Do you know the average cost of straight up buying links in popular niches? Well, according to a study done last year by Ahrefs, that number is around $360. 

One of the reasons I decided to write about this topic is the increasing number of, let’s call them “indecent offers,” we are getting lately. To give you some background, I work as a content strategist and editor at a link building agency and still do outreach on a fairly consistent basis.

This puts me in a position to receive all kinds of offers from potential guest contributors for our blog, as well as offers I’m presented to as someone who pitches content to other blogs.   And I have to say that I’m still trying to discern if people are getting creative, or they are just lazy and willing to bend the rules.

In light of that, let’s review what kind of offers you can find on the link building marketplace, how safe are they, and should you have any skin in the game.

Leery of Links

Why are people starting to get frisky with the links?

They never actually stopped. 

While Google is constantly making changes to its search algorithm, it is unrealistic to expect that it punishes everyone who buys links or otherwise doesn’t follow their guidelines. After all, Google doesn’t really have a way to know when somebody actually pays for a link or engages in other shady business.

However, what really raises concerns is the fact that more and more bloggers and businesses are asking for sponsored fees, even for publishing purely educational content with no promotion in sight. 

Ahrefs Link Building

Image source

If we refer again to the Ahrefs’ research, the prime example is the travel industry. However, from personal experience, we have started to receive more blatant offers for buying links across the board while doing outreach for our clients.


What Does the Link Building Marketplace Offer?

Let’s get one thing out of they way. Any type of link building is technically against Google’s guidelines. In an ideal world, all links would be earned organically. As that is basically impossible to implement with how the current ranking system works, building links through blog outreach and other white-hat techniques is the next best thing.

However, not everyone wants to invest a lot of time to build links “properly.” Many marketers resort to different kinds of value exchanges to get more links to the posts they want to rank.

Here is an overview of the most common types of these exchanges.

1) Exchanging content for content

A majority of content exchanges end up being guest post exchanges. You write a post for a certain blog, and they write a post you publish on your blog.

I would say this method is in the gray area. On one hand, you are artificially building links and Google, if it wants, can check when two domains linked to each other in a short period of time. On the other hand, it is also likely that Google has bigger fish to fry and doesn’t really care that much, as long as all content exchanged is quality content.

If you decide to do it, make sure that:

  • you are actually exchanging useful content (sites that do this often tend to provide useless fluff content with keyword rich anchors which will just hurt your blog)
  • provided content is a good fit on both sides 
  • you are linking to useful guides on your blog instead of promotional pages such us pricing or landing pages

2) Exchanging links for content

In this scenario, bloggers are willing to publish your post/infographic, if you can provide a link to their site from your blog. This is probably the most common offer we get.

The legality of the method aside, what makes it really frustrating is that this is no way an equal exchange of values. 

You write a guest post pitch, come up with interesting topic suggestions, do the outreach, and provide quality content—they just ask you to insert a link to their site. Your investment is four hours, theirs is two minutes.

If the site in question is so good that you would consider this exchange, at least make sure that: 

  • you don’t link to their promotional pages
  • don’t use over-optimized anchors
  • add the link in an article where it makes sense (thematically and positionally)

There is also a version of this method used by people who are afraid to get noticed doing shady stuff. They ask you to link to them not from your own blog, but from other guest content you share on different blogs. While presumably this is a harder thing for Google to discover, it doesn’t make it in any better.

3) Exchanging links for links

Some sites do not publish content from guest authors but still don’t want to pass up an opportunity to get an easy link. So they offer you an exchange in which they will update one of their existing posts with a link to your site if you do the same for them.

What makes this especially problematic is that these exchanges rarely result with two “best-in-class” content pieces getting one additional link each. 

This is actually the source of the problem with every link building tactic. Most links that are built and not earned are simply not leading to the best possible sources, but to the ones which are sort of good that you created. This means you are trying to manipulate search rankings in such a way that the content on top doesn’t provide the best possible answer for the user search query.

By that logic, if you actually had an opportunity to link to an ultimate guide that is objectively one of the best pieces on the topic it covers and get a link to one of your ultimate guides/research in return, I would argue Google actually wouldn’t be bothered too much with such an exchange.

The problem is, that rarely happens.

5) Exchanging money for links

If there was a list of link building methods you can get penalized for, buying links would be at the top of that list. I think everyone knows that buying cheap, low-quality links is not the way to go so let’s leave that aside. 

What I want to discuss here are sponsored posts. What makes sponsored posts different from your standard guest post is that you have to pay a fee for your post to be published. IN return,  you’re allowed to be more promotional in the content you deliver.

While Google doesn’t have anything against sponsored content per se, it does ask editors to disclose the relationship and add “nofollow” tags to links it contains so that both readers and Google know which content/links have been paid for. As you can imagine, this is counterproductive to anyone that is building links purely for SEO purposes.

Bloggers are well aware of this predicament, so many of them are starting to only accept and publish sponsored content, with a twist— they will actually let you include a dofollow link. 

I sincerely hope that this trend doesn’t continue so we don’t get forced into a corner where so many blogs ask for sponsored fees that you have no other option but to accept it.


The Final Decision is Yours

At the end of the day, as long as links remain a major ranking factor, things will not change as there will always be someone who is ready to break the rules to get to the top of search results. 

Should you participate? 

It’s a lot like using steroids in bodybuilding. One of the top bodybuilders, in an interview after he retired, talked about how he never wanted to use the drugs or be that big. But he still wanted to win. Since everybody else gained an unfair advantage by using performance-enhancing drugs, in order to beat everyone, he had no other option but to do the same.

While all of the options above carry a certain amount of risk and shouldn’t be something you build the foundation of your strategy on, if your competition does it and a lot of blogs switch to only accepting sponsored content, it might be something you occasionally need to resort to just to keep up.