A few years ago there were some client-facing SEO companies that blogged that paid link networks can't be penalized because they're advertising and Google would never bring the hammer down on "legitimate" advertising. These client-facing SEOs were so indiscrete they even publically endorsed specific link selling networks. That was not sound thinking. It was rationalization. There is a difference between rationalizing and sound reasoning.
The reality was and continues to be that paid links are a blatant attack against Google's algorithm. Yes the paid links worked, but anyone who looked past that could understand what we all know now, that paid links did not fit into how Google would prefer to rank websites.
So I ask you to look past whether that technique works or not and focus on whether the Google engineers would support the contention that because someone created a template their site deserves 100% PageRank from a link from topic A, to count the link from topic A as a vote, for the site about topic Z.
Actually, we don't have to speculate. :) I asked Marissa Mayer about that seven years ago at SES San Jose and she said that the link merited
to be deprecated. Whether the irrelevant link is actually deprecated is not the point. The point is how Google feels about irrelevant links. Calculations of risk level follow from there.
Something else. A distinction should be made between a penalty and the situation where backlinks are deprecated with the result that the site begins ranking where it deserves to rank in terms of how relevant the backlinks are. It has been noted in the past that much that has been interpreted as a penalty is simply a site ranking where it is supposed to rank.
Also, a white bar showing on a toolbar is not a penalty. In some cases it's social engineering. ;)
[edited by: martinibuster at 8:32 am (utc) on Mar 23, 2010]