Planet13 - 10:17 pm on Nov 15, 2011 (gmt 0)
"Links can be ignored, rather than causing a penalty."
I don't understand what Matt is implying here. Basically it sounds to me like he is saying:
If you buy links and our algo doesn't count them, then you won't be penalized. But if you buy links and (for wahtever reason) the algo DOES count them toward page rank (a la JC Penny), then you WILL be penalized.
One other thing that I think is important to remember is that much as success breeds success, links also breed links.
When a site is at the top of the SERPs, they are MUCH more likely to get natural, unsolicited links than if they were on page 2 or 3 of the SERPs, regardless of how they originally got tot he top of the SERPs.
Having been a journalist for about four years, I can tell you that the best sources are the ones that are easiest to come by. Having a convenient source allows you to spend your time on more important things than sourcing (such as drinking beer with your buddies - a very important part of every decent journalist's life).
So you just know that online journalists are going to skim the top few google results and reference (with a natural link ) those sites, just because they can't simply be bothered to scroll down the results page.
Thus, sites that vault to the top of the SERPs temporarily via paid links end up getting the lion's share of natural links.