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Taking pay for links means you may be gambling with Google

Every few months it seems I get the same email pitch. Somebody wants to pay me to publish a link to their client’s site on one of my blogs. The client almost always turns out to be a casino.

Last week I got another one, from someone calling himself “John” at Discover Media UK. He offered to write a 300-word guest post on any topic I wished and pay me up to $120 for it, so long as the post included a link to his client. When I asked who his client was, he told me point blank: GamingClub, an Australian online casino.

But this was not my first time at this particular rodeo. About six months ago I got almost identical requests from a company calling itself Media Discovery UK. They were a bit cagier about whom they were representing, but a little Internet sleuthing revealed the name of their client: PartyBingo.com.

Are Discover Media and Media Discovery the same people? If I were a gambling man, I’d bet on it. But there’s no way of knowing for sure. These folks go to great lengths to obscure their real identities—and that alone should provide a big red flashing warning sign.

Me, I’d advise staying far away, unless you like incurring Google’s wrath. But some people are happy to take their money.

The shell game

These companies all have the same M.O. They send out identical emails using a variety of names, which are almost certainly fake, offering payment for a Web link. Typically they target small hobbyist blogs whose publishers are overjoyed that somebody wants to pay them, even a piddling amount, for doing essentially nothing.

Some sites will publish a story on a related topic that contains a link to the casino. Some sites put up a graphic containing a link. And some blog publishers just plop the link randomly into the middle of an otherwise unrelated post. (BlondeSuburbia.com I’m talking to you.)

The company Web sites look real enough, until you dig deeper and discover they’re often one-page affairs. They may list a phone number (it will probably go straight to voice mail) and a street address (usually a mail drop or a registered agent that provides basic services for hundreds of companies). Usually, though, the only way to reach them is via a bare-bones Web contact form.

I was approached twice by Media Discovery for two different sites I run; once by someone calling herself “Ana Valdez” and the second time from a “Randy Wilkerson.” Web searches reveal that Media Discovery’s roster of faux employees also includes Amy Taylor, Marvin Greer, Eva Robinson, Clara Chapman, Ronnie Vargas, Sam Chavez, Greg Swanson, and probably dozens more.

I called the number listed on the bottom of Ana’s email and asked for her. A very nervous sounding person with an accent took a message and said she’d call me back. Of course, she never did. Now the same number just goes to voice mail.

A look into Media Discovery’s parent company, New Web Ltd., was no more illuminating. It became a registered British company—the equivalent of a limited liability U.S. corporation—in 2005. Its original director was Mrs. Edwina Coales, a 77-year-old woman who is also listed as director of nearly 4700 other UK companies.

It seems dear old Edwina is having a rather hectic time in her golden years. Or, more likely, she doesn’t actually exist. In the UK, you can buy a "ready made" company like New Web Ltd from sites like FormationsHouse—complete with a business registration, officers, bank accounts, and URL—for roughly $3000 to $4000. When you’re being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for promoting casinos, and you want to avoid accountability for your actions, that’s a bargain.

Rolling the dice

Is this practice illegal? No, it’s not. Is it risky to accept payment for a link? Yes, it is—but only if you worry about incurring Google’s wrath. The search site is quite explicit about how it discourages paid links, which screw up its “organic” search results. Google’s Webmaster Tools page is extremely clear on the matter:

The following are examples of link schemes which can negatively impact a site's ranking in search results:

Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link.

If you don’t care how deeply the search engine buries your site in its results, you can happily take the money and run. If you do care, then you’re gambling that Google won’t catch you, notes Martin McDonald, a long-time search engine optimization expert based in the U.K.

Buying links is an old discredited black hat practice that most legit SEO practitioners gave up years ago, he says. McDonald says this “lowest common denominator bulk rubbish link building” is one of the things that gives his profession a bad name.

“I would strongly like to stress that this is not how the bulk of the SEO market operates,” he says. “Overwhelmingly it’s a different, more transparent industry, but there are shady elements left over from the ‘bad old days’ of the early 2000s.”

McDonald says today this practice is largely limited to payday loan and gambling sites, which spend upwards of $250,000 a month trying to build backlinks. Link brokers located in India and Pakistan hire drones to spam out offers, paying out a tenth of that amount to Web site owners and pocketing the rest.

“There is an absolute shedload of money in this,” he adds.

Crapping out

Why do these sites do it? Because it still works. For every site that Google publicly penalizes, there are tens of thousands that get away with it.

According to BacklinkWatch, more than 700 sites are currently linking to GamingClub. PartyBingo has nearly 30,000 backlinks. Multiply those numbers by the $100 to $140 brokers pay out for each link, and multiply that number again by ten—that tells you how much those links are worth to the casinos.

Is it worth risking your site’s pagerank—not to mention bedding down with spammers—in order to cash in for a taste?

To paraphrase the old Google search engine: It all depends on whether you’re feeling lucky.

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