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The Alarming Rise in Paid-Linking: Is Google Getting Smart at Detecting Unethical SEO Practices?

Using paid links as a strategy to improve website rankings and visibility is not a new topic; in fact, it has generated quite a lot of controversy since a few months. A majority of users – more than 80% – click on the links generated on the first page and do not bother going to the next page of search engine results. Being among the top websites on any search engine’s first page requires that your webpage ranks high among other similar ones. Google determines the popularity of your webpage by the number of high-quality sites that ‘endorse’ your website by putting links that take viewers to your webpage.

Though an old technique, the past few months have seen a number of incidents involving paid link building to beef up a website’s rankings. The case of J.C. Penney – a department store chain – is no different, in which the store chain was found to be generating traffic to their website through paid links, ranking abnormally high on search results related to almost everything the store sells. Upon inspection by SEO experts, it was found that a large number of completely unrelated websites contained links to J.C. Penney’s website. In fact, some of those websites contained only links and nothing else.

After the case was presented to Google, Matt Cutts, head of Google Webspam team confirmed that J.C. Penney had indeed been using links from numerous websites to increase its rankings, thus violating Google webmaster guidelines. Shortly afterwards, J.C. Penney was removed from the search results and queries for which it had gained top rankings previously.

Another online retailer known by the name of Overstock.com got penalized by Google a few months ago on account of offering discounts to customers for posting links to their sites to the store’s website. Links to Overstock.com were embedded within a website’s content, such as articles containing words like gift baskets, laptop computers, and computer desks etc., all of which are sold by the retailer.

The vastness of the internet world has led to websites striving for the top positions in search results of major search engines such as Google, Yahoo! and Bing. Owing to such wealth of information – both useful and irrelevant – Google relies on links to websites to determine the relevance of a webpage in order to decide whether or not to display it among the top search results, because it is believed that people link to pages and sites that they find useful. Thus, a page that has a lot of links to it is considered to be useful and relevant in comparison to those without links.

Sensing an opportunity, website owners came up with ‘making deals’ with other websites to encourage them to promote their websites by adding links to their respective sites, and even linking to each other. In case where exchanging links does not seem appropriate or possible (because of credibility issues or risk of being caught by Google), paying for links comes handy. What these website owners need to acknowledge, however, is that it is simply a matter of time before such tactics get discovered by Google. Moreover, with the recent change in Google’s algorithm with improved capabilities in sorting out relevant content and detecting unethical SEO practices, it would be smart not to adopt such techniques and ‘short-cuts’ to increase your website’s rankings.

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