rather full of itself on this deal but regardless we must play along or encounter the giant’s wrath… :(

  14. Gravatar of Rodney Smith 14 Rodney Smith

    savings: I guess it doesn’t matter how clear a policy is – the devil’s always in the detail, isn’t it?
    It’s Rod, by the way :)

  15. Gravatar of thesky SEO 15 thesky SEO

    Google always says that. But, I think paid links is still very effective in SEO.

  16. Gravatar of Sire 16 Sire

    The trouble is who would pay you for a link if you were to use the nofollow attribute?

  17. Gravatar of Rodney Smith 17 Rodney Smith

    Sire: I’m sure you have a point, although I haven’t tried selling links. What’s your experience? Have you tried selling nofollow links?

  18. Gravatar of Sire 18 Sire

    I do a fair bit of paid posts, at one time up to $600 per week, and I know that they insist on do follow links, as do those few paid links that I host on various sites.

  19. Gravatar of Rodney Smith 19 Rodney Smith

    And have you ever been penalized for it?

  20. Gravatar of John Lessnau 20 John Lessnau

    The key is everything in moderation. The sites that get penalized are the ones that go over the top with their link selling habits. Footer and sidebar non-relevant link are the most risky. Links in your natural content are the safest. even offers natural links in content that gives the seller and buyers a choice of using the nofollow attribute on their links. No Follow links in natural content are the safest paid links you can buy or sell.

    But who knows? I am still baffled that a counter site like “” can sell links hidden in their “free counter” that Google still slobbers all over.

  21. Gravatar of Mitch 21 Mitch

    I’d like to weigh in on this one point, if I may. I don’t believe most businesses have any idea what dofollow or nofollow means. Therefore, I believe almost all advertisers would pay for any links they could get. That’s how Google works, as I’ve learned they use javascript so that the links look like dofollow, but really aren’t. That, plus advertisers aren’t paying for link love, they’re paying for “attention”. The link love is a side benefit.

  22. Gravatar of Rodney Smith 22 Rodney Smith

    Mitch: I guess it depends who the customer is, and their intentions. If as you say it’s a business looking for traffic, they should have no qualms about buying nofollow links. But SEO companies looking to promote their clients’ sites may have a different agenda.

    Still, it isn’t in anyone’s interest to buy a link for the PR value, then having the link-selling site’s PR taken away, is it?

  23. Gravatar of Rodney Smith 23 Rodney Smith

    John: thanks for the heads up about linkXL – I had a quick look around the site, and it looks quite interesting. I may just give it a try.

  24. Gravatar of modulhus 24 modulhus

    On the subject…I wonder how long it takes before Google starts penalizing comment links?
    Or at least making them totally useless.
    A link is supposed to be a vote for a website, and if you buy it…well. Imagine if the democratic system worked that way.
    And when it comes to comment links…imagine if the candidates were allowed to vote forhtemselves as many times as they want to (which is pretty much how a comment link works)…*lol*
    Well, at least we would get a very fit president in that system…pulling the lever for four years will do that to you. ;-)

  25. Gravatar of John Lessnau 25 John Lessnau

    I don’t think comment links will be penalized, but I could see them slightly devalued. These type of links offer some value to Google. Say a new movie comes out or some amazing site comes on the seen and the blogsphere is going wild over it. This is data that Google would want to use in their ranking algorithm.

  26. Gravatar of Phil Taylor 26 Phil Taylor

    That’s some pretty shrewd reasoning there modulhus. Ssshhhhhhh don’t give big G any ideas (as I vote for myself again). ;) :)

  27. Gravatar of Sire 27 Sire

    @ Rodney, Yes I was penalized, I went from PR4 to 0 and it effected my earning potential quite a bit.

  28. Gravatar of Rodney Smith 28 Rodney Smith

    Sire: ouch! You seem to be on the road to recovery though – did you file for resubmission with Google (or whatever they call it)?

  29. Gravatar of Sire 29 Sire

    Nah I just started another four blogs in which I am using different tactics. I still blog regularly on those other ones as they are still bringing in some money both from Google and from doing paid posts. Only averaging about $50 a week from posts but that is only because I’m not devoting as much time following that avenue as before.

  30. Gravatar of John Lessnau 30 John Lessnau

    @Sire – did you only get a PR penalty and not a SERP penalty on that site? Sometimes Google will zero out PR so it makes it less profitable to sell dofollow links yet the site ranks as well as ever.

  31. Gravatar of Caleb 31 Caleb

    I understand the benefits of getting organic traffic through having good PR but at the same time…

    “It’s ridiculous to have your business dictated by the search engines”

    This is a quote from Harvey Segal who talks about ways to get around all the search engine politics in his free Ultimate SuperTips ebook.

  32. Gravatar of Rodney Smith 32 Rodney Smith

    Caleb: sure, and at the end of the day, always remember it’s your site, not Google’s or anyone else’s. But it pays to be pragmatic, and if you rely on Google or someone else for a chunk of traffic, it’s in your interest not to alienate them.

  33. Gravatar of Sire 33 Sire

    @John: Yep Serp is better than ever, so I suspect they took it easy on me. If I had the time I could still do pretty well but I limit myself to only $50 a week. It comes in handy for some little toys I have my eye on.

  34. Gravatar of Tim 34 Tim

    I have never tried selling links. It seems that nofollow links would be worth a lot less since it is hard to affect SERPS with them for your customer. Are there any specific advertising sources that will buy a nofollow link?

  35. Gravatar of John Lessnau 35 John Lessnau

    @Tim We sell plenty of no follows everyday. Of course the price can’t be as high as do follows since the value of the link is not the same. If your blog is high traffic, you will not have a problem selling nofollow links.

    The same goes for any type of advertising. The more traffic you get the higher the value of the ad regardless of SEO benefits or not.

  36. Gravatar of Atniz 36 Atniz

    I understand the concept of google penalty on paid links. How about dofollow blogs and the comments using anchored keywords? It is purely for SEO purpose and those who are using it might be doing SEO services to the company (which is similar to buying links with page rank) or they personally get the links from commenting. My blog is dofollow and currently I don’t allow anchored keyword name worrying google might penalize my page rank. If we passes keywordluv on dofollow blog, can google still penalty our page rank?

  37. Gravatar of Rodney Smith 37 Rodney Smith

    Atniz: good point. So far I haven’t heard of Google outlawing this practice, which lends weight to the argument that they’re only really interested in cutting out the competition when it comes to paid links (ie to maintain their monopoly!).

    So do you delete comments that use keywords in the URL? I know people have different views on this, and haven’t totally made up my mind yet.

  38. Gravatar of Martin 38 Martin

    Really I think it’s pretty simple how Google figures it out. People who buy paid links are low PR sites who need help getting traffic. They are also sites that wouldn’t typically get natural links until their PR improved. (a nice catch 22 I know) So if a site with PR3 is pointing to a bunch of PR0/1 sites, it because they probably have paid ads.

    If however the ratio is different, and a PR3 site points to PR5+ sites, and a few PR0/1 sites, then no penalty.

    Anyways, that’s what I’ve concluded. I’m probably wrong. =)

  39. Gravatar of Rodney Smith 39 Rodney Smith

    Martin: nice theory Martin, but I do hope you are wrong or I’ll be in trouble, what with giving away dofollow links to all-comers via the comments you all leave ;-)

    Seriously though, I think it’s more to do with identifying the link broker sites and figuring it out that way. Then again, I’m also just guessing – I don’t really know.

  40. Gravatar of Free Laptops 40 Free Laptops

    I would say it’s simple how google works it out. ie a list of links with the header ‘sponsered links’ – and yes I believe google does indeed penalize them.

  41. Gravatar of Designer Kids Clothing 41 Designer Kids Clothing

    Buying links can get you penalized as well. I know many sites that have gotten the Google slap for purchasing links to boost themselves in the SERPs. It’s not a good idea to piss off google. They rule the planet.

  42. Gravatar of Rodney Smith 42 Rodney Smith

    Good point, Mike – thanks.

  43. Gravatar of Mikael 43 Mikael

    I’ve had my site loose PR because I was selling links through TLA’s wordpress plugin. It went well for a couple of months but then suddently it was gone.

    I removed the TLA plugin and issued a re-inclusion request and within a week I had my PR back. I’m not sure that’ll be the case for everyone but that’s what happend to my site.

  44. Gravatar of azeemi 44 azeemi

    I stopped doing paid posts and even deleted most of them or put nofollow on the links, but I still have a PR 0. Doesn’t bother me though. I think Google is a joke.

  45. Gravatar of Rodney Smith 45 Rodney Smith

    Azeemi: you’re quite entitled to give Google the finger – just don’t cut off your nose to spite your face! If you’re not bothered about them, you might as well put the paid posts and links back in. The only problem is that the value of links is strongly tied to your PR, so you’ll probably find it hard going.

    Have you tried submitting a reinclusion request?

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