Just prior to another tasty boxed lunch (grumble grumble), the Real Estate Marketing Blog team checked out a panel discussion on paid links; do they work, and will you be punished for using them? William Leake (CEO of Apogee Search) talked about at a high level that the risk must be balanced against whether paid links work or not. The main problem is that they still work, otherwise people wouldn’t use them. Since the search engines (lead in the charge by Google) devalued obvious paid links on sites, paid blog posting is becoming more pervasive, since these posts still yield permanent, valuable links to a site. According to Leake, paid links need to be integrated into a well-rounded approach to search engine optimization. But many paid links are NOT illegal, as long as the fact that they are paid links is not cloaked in any way. A very direct example Leake of how paid links won’t go away any time soon was made when he asked the crowd whether anyone was part of a trade association. Then he asked a rhetorical question to those who raised their hands: whether they pay fees to be part of the association. Then he asked if they have a link from the trade association’s site to theirs. Then he asked if Google has made any devaluation of the trade association’s site as a result of that. Then he walked away from the podium. Brian Boland (MSN Live Search) just sees this as a technical problem; that as search evolves the right technology will eventually be able to tell all links that are paid for. Paid links, according to him, really are an ethical issue, but not to Microsoft. To them, it is a technical issue. He said their #1 priority was protecting the end user experience, since switching search engines is completely free. The quality of results is the #1 thing. They don’t like it when they feel someone’s trying to trick people. People who sell links are clearly taking advantage of the ‘one link means one vote for a site’ system by tricking the search engines into thinking that these links were not bought. Sage Lewis said that a lot of SEO experts will put emphasis on links above content. If your content isn’t valuable, they won’t garner links. He gave an alternative to paid links, and gave a local example of a site that managed to get a lot of free inbound links to their site. Because of local community involvement, they got a lot of free interest from the community. He closed by saying if your site looks like a brochure, no one will feel compelled to do anything with it because you can’t interact with a brochure. In our opinion, real estate marketers should be really careful if they choose to use paid links to help drive up their search engine rankings. Definitely don’t put paid links on sites that make it obvious that the links are paid links. Definitely don’t put paid links on sites that look spammy or have other paid links that are completely irrelevant to real estate nearby. And just start doing more to make your website a better, more engaging site that involves the local community so that people will start linking to it if you ask them to. As a side note, it was hilarious listening to Mr. Lewis kissing the tail of Microsoft by blatantly plugging the use of Windows Live search on cell phones. He was also burned pretty badly by a couple of the other panel members for mentioning it was ironic that he talks up not using paid links so much, yet his site features prominent advertising for paid link brokers. He had a very political sounding answer that involved mumbling and something about the site being outdated (soon to be revised, haha).