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Text link ads - to buy or not to buy?

Buying text link ads in the hope of boosting search engine rankings has exploded in popularity in recent years, but is it worth it?

Buying links vs. PPC vs. link exchanges

Firstly, let's briefly distinguish between PPC advertising, link exchanges and buying text links.

PPC (Pay Per Click) is carried out in conjunction with search engine companies where you bid on key words or phrases. The highest bid gets the top ranking on the search results and then you pay the bid amount each time your link is clicked. You can learn more about this method of marketing in my PPC guide.

Exchanging links is usually a straight swap of links between sites. This method is a cheaper way to go in terms of capital outlay, but it does require a substantial amount of time and research to carry out a successful campaign. Learn more about link exchanges.

Buying text links is simply the purchase of a link on another site for a set period of time, usually cycles of one month.

Buying/selling text links

Buying
Text Link Ads

Selling
Text Link Ads

Why buy text links?

The main reason that site owners and marketers buy text link ads is to boost link popularity. Most search engines see a large number of links from quality sites as a "vote" for the site being linked to and this helps with boosting search engine rankings. 

If the focus is link popularity, then whether or not the link itself actually brings in traffic is very much a secondary concern as a high search engine ranking can bring far more traffic than from a link from any site.

Some marketers do buy text links primarily for the traffic that can be gained directly from the linking site, especially if that site is a "hub" or an authority in it's field. With a well structured ad, many new customers can be gained in this way.

A link from an authority site also gives your own site credibility. Joe Surfer sees your link and thinks "hmm.. if X is recommending them, they must be good". Most people cannot distinguish between a paid link and a natural link and will see it as a recommendation, even if the site's disclaimer states that outgoing links are not necessarily a recommendation.

Why *not* buy text links?

While buying text links may seem to be a magical, no-sweat solution, there are a few things you need to bear in mind.

Firstly, it can get very expensive. A text link from a very highly ranked site can run into hundreds, if not thousands of dollars a month. You can buy on less popular sites, but you'll need to purchase more links. Also, it can take quite a while to see the benefits in terms of search engine ranking boost, so you'll need to commit at least 3 months on each site you buy a link from.

Secondly, it *can* harm your rankings if you don't go about it correctly. The golden rule of ethical optimization is quite simple: don't try to fool a search engine. For example, buying a slew of identical links on entertainment sites to a pharmaceutical site is sure to send up some red flags. I've provided a few more tips below to help keep you "clean" and maximize your chances of success.

Finally, it may not work. Search engines are complex beasties with ranking algorithms that change all the time. What may rank highly one month, may suddenly disappear the next. Search engine companies aren't big fans of sites that sell links and some are now penalizing sites that do. If the site you purchase from experiences a rank-tanking, then any benefit you may have received from that link may disappear.

It's not a cruel game played by the search engines for their own enjoyment, it's simply to try and maintain quality. If an algorithm remained static for any length of time, it wouldn't be long before spammers and SEOP's (Search Engine Optimization Professionals) nutted it out and dominated the rankings - to the detriment of everyone else. Joe Surfer would soon lose faith in the search engine and consequently the entire web as we know it would collapse in on itself :).

Anything to do with search engine optimization is part science, part art and part luck. It's a gamble, just like any other investment.

If you've decided that you do want to buy text link ads, here's a few tips that may help you, they are much the same as considerations for engaging in link exchanges.

Age of site

Is the site selling text link ads well established? If it's under 12 months old, their apparent success may be short lived. Search engines recognize the age of a site as a contributing factor of it being an authority.

Traffic and popularity

Get some figures from the site owner about current traffic to their site. Don't leave it at that, also check how many sites link to them by reviewing results in Google, Yahoo and MSN by running this query:

link:http://www.theirsite.com

Also check Alexa for their traffic ranking using this query:

http://www.alexa.com/data/details/?url=theirsite.com

The lower the Alexa rank, the more popular they are - a decent Alexa score is 100,000 or less. Check the results using Alexa's 2 year graph to get some idea of consistency.

Another indicator of popularity is Google's PageRank, available on the Google Toolbar, a free plugin for Internet Explorer. 

Note: Alexa/Google Toolbar are great tools, but bear in mind they are only guides and the results should be considered in relation to other factors mentioned.

Relevancy

Most important - only buy links on sites and pages that are strongly related to your site's theme.

Mix it up

Even if you do have cash to burn, don't focus just on the top sites in your category, mix it up a little with less popular sites. Also provide some variety where links are placed (home page/sub-pages) and also where they link to on your site. Linking to your home page is fine, but if you have other important pages, throw in a few of these as well.

Straight through links

If you're buying the link with link popularity and ranking in mind; any link to your site should not be a redirect, it should be a plain text link directly to your site. Ensure that the link doesn't have the nofollow tag applied and won't be cloaked using JavaScript, i.e. that when you move your mouse over the link it shows www.yoursite.com in your browser status bar, but when you click it, a redirect URL is displayed in the address bar. 

How many other outbound links?

Regardless of how popular the site is, it's unwise to purchase a link on a page that basically just consists of other outbound links, or more than a couple of dozen outbound links scattered in the content.  This is because each added outbound link "bleeds" a little more ranking potential from the pass-on.

What is the quality of other sites linked to?

Are the other sites that are linked to of good quality? Bear in mind it's not only the quality of the content on a site or the links pointing in that determine their ranking, it's also where the site links to. Excessive linking to bad neighborhoods is thought to incur ranking penalties.

Structuring a text link ad

Text links ads are usually quite restrictive in terms of length. You may only get 25 characters for your pitch. That being the case, you need to maximize effectiveness. An added consideration that search engines factor into ranking is not just who is linking to you, but how you are linked; i.e. anchor text

For example, if I were to use TamingTheBeast.net for anchor text, it wouldn't be anywhere near as effective as "Web marketing resources" as the linking text. 

The idea is to pack as many related keywords and terms into the anchor text and description as possible, while keeping it human readable. This will also help human visitors to the site determine whether what you offer is of interest to them.

Tip:

When linking, maintain consistency - either use http://www.yoursite.com or http://yoursite.com. The reason for this is it's rumored that some search engines see these two prefixes as separate sites and will rank accordingly, therefore diluting your campaign.

Where and how to buy text link ads

You can waste a lot of time in hunting down sites that offer text link ads to buy, so I suggest using a reputable broker. Not only will they streamline the transaction, they'll also provide you with tips, help ensure that advertisers are of sufficient quality and abide by a code of ethics. 

Buying/selling text links

Buying
Text Link Ads

Selling
Text Link Ads

The big question to ask yourself

If you're on a very tight budget, another determining factor in deciding your purchase should be to ask yourself this question. Would I still buy the link even if it didn't boost my rankings? This is especially important given the move by some search engines to purposely penalize some sites selling links. You may get caught out at a time when that occurs to the site you buy a link from.

If you feel that you'll get enough quality traffic directly from the link to at least offset the cost, then it's a worthwhile gamble.

The final consideration 

While inbound links may improve your rankings, that's only useful to you if your site is decently presented with valuable content and already optimized for search engine placement. Otherwise it's a little like putting gas into a car that's already wrecked. In fact, this *should* be your primary focus before considering buying links. If you improve your content, you may find other sites linking to you naturally and you'll never have to buy a link :).

Related learning resources

Anchor text optimization

Link exchange guide

PPC (Pay Per Click) guide

Search engine optimization and submission

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
Tutorials, web content, tools and software.
Web Marketing, Internet Development & Ecommerce Resources
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