Google says in their Webmaster Guidelines that “Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.” However, right in the next paragraph they admit that “Buying and selling links is a normal part of the economy of the web when done for advertising purposes, and not for manipulation of search results. Links purchased for advertising should be designated as such.” Obviously your PPC campaigns and banner ads aren’t black hat link building tactics, but what about links that aren’t purchased for advertising? What about all the directories you paid $25 for a lifetime link; what about the industry associations you joined for $1000 a year to get listed in their member directory; what about the advertorial you ran on an industry blog? Are those paid links black hat?
In my opinion, paid links are only black hat if their sole purpose is to artificially improve your link portfolio. Let’s say your company is working as the media sponsor for an upcoming industry conference. Depending on how large that conference is, you might have dropped several thousand dollars for being listed on the conference’s site as a sponsor. $5,000 for one link? Sounds kind of black hat doesn’t it? But it’s not. Chance that that $5,000 also gets you mentions in all the conferences promotional materials, as well as having the opportunity to put your company flyers or brochures in the conference guidebook. You most likely get a booth at the conference as well as part of your sponsorship package. Your company is getting an immense amount of exposure as a media sponsor, the chance to interact with your target audience and maybe even get a few new clients, so your investment is worth much more than just a link.
If you were to just buy a link or get your logo placed on the conference website and not actually take advantage of the other opportunities that come with being a media sponsor, you aren’t technically engaging in black hat link building, but that $5000 could probably have been better spent elsewhere. (If you have $5,000 to throw around for a single link I want to know your secret!)
Buying paid links, like Google mentions, is part of the online economy. When you become a member of a respected industry association (which can be very pricey), you are helping build your brand’s authority and credibility. Yes, you are paying for a link, but many industry sites offer their members free resources, forums and guest blogging opportunities to make it worth the cost. If you were to buy a link on an industry site and not get involved with that community, you might be approaching black hat territory. Clearly you only wanted the link for the link itself—which is really a wasted opportunity for your SEO and online business.
Paid blog reviews, in my opinion, are fine in moderation. If you’ve recently launched a new product and want to drum up some buzz, getting a review on a popular industry blog is going to be extremely beneficial. However, most bloggers aren’t going to write the review out of the goodness of their own heart. You might be able to convince them to write a review in exchange for getting the product for free, or you can pay for the blog review. One or two paid blog reviews is a great way to introduce your new product to an interested audience, but shelling out for 10, 15 or 20 paid blog reviews is approaching black hat territory. If you wanted to build more links to that product’s page, there are other link building activities you could do that would be a lot more cost effective and less spammy in the long run.