The line between a paid link and an organic exchange of traffic is probably clearer than most marketers think.

Companies that have gone all-in on content marketing strategies know success is measured by search visibility. As was the case with Rap Genius at the beginning of the year, the overnight loss of search rankings will send businesses into a panic and undermine an entire marketing campaign. That’s why paid links and other black hat SEO tactics are so dangerous.

In Google’s quest to make a more informational and organic internet, it has made paid links one of its most punishable offenses. The smallest hint a business is giving a website money in exchange for additional traffic and link juice will result in pages not appearing on SERPs and organic traffic losses. But the lines between what constitutes a paid link and what is simply reciprocation might seem more complicated than it actually is. Fortunately, the webspam team recently offered some clarification.

Link payment is usually obvious

Matt Cutts appeared in another Webmaster Help Channel video to put content marketers at ease. First and foremost, he pointed out that 99.9 percent of the time, the issue of paid links is cut and dried. Most of what Google monitors, analyzes and punishes is very obviously against their terms and standards. However, when it comes to less concrete examples, he recommended using common sense.

First, he advised companies to take a look at the Federal Trade Commission’s definitions of compensation if they think they may be operating in a gray area. The most important element is overall value: A $1 pen or promotional tote bag won’t usually be considered fair payment for a backlink, but a year’s worth of free service probably would.

Another fear he laid to rest concerned companies soliciting reviews. If a product is being sent to websites for review, the intent is say what the intent is – not to receive a link. If the hyperlink follows because ¬†content writers choose to create review or share information about said product, it is a side effect and wasn’t why the site received the product in the first place.

Help make the web more organic

The simplest rule of thumb for businesses concerned with their content marketing efforts should be to never pay for links and always strive to create valuable and useful web assets. Google isn’t omniscient, but it is forgiving when it’s clear a business just wants to market itself with the best content possible. Use common sense and employ honest practices, and you almost certainly won’t invite its wrath down on you.¬†

Alex Butzbach is a Marketing Writer at Brafton. He studied Communications at Boston College, and after a brief stint teaching English in Japan, he entered the world of content marketing. When he isn't writing and researching, he can be found on a bike somewhere in Metro Boston.