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Stephen Logan

When Gambling with Paid Links Backfires (and What Lessons Can Be Learnt)

2nd Sep 2010 SEO, Link Building 6 minutes to read

A look at the much publicised case of gourmetgiftbasket.com and why Google looks to punish sites with ranking penalties for buying paid links.

Google hates paid links. Epitomising PageRank manipulation, it allows sites to gain an unfair advantage in their rankings. This in turn can skew results and lead to algorithmic confusion – not good for a search engine’s reputation.

Therefore when they find out a site has been buying up links, they tend to come down pretty hard on them. Just ask Ryan Abood.

Owner of gourmetgiftbasket.com, Mr. Abood discovered first hand just how serious a ranking penalty can be. His site disappeared from the pages of Google overnight, costing his business an estimated $4 million [see: How Google Cost Me $4 Million].

That’s quite a hit, regardless of your revenue. But this estimated figure arguably disguises the most important aspects of this whole story. 1) How long did the site benefit from these paid links? 2) How do you recover from such a universal drop? 3) Why did the site decide to risk buying paid links in the first place? 4) What happened to the SEO Company he hired to develop the site?

Google’s Stance on Paid Links and Penalties

It’s pretty black and white when it comes to paid links. If you splash the cash, you break Google’s rules. If you break Google’s rules and get caught, you’re in some pretty hot water [Google Webmaster Central | Paid Links].

Of course instances of sites being collared are few and far between. Whilst this is far from a one-off, the odds are still stacked in favour of link buyers and sellers – unfortunately. That is small comfort for gourmetgiftbasket.com and others like it though.

However, the irregularity with which sites are penalised ensures an enduring popularity and a misconception amongst many webmasters that it is acceptable. Sorry, the ‘they did it first’ or ‘but everybody else has them’ arguments don’t really hold much sway I’m afraid.

Benefiting from Blackhat SEO

The issue with this particular case study isn’t so much the massive drop in rankings, some might see that as an inevitable consequence, but how the site came to have the paid links in the first place. Mr. Abdood explains it as such:

“In the past, I’d done all our search-engine optimization myself. But as we grew, we started paying companies to reach out to relevant sites and ask them for links. Instead, one of the companies admitted it was paying for links. Google looks at that like buying an election.”

A little laissez faire really. How long did this go on, how many links were bought and what effect did that have on rankings? All we know is that in November 2008 the site was flushed from the rankings. There is no quantitative history to back anything up. They’ve admitted gaming the system, but not the impact of any such work.

Why does that matter? Well, if they started buying links in 2001 and were into the hundreds or thousands (unlikely as that may be) by the time Google caught up with them, then the company has probably benefited far more as a consequence than they ever lost. If I was a competitor, I’d probably be slightly aggrieved by any such admission.

Bouncing Back After a Penalty

The recovery began with a huge investment in Google AdWords. Strangely if you’re penalised with organic search rankings penalty, the same doesn’t apply to your paid search efforts. Who’d have thought that Google would profit from its own diligence?

Anyway, essentially Ryan Abood marks the moment the site flopped in search for its current success. It made them take more notice of their other online marketing efforts, not least social media and the aforementioned PPC work.

I would wager that a fair few people had already found out about the site, bookmarking it etc. as a consequence of their previous search engine work; but it’s certainly advisable to have alternative avenues to explore anyway – although more particularly when you aren’t ranking at all.

The Importance of a Blended Marketing Strategy

This is a good lesson for anybody who expects SEO to deliver everything in one hit. Rankings take time to develop and you can’t expect all potential visitors to come through organic Google searches. If you are relying on Google entirely, you could be in for a rude awakening. Divide and conquer.

“One of the companies admitted it was paying for links”. Therefore that very same company cost your business $4 million in lost revenue. Taking away all other potential factors and subsequent ‘benefits’ seen as a consequence of the drop, that’s the bottom line.

The Dangers of Dodgy SEO Agencies

If you’ve been doing SEO then you know what the rules are. Of course link building isn’t always the easiest task; but to be effective you have to be thorough. Simply buying the links is an easy way out.

This highlights the need to really ensure you know who you’re dealing with. If the SEO agency in question can’t guarantee that they won’t employ blackhat techniques, then don’t entrust your site to them. Whatever the size of your business, buying links and suffering a Google penalty can be devastating.

As for the SEO Company that caused the issues in the first place, well, I hope they have a bullet-proof contract.

The original interview is full of contradictions and wayward messages. Whilst it is important to try to expand your marketing horizons through social media etc, there’s no disguising the fact that the site had clearly benefited from buying links. Whilst it did get punished eventually, measuring the impact of those initial links is impossible.

It’s an SEO morality story with a bittersweet end. The site was in the wrong having (knowingly or otherwise) cheated and then got punished. The fact that it has had no long-term impact though (it is now in profit again and top of the search results) suggests that the benefits perhaps justify the risks.

However, these are the three things I would take away from this:

1)    Don’t buy links – Can you really afford to lose all rankings in an instant as a result of paid links? You can gamble that Google won’t find out, but you have to pay the price if they do.

You won’t get a warning email. A nice representative won’t phone you to say that they found a paid link in your profile and could you kindly remove it. Nope, you’ll sink like a stone. You’ll then have to approach Google, admit your mistakes and remove all those doubly expensive paid links.

Your domain won’t recover as quickly as it fell either. Gourmetgiftbaskets.com took a full 18 months to skulk back to the top.

2)    Make sure you have alternative marketing streams – Natural search is a great source of targeted traffic, for many sites it is the leading contributor in fact. But relying solely on a mathematical algorithm that is subject to drastic changes is a risky business.

Engage in Social media, look into PPC, perhaps even do some offline work. Don’t abandon SEO, but ensure that it is surrounded by a more rounded strategy – just in case [see: What is the Most Effective Search Engine Marketing Strategy?].

3)    Know who you’re working with – If you’re passing over control of any aspect of your site, make sure the company can be trusted. Ask what work they will and, just as importantly, won’t do. You can get ahead without breaking the rules.

It’s a tawdry tail with a hugely confused message. However, the one thing that it is proof positive of is that Google ranking penalties are alive and well. Play by their rules and you will be rewarded with rankingst. But go against them and you’ll certainly be made to pay.

Unfair? Perhaps. But that’s the world we’ve created I’m afraid. Therefore Google didn’t cost this site $4 million, mismanagement did.

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