Using ‘surprise’ to determine paid links

This article covers why surprise is a good measure for determining if a link is likely to be identified as a ‘paid link’ and how surprise correlates to paid link severity, plus a couple of examples along the way.

Before we begin, I just want to say how cool it is to be back blogging after six months out focusing on other projects!

Determining a paid link is tricky business. In its rawest format, a paid link is giving something (usually referred to as cash) in return for a link to a website. As a link from one site to another is seen as a recommendation by Google, this is deceiving and so (naturally) Google dislikes paid links. But it’s not always that simple. What about giving a box of chocolates, lending a car or even a reciprocal link? Should resulting links count as ‘paid’?

‘Surprise’ is something that can be used to measure the likelihood of something being considered a paid link by Google. By the way, too many paid links and you’ll get yourself slapped with ‘manual action’ from Google (Wave goodbye to your organic traffic for a while!). This article covers why surprise is a good measure, how it correlates to paid link activity and why being surprised should be a factor considered in all outreach efforts. I’ll also share a couple of examples, both of paid links and non-paid links.

But first, a word from Matt Cutts himself…


Why surprise is a good measure of paid activity

Surprise is something we’re all familiar with. It’s universal: We’ve all been surprised by something before. That’s one reason it makes a great metric to measure paid links.

Surprise (Noun)
A feeling of mild astonishment / shock caused by something unexpected.

The rule to measuring paid links is simple: If you’re surprised by the request from a blogger, journalist or marketeer in return for a link it’s probably considered paid (and you shouldn’t do it). It’s pretty simple, right? But it works, for the following reason.

necessity (Noun)
The state or fact of being required. Being unavoidable.

Being surprised by a request is a strong sign that what’s being asked for is not a necessity in the acquisition of a link. If the payment (in any form) is not fundamental to the discussion of your service or product then it’s likely that you’re doing something as form of payment. Bare in mind that ‘payment’ doesn’t have to be money, nor even a physical transaction. It could be dinner, a reciprocal link or a free holiday. Whatever the payment, it’s still a paid link and (although difficult to prove) Google will frown on it.

An example paid link scenario

For example, let’s say you run a flower shop. If you reach out to someone and ask them to talk about your great postal service and they ask for £100 Amazon gift voucher, then that’s probably going to come as a shock. The gift voucher is not a necessity in order for the person to write about you. However, if they asked for a sample of flowers to be shipped to them, then that’s probably not much of a shock, as they’ll likely need to experience the service for themselves.

In short, a surprise request is usually going to lead to a paid link.

The correlation of paid links and surprise

The more extreme the surprise, the more likely the link is paid. Let’s take three scenarios using the same flower shop as above to demonstrate this. For arguments sake let’s imagine the floral shop have produced a new piece of content which finds the perfect bouquet for someone based on a couple of inputs.

Scenario 1: A paid link

You’ve contacted a floral review blog to ask them if they’d like to discuss your new content, and they’ve replied asking to borrow £100 worth of flowers in return for an article including three links back to your website’s category pages and content.

This is a paid link. You should be surprised to find the floral review blog requested £100 of flowers… And asked yourself why they need this in order to write an article.

Scenario 2: An extreme paid link

You contact another floral review blog and ask if they’ve seen your new content. They reply and say it’s brilliant content, and they’d love to write about it. In return, they were wondering if you’d be able to buy them that new Macbook, as it’d really help them write a really positive review.

Wow, this should be an even bigger surprise than the first scenario. It’s got a much higher monetary value. It’s a gift rather than a loan. And it’s even more strongly going to be considered a paid link.

Scenario 3: Not a paid link

Third floral blog contacted, and this time they’re not asking for £100 of flowers or a Macbook. They’ve asked for a couple of images and descriptions of the bouquets on offer.

This is definitely not a paid link! They’re not asking for anything that would come as a surprise. The descriptions and images make sense.

Are product reviews paid links?

Let’s quickly consider a fourth scenario. You contact another floral blogger who says it’d be really ace if they could receive a bouquet of flowers from you based on the content’s recommendation. They’d be happy to review these flowers for you, but would need them sending to their address.

Now, it’s a bit of a grey area in the content marketing world, but Google’s link schemes documentation clearly states that…

[paid links include] sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link.

So looks like product reviews, just like guest posting, is one area Google is trying to ensure are done ethically.

The exception to the ‘surprise’ rule

There’s an exception, or rather caveat, to the rule that anything surprising should be classed as a paid link.

As a Search Manager, I personally find myself less and less surprised by the requests from bloggers. Some request product samples or demos, whilst the more cheeky still request straight-up money in return for articles. Whilst the bluntness of money still shocks me, I’m so used to outreach returning these type of requests that the surprise element is continually dampened. You become partially-blind to the (good-natured, I may add) requests from bloggers.

A great way to double-check yourself is to ask yourself why a blogger would need whatever they’re asking for. Another piece of advice is to ask a colleague or friend (preferably who hasn’t been as over-exposed to similar activities) what they think about the request.

Why you should always consider surprise

Surprise doesn’t have a set scale: It can’t be justified, manipulated by calculations or ignored. It’s a method which will stand true as content marketing evolves and is something that can be understood by both digital professionals and non-professionals.

What makes surprise such a valuable measure of paid link likelihood is the universal and unfaltering understanding of surprise. It can be understood by the requester just as easily as the person reaching out, although there’s likely going to be a disagreement between why a request is necessary.

Google will find your paid links

OK, so taking someone for dinner or introducing them to a business contact may be fairly low on the severity of outreach request replies, and they seem fairly untraceable by Google. And you’re probably right, Google is going to have a hard time proving the connection between a three-course meal for two and that link about a floral gift finder. But be warned, Google has a huge (HUGE!) amount of resource which it throws at hunting out paid links.

And don’t forget, it’s not just links to your site that are being analysed. It’s every link from the linking website. And it’s every link to the linking website. And every link to every website linking to your website… etc etc etc. Hopefully it’s clear to see how just a handful of potential paid links can start to raise alarm bells for Google.

A few more examples of non-paid links

If you don’t fancy spending weeks, months or even years excluded to the sidelines of Google’s search result pages, here’s a couple of examples of non-paid links;

  • A link to a site which is showcasing the wrap-up from a free event recently attended.
  • A link to a site talking about how cool a new piece of content is.
  • A link to a site referencing some interesting facts or figures that they’ve published.
  • A link to a site in order to reference a unique image used as part of an article or blog.
  • A link to a site reviewing a product which they borrowed for the purposes of said review (eg. Car review).

Further reading

John Alexander Rowley

An enthusiastic digital marketing professional passionately dedicated to increasing the online presence of businesses and individuals in order to improve engagement and ROI.

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