|Discussing "paid" links that have lower chance of a penalty|
Google is clear that they do not want companies to buy links for the purpose of manipulating Google rankings. So are there ways for companies to pay for links to help their rankings without incurring the wrath of Google?
Personally I think of link development not as "paid" links but more as link investment and like most investments they tend to require payment.
Here are some "paid" links that can fall into an unclear area which you can debate as risky or not risky at all:
a) charity donations in exchange for being listed as a sponsor online
b) giving free products/services to bloggers
c) paying to develop online tools for your audience
d) providing free seminars which cost you money to setup
How would you invest in link development while avoiding Google penalizing your rankings in their serps?
I think that when you look at the majority of sites that get penalised for link activities, in the main these are for pretty obvious tactics. In most cases that I've observed, the trigger is either a large network/footprint, or obvious anchor text overuse.
I would say that even if you were to pursue the four tactics above aggressively, you're unlikely to incur much in the amount of risk with Google rankings - unless you request specific anchor text, and thus create both an obvious footprint, and (inevitably) an unnatural link profile.
Of course, there are two different ways to consider this:
Pragmatic: would the techniques be detected by Google?
Ethical: is this tactic "playing fair" according to guidelines?
It's the latter that gets the most discussion, although I always imagined it was the former that most sites would be concerned with ;)
On some of my sites, I tell people they are welcome to reprint everything down to the CSS used for styling, as long as they mention where they got the information, preferably with a link back. I don't police the link part, and most of the people who DO actually source me will add the link.
Anything scaled seems suspicious and might be flagged for editorial review and subsequent interpretations for applied penalty intervention.
Anything with a pattern seems algorithmically traceable if on any scale. Anchor text, tools , networks , spikes etc
Anything associated with high quality and reputation receives merit. It doesn't always require a link to gain a phrase, although clearly it may help.
Small scale digretions would seem to me to be below the radar thresholds - but since there is little scale of return few would do it and why would Google be bothered to police it.
I get the feeling that Google's Penguin update simply was a case of Google throwing it's hands in the air and saying, we can't differentiate paid links effectively, or, it's too costly to monitor. So let's throw anything relying on links within these patterns out the door and put focus mostly into brand and quality signals.
That said, investment in any form of external linking would seem to be unwise, unless it is redefined in the context of brand building and freely given editorial links that show natural phrases, or about a feature or benefit that is unique and for that you don't need large scale linking.
The days of having the most links to gain a phrase in competitive markets that scale are long gone.
I think investment in brand building that shows online, in this context, is better. Not volume, but quality. Links might come as a consequence of that, but if what you offer is unique , attributions by association regardless of linking will play it's part.
Trying to work out what's in, and what's not in terms of Google's acceptance is really on the edge of risk. And if it's not clear, steer clear IMO.
So the key, in my view is attributing relationships of quality. Inducements may play a small part, but I'd say it's tricky territory, and not necessary where quality is involved.
Some more where money has changed hands...
e) links that come from being an exhibitor at a conference
f) local chamber of commerce
g) professional body / trade association member directories
Reading more around the recent high profile penalty, the site involved had participated in sooo many different types of blatant link spam that it was a wonder they hadn't been slapped before.
Personally, what I do that involves money changing hands is so different from ANY of what they were doing that it won't change the 'link buying' part of what I do one bit.