Matt Cutts has released a video explaining what they use as the criteria when determining what their search spam team considers as a paid link.
Here’s the video:
What is considered as a paid link?
Explicit link sales
Buying or selling links for the purpose of passing PageRank has been against Google’s guidelines for a while now and Google has certainly handed out penalties based on this criteria.
A single link may go unnoticed but sites that buy or sell links tend to go overboard and patterns begin to emerge which are easy for Google to spot.
How close is the link to the value of money
In Matt’s video he uses the example of gift cards being given away in exchange for a link. Personally I don’t feel as though this criteria is any different to someone outright buying a link as it’s easy to determine what value the link was purchased for.
Gift vs Loan
Technology companies frequently send out their products for others to review. If the item is loaned, then Google sees that as perfectly acceptable. However, if the product is sent out as a gift in exchange for a review/link then Google also sees this as a paid link.
Not all products given away may be considered negatively by Google though. Matt gives the example of a Nexus 7 given away so that developers can write apps for the device. This would be acceptable as the purpose isn’t for the website to benefit from links. However, it would be considered manipulative if a Nexus 7 was given to a group of bloggers for the sole purpose that they would include links to the Nexus 7 website.
Would it be a surprise
Matt’s final point explains whether an action would be a surprise to the blogger or reporter. If free tickets were given to a movie critic in exchange for writing a review then that would be expected. However, if a laptop was given as a gift to the critic this would be considered unusual and should be penalised.
But How does Google determine what is a paid link?
Personally, I feel as though the criteria for what Google considers as a paid link is exactly the same despite the five points Matt has explained.
It basically boils down to whether or not the blogger/reporter has been bribed into posting a positive review or link on their website.
What is less clear to me is how Google actually determines whether someone has gifted or loaned someone a product? How does Google know if a business is bribing a blogger by giving them a laptop? How would Google know that any of these exchanges have taken place if they’ve happened offline?
Maybe this is the point and Google simply want to make SEO’s aware that this kind of activity isn’t acceptable? Or maybe they do have algorithmic ways of tracking these kinds of transactions as patterns emerge online?
I can’t imagine that if a website were to gift a product in exchange for a single link, that one transaction like that alone would cause a penalty. At the same time, that single transaction probably wouldn’t actually be all that beneficial to the website in question.
Where things do become a little bit more problematic for the website is if they’re doing things like this on a large scale. Patterns and trends may become easier for Google to track, competitors may hear about this activity and report it to Google who may then take action.
I’d be interested to hear if any websites have been penalised in the past for any of the criteria Matt has explained apart from outright buying/selling links?