Definition: Paid link building is when a website pays a third party domain for a followed backlink that points back to their domain. While link building is a core tenet of SEO, paying for links is strictly forbidden by search engines and can result in harsh penalties.

How paid link building became a practice

Links have been an important signal in search engine ranking algorithms since Google rose to popularity in the late '90s. The impact of backlinks on a website's search engine performance led to abuses, one of which included paying for links. Because Google's algorithm uses links as a natural signal, it strictly forbade this practice and developed complementary algorithms with the explicit purpose of identifying websites who utilized unnatural linking practices. The most well-known of these algorithms was nicknamed "Penguin," released in 2012.

Today, Google continues to seek out unnatural links and applies higher rankings to websites based on relevance, quality content and mobile-friendliness. Matt Cutts, who previously led Google's link spam team, has discussed how the search giant typically has no problem identifying a paid link - even when site developers think they're done a sufficient job of hiding the evidence.

Paid Links vs. Online Advertisements

Despite the natural overlap, Google does not consider online advertising to be the same as paid link building. Affiliate networks and other advertisers are strongly advised to apply a "nofollow" tag to outbound links in ad campaigns. The primary difference is the latter is used solely for manipulating search results while the goal of the former is to increase sales and business awareness. To indicate the difference, site developers should designate advertisement-based links with a nofollow tag.

How to get quality links — without paying for them

Paid link building is not only potentially harmful — it's an inefficient practice. Attracting free links isn't easy by any stretch, but with the right focus and strategy, an online business can earn links that have a significant impact on the bottom line.

1. Forge relationships
As previously noted, not all backlinks are discounted by Google - links that are given out freely by reputable sites being one of those exceptions. For this reason, marketers should strive to build relationships with authoritative industry sources who might consider linking to them - either on blog posts or on static partner pages.

2. Create a variety of exceptional content - and do it often
Content marketing is inherently tied to SEO because of Google's . Extraordinary content attracts visitors, gathers shares and backlinks, and boosts SEO - and so the cycle continues.

To take advantage of such benefits, many marketers aim to curate attention-grabbing yet relevant content. As opposed to stuffing content with keywords, these creators focus on honing a voice for their brand and offering up information, contests, video promotions and multimedia that followers will want to share.

In addition to what's included within the content, marketers should carefully consider the frequency with which they roll out new posts. Search engines love fresh content and tend to reward companies that establish themselves as an industry leader — and that means a perfect marriage of quantity and quality.

3. Return the favor
Though it's important to consider the benefits backlinks could offer to one's organization, it's also worthwhile to consider how they might benefit another company. Consequently, marketers might choose to feature guest blog posts or highlight industry sources on their own sites. Doing so not also paves the way for fruitful relationships - it could also lead to external shares that drives traffic back to their site.

4. Think now
In order for companies to boost their SEO presence, marketers need to be tuned into which attributes search engines value most. For today's online and ecommerce businesses, that means spending more time developing mobile and social media-based experiences.

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