I consider sponsoring a theme relevant to my site, a theme especially made for me, with my sponsor links on it only, and a link to the designer - no other sponsored links.
The designer expects 5-6000 downloads of the theme, of which 1000 in the first month. Since people still have to actually start their blogs, I expect links to start showing up more or less gradually over a period of several months.
I don't see this as paid linking. The user gets a free theme in exchange for a link. No money involved. But will Google see this different?
Will this help my site, or will search engines discard these links, or even give my site a penalty?
Google will consider that spam. It does work very well but I would not have it link to any site you don't want to get a penalty. A while back google penalized a lot of websites that did this. I was able to get my clients website back in the index after begging Google to forgive us and working hard to get a lot of people to not use the theme any more. After 4 months I saw many of the website come back from the penalty. I think Google changed their mind. That does not mean they won't do it again.
I think it all depends on how you do it. If you have a link at bottom that is not a keyword and links to a site that makes wp themes then you will be ok. If the bottom if full of spammy keyword anchor text links to a site that does not design wp themes then you can get hit. If Google has not already devalued "made by" links they will in the future.
I'v read Google has been devaluating footer links, and has started (or will soon start) devaluating blogroll links also. So I'm sure it won't do me all that much good for rankings, but maybe it will for pagerank. My intention is to do it focused within my own industry, and only with my links, and the developers'. No funny pill links, etc.
Thanks for the feedback guys!
Still wonder if anyone has been succesfull with this approach? I saw a competitor that derived major pagerank from this tactic.