Why Paid Links Will Destroy Good Content, and How To Stop It

Oct 31, 2014

Article ImageQuality is paramount to the success of content marketing; as opposed to older and more traditional forms of marketing, successful content marketing is entirely dependent on good ideas, true originality, and most importantly, giving something of value to your audience. Fantastic content grows organically, gaining exposure and momentum through coverage on blogs, websites, and social media platforms, meaning that companies don't have to spend thousands of dollars to reach huge numbers of potential customers.

As a result, content marketing represents a sort of level playing field for marketers; small businesses and large companies can compete head-to-head regardless of their budgets, because good ideas are free and the only factor that counts is the quality of what you have to say.

Marketers always thought that, as content marketing became increasingly popular, it would crumble under its own weight and customers would be battered into apathy by the sheer volume of "stuff" vying for their attention. However, this was never the real threat, as no matter how much noise is being created by marketers, the ideas which are truly original and valuable will always cut through the racket and rise to the top, like wheat from the chaff.

Instead, the real threat to content marketing has always been the steady proliferation of spammy SEO tactics, such as paid links and link selling schemes. Exchanging money for links which effect SEO has always been explicitly banned by Google, and as a result most marketers strongly dissuade their clients from buying or selling links due to the damage it could do to their SEO. However, what marketers don't talk about is the larger effects paid link schemes are having on our industry as a whole.

As shady webmasters and bloggers have begun charging for links, they've essentially become a road block which is slowly restricting the channels through which good content gets shared. By charging for links, mentions, and content placement, these webmasters are disrupting the way good content should be shared - organically, purely on the merits of its quality.

If this trend continues, the deciding factor in how much exposure a brand gets will, once again, be the advertising budget attached to it, effectively putting the power back into the hands of larger companies, because smaller businesses can no longer compete purely on the merits of their work. Everything content marketing is dependent on - value, originality, and ingenuity - will no longer be the crucial factor for success, as anything with a big budget attached, no matter how mediocre, will gain more exposure.

As existing websites start to change their business model and chase this sort of revenue, legitimate content creators will have fewer and fewer platforms from which they can gain exposure and build links. Crucially, the customers - the sole reason why this whole industry exists - will stop caring, because the kind of content which made them care in the first place will stop getting through to them.

Of course, top tier sites will never change, as their success is dependent on publishing and sharing the best of the best. However, as more low and mid-tier sites start selling links, it means that the lower rungs of the content marketing ladder are being kicked out for anyone who doesn't want to risk the wrath of Google by buying links. It's difficult to jump from your first ever blog to the front page of The Huffington Post, so content producers are still reliant, to some extent, on these smaller sites where they can build a following and refine their craft. Unfortunately, it is exactly these sorts of sites which are becoming the problem.

So, if the spread of shady SEOs, paid links and unethical webmasters are sounding the death knell for content marketing, what can be done to stop them? We talked to some leading SEO experts to see what they have to say about it.

Ana Zoria is a SEO and PR expert, currently heading up outbound SEO at MyVoucherCodes, one of the U.K.'s leading discount sites. She says, "Although Google has definitely hit back against web spam with the Penguin and Panda updates, I think another way we could see a meaningful change is if links get devalued and social shares become much more valuable. It is extremely difficult for spammers to manipulate social signals because it is extremely hard to accurately imitate the behaviour of real social media users, so it would be very easy for Google to identify and ignore shares coming from fake users."

Zoria adds, "The great thing about this strategy is that, since links will become increasingly valueless, spammers won't be willing to spend money on them, so it will crush the demand for websites which sell links. However, legitimate content - the kind of stuff which people actually share and engage with on social media - will continue to be an important part of SEO."

Nelly Berova, director of digital marketing agency Art Division believes that this is very much a matter of supply and demand. For as long as there is a marketer looking to buy a link, there will be a seller willing to offer this service. This means that low quality content will continue to pollute the online sphere.

"Change must start from within, and marketers and customers should be at the forefront of tackling this issue," says Berova. "It means that us, the agencies, need to educate our clients, and it is clients who should demand better, cleaner and more relevant link/reputation building for their businesses from their SEOs."

Berova adds, "As well as this, Google is reducing the power of page rank and instead putting more of an emphasis on things like trust and citation metrics. Therefore, the purpose of links are becoming less valuable, which means that the ‘link selling farms' will become less popular."

Ironically, good content could be just the solution websites that sell links are looking for. The reason these sites charge for links is they are unable to monetize their sites through legitimate means of paid advertisement. They are unable to do this because they don't attract the sort of traffic that would make buying ad space on their sites worthwhile, and they don't attract much traffic because most of the content they publish is written solely as a vessel for the links.

Expecting the webmasters behind these sites to suddenly change tactics might be a little optimistic. Perhaps the answer lies with Google stepping up efforts to measure quality and rich content. It has already made vast improvements in this area with the Panda updates, but as the way we behave online becomes ever more sophisticated, some futurists think that how web users behave and react to websites will become an increasingly important metric in how sites are ranked. Ultimately, the only way we're going to see a change is if poor quality and spam itself, as opposed to the indicators of spam, get penalized.

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)