by Juan Robin II
In 2016, we found that the average cost of buying a link was $352.92.
How did we learn this number?
- Do you sell links?
- If so, how much do you sell them for?
These were the results back in 2016:
But, we wanted to update these numbers for 2018.
So, last month, I re-conducted this study with more websites in more niches.
I also ran a second experiment where I sent 180 guest post pitches to see how many people asked me to pay a fee.
I didn’t make any mention of money whatsoever in this email.
In a moment, I’ll share my findings from both studies.
But first, let’s take a quick look at the link buying and selling industry.
The Link Buying and Selling Industry: A Brief History
For as long as Google has used link popularity to rank websites, backlinks have been a commodity.
And like all commodities, there are those looking to buy and those looking to sell.
But, link buying has many shapes and forms.
Some are 100% black-hat, others grey-hat, and others white-hat.
Here’s how link buying has evolved over the years:
Early Link Buying: Authority Directories (the Mid-1990s—2000s)
Paid directory submissions were one of the earliest forms of link buying.
These directories generally charged a “review” fee.
The now defunct Yahoo directory is one of the highest profile examples.
They charged a fee of around £300 ($402) for inclusion, although they did reject some sites.
Make no mistake, that link was not bought for traffic.
It was always bought for the purposes of increasing Google rankings.
The Link Buying Boom (the Mid-2000s, Onwards)
By the mid 2000s, a whole industry had grown around selling links.
Sites such as Text Link Ads sold links on a “rental” basis.
These were generally site-wide sidebar links, for which you paid a monthly fee. The cost was dependent on the site’s metrics.
And in those days, the metric that mattered was PageRank.
Pricing started at around $30/month for a link from a PR1/2 site. High PR sites commanded fees of $100+.
Remember, that’s a monthly fee. So $100/month would end up costing you $1,200 per year.
There were also many websites sold in-content links. You could even choose the anchor text you wanted.
But, unfortunately, Google soon took action to identify and devalue these links.
Google Forces Link Sellers Underground (Late-2000s, Onwards)
Google started funnelling more resources into their webspam team.
And they began handing out penalties to those caught selling links through broker sites, or on forums.
This penalty was generally a reduction in PageRank, but in extreme cases, it could be a de-indexing.
They also encouraged users to report paid links directly to Google.
Did this stop link buying?
Nope. But it did force those buying and selling links to exercise discretion.
In turn, this made it harder for Google to catch sites that were breaking their rules.
And to clarify, buying links to manipulate rankings definitely breaks Google’s rules.
Buying links is the first example they give of a “link scheme” in their quality guidelines article:
The following are examples of link schemes which can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results:
Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link
So what’s the current state of play with link buying?
Link Buying/Selling in 2018 (and Beyond)
Here are some of the ways you can buy links for SEO purposes in 2018:
Paid Guest Posts (i.e. “Sponsored” Posts)
A quick Google search for “buy guest posts” surfaces a ton of sites offering to get you links from guest posts for a fee.
All of these services fall into one of three categories:
- Genuine guest posting services: They conduct real outreach to real blogs and secure guest post placements on your behalf.
- Disguised PBNs: They sell their service as real outreach, but they actually use PBNs. You can usually tell these services a mile off, as they’re very cheap (<$100 per post). We don’t recommend using them unless you’re aware of, and accept, the risks associated with PBNs.
- Intermediary link buyers/sellers: They pay sites for inclusion on behalf of their clients, markup the price, then pocket the difference. Essentially, they’re middlemen (or women) in the link buying/selling process.
I’d say #3 is the most common.
We get requests from intermediary link buyers/sellers (#3) at Ahrefs all the time.
Here’s an example:
We once even had one guy who was contacting all our previous contributors to try and sneakily buy a backlink on the blog.
Here’s Tim, quite rightly, trolling that guy:
I don’t think we heard back from him after that!
But the thing is…
If he’d just taken the time to write a top quality guest post instead, we would have probably accepted it. He would then have picked up a link for free!
Buying Links from Bloggers
This is where I believe the bulk of link buying and selling takes place in 2018.
That’s private link purchases from bloggers.
I have a couple of blogs and I get these kinds of requests all the time.
(I don’t sell links btw!)
But, it isn’t always a monetary exchange.
Sometimes it’s more of a bribe, where a product is offered in exchange for a “genuine” review on the blogger’s site.
It goes without saying that the review will contain a natural-looking in-content backlink.
This is generally the mutual unspoken agreement between blogger and link builder.
And the thing is, for Google, these links (bought or bribed) are pretty undetectable.
How can they tell if a link from within a piece of editorial content has been paid for?
The answer is, they can’t.
Flipping this round, have you ever sent an outreach email and received a response like this?
I’m seeing it more and more (note: keep reading for the study on this!)
Many bloggers are well aware of the value of a backlink and are now openly asking for payment.
Which kind of sucks.
But, that’s business I guess.
So just how much private link buying and selling goes on? And what’s the average cost of a link?
Let’s find out.
What Percentage Of Blogs Are Selling Links in 2018? (and How Does This Compare to 2016?)
For this study, I reached out to 450 sites across 9 competitive niches (i.e. 50 sites in each).
Here are the niches:
And here is the email I sent:
As you can see, there was no messing about. I got straight to the point.
I wanted to buy a link on their site and I wanted to know how much it would be.
We conducted the same study in 2016, only with fewer sites in fewer niches (250 sites across 5 niches: travel, fashion, fitness, finance, weddings). I used the exact same email outreach template this year as we did in 2016. I’ve included a comparison of the results from both studies below.
Here are the results:
Total Number of Blogs Selling Links
Firstly, let’s take a look at the overall totals:
- Sell links: 54
- Don’t sell links: 38
- No response: 338
- Bounces: 20
Here’s how these numbers compare to 2016:
As you can see in the chart above, only 12.6% of the sites I reached out to agreed to sell me a link, compared to 18.4% in 2016.
Still, it’s quite a high hit rate.
I won’t be “outing” any of the sites who were selling links. That’s not what this study was about.
But as you will see in a moment, the data is skewed somewhat by one of the niches.
Total Number of Blogs Selling Links by Niche
Now let’s break it down by niche.
- Travel: 22
- Fitness: 7
- Fashion: 0
- Finance: 3
- Wedding: 2
- Photography: 7
- Food: 3
- Parenting: 7
- Marketing: 3
Again, here’s how this compares to 2016:
As you can see, travel was by far the biggest niche selling links. A whopping 44% of the 50 sites I contacted agreed to sell me a link.
We noticed a similar trend in 2016, too.
6 of the sites stipulated that the link would be “nofollow”.
This makes sense considering the value of the travel industry.
It would also suggest that a considerable part of commercial travel sites are buying links (supply and demand).
Now let’s take a look at the actual cost of buying the links.
What is the Cost of Buying a Link Outright in 2018?
There was a big variation in the price of buying the links.
The cheapest quote was $50. That link was from a parenting blog with a Domain Rating (DR) of 32.
The most expensive quote was £2,500 ($3,312) per year. That came from a DR56 travel blog.
All of the numbers you see above were updated to reflect the NEW DR score.
But as many of these websites were effectively pricing their links based on DR, we thought you might be curious to see the old DR scores for these sites.
So, on the OLD DR scale, the cheapest quote ($50) was from a DR47 site.
And the most expensive quote ($3,312/year) was from a DR53 site.
You can see that the difference between these two sites was miniscule on the OLD DR scale (i.e. 6 points difference).
But on the NEW DR scale, there’s a 24-point difference.
This makes a lot more sense. And we think it’s a good reflection of just how flawed the old DR scale was 🙂
Across all 54 sites, the average cost of buying a link was $361.44.
For those of you paying attention, that’s a 2.4% ($8.51) increase on the average from 2016.
That’s pretty much in line with US inflation, which has averaged around 2% since publishing our original study.
@ahrefs finds the average cost of buying a backlink is $361.44 (study of 450 blogs)
Click to tweet
So, if I wanted to buy a link on every site, it would cost me a total of $19,518!
Here’s a breakdown of what that would get me in terms of metrics:
Again, the metrics above reflect our new and improved Domain Rating (DR) score.
Here’s how things stacked up BEFORE the DR update:
And here’s a comparison between the NEW and OLD DR scores:
You can see that things look much more “normal” with the new DR score—we now have a few websites in the DR0-19 range selling links.
Before, too many domains were clustered in the DR30-49 range.
This is one of the issues we solved with our new DR metric.
That’s a pretty powerful selection of links right there.
I’m guessing this would definitely move the needle.
I did not reach out to an even split of sites by Domain Rating, so this should not be taken as an indication that sites with DR 50–59 are more likely to sell links. I used lists of “top blogs” in the niches to select sites.
But, here’s another question: does the average cost of a link increase in line with DR?
Yes, it does.
Yep, you guessed it—the graph above reflects our NEW Domain Rating (DR) metric.
Here’s how things stacked up with with the OLD DR score:
And here’s a comparison of new vs. old:
You can see that, once again, things looks a lot more “normal” with the new DR score.
There were previously no domains selling links in the DR0-29 range, which didn’t really make sense.
And aside from the slight dip in the DR30-39 range (which was most likely caused by varying amounts of data between each DR “bucket”), there’s still a clear correlation between DR and the cost of a link.
So, that’s how much a link costs when you actually ask to buy one.
But what about when you don’t?
How Many Bloggers Charge for Guest Posts in 2018? (And How Much Do They Charge?)
Have you ever pitched a guest post idea and received a response like this?…
I know I have. It happens all the time.
So, I thought it would be interesting to run another small study to find out:
- How often this actually happens;
- How much these paid guest posts typically cost.
Here’s what I did:
I reached out to 180 blogs across the same 9 niches (i.e. 20 per niche) with this email:
As you can see, I didn’t mention payment of any kind in the email itself.
I only pitched blogs that were openly accepting (and looking for) guest posts. This means they each had a “write for us” page, or something similar.
Here are the results:
Total Number of Blogs Charging for Guest Posts
First, let’s take a look at the overall stats:
- Didn’t ask for money: 22
- Did ask for money: 24
- No response: 134
Over half (52%) of responses asked for money!
I don’t know about you, but I found that number to be surprisingly high.
But what about when broken down by niche?
Total Number of Blogs Charging for Guest Posts by Niche
Here are the results:
Finance blogs took the lead here, with 31% of bloggers (i.e. almost 1 in 3) asking for money in exchange for a guest post.
Travel, Fashion, and Photography blogs weren’t far behind at 20% (i.e. 1 in 5).
But, there was one outlier: Marketing blogs.
None of these asked for any kind of fee in exchange for a guest post.
I think this speaks volumes.
Marketers are generally ahead of the curve here.
And they aren’t prepared to risk their sites.
What Is The Cost Of Buying a Guest Post in 2018?
Again, there was a significant variation in the fees quoted by bloggers.
The cheapest quote was $15, which was described as an “upload fee” by the blogger.
That response came from a photography blog with a Domain Rating (DR) of 12.
The most expensive quote was $300. That came from a DR67 wedding blog.
Here’s how the same two sites looked on the OLD DR scale:
The cheapest ($15) quote came from a previously DR 40 site.
And the most expensive quote ($300) came from a previously DR 57 site.
Once again, the difference between the two sites is far more clear on the new, improved DR scale.
Across all 24 sites, the average cost of publishing a paid guest post was $77.80.
@ahrefs finds the average fee for a guest post is $77.80 (study of 180 blogs)
Click to tweet
So, if I wanted to publish a guest post on every site, it would cost me a total of $1,867.20!
Here’s a breakdown of what that would get me in terms of metrics:
Here’s how the stats looked previously (for the old DR score):
And a comparison between the two (i.e. new vs. old):
Clearly, there is a BIG difference.
Before, almost all of the domains were clustered in the DR30-49 range. Now, they’re more evenly spread across the board.
It now looks as though DR40+ websites are much less likely to sell guest post links compared to DR0-39 sites—an interesting observation, for sure!
However, as we didn’t reach out to the same number of websites in each DR “bucket”, you should take this conclusion with a pinch of salt!
That’s not a bad selection of links, especially for the cost! ($77.80 each, on average)
If we compare the cost of buying links via guest posting to buying links via a direct ask, it’s roughly 1/5th (21.5%) of the cost.
But, remember, you will need content in order to build links with guest posts, which will increase costs… a lot.
The Truth About Paid Links: Why You Should Probably Spend Your Money Elsewhere
Buying links is definitely an attractive proposition.
You hand over $XXX and you get what you want—a link.
There’s no need to spend hours researching prospects.
Or crafting “personalized” outreach emails.
Or dealing with the inevitable feeling of rejection when most prospects never reply.
No. It’s a simple value exchange—a rarity in the murky world of link-building.
But, unfortunately, there are two big reasons why buying links isn’t the best idea:
1. You Can Effectively Buy Links for Much, Much Less
$361.44 isn’t cheap.
And remember, most websites won’t rank with a single link.
That burns through money pretty fast.
But here’s the thing: in a sense, every link is a paid link, even those built from “natural” outreach.
Why? Because outreach takes time. And time = money.
In other words, you could send a blogger $360+ and have done with it (i.e. buying a link outright). Or you could spend time and effort building relationships with bloggers to try to earn a link “naturally”.
Either way, it still costs money because your time (or the time of the person you’ve hired to build links) isn’t free.
Let’s look at the figures…
It costs $360+, on average, to buy a link outright.
That’s definitely one option.
But, let’s say that you paid someone $50/hour to build links for you via outreach.
If they only built 1 link every 7 hours (on average), it would still be cheaper than buying links outright.
Even the worst link builder could surely manage this.
2. Paid Links Can Be Very Low-quality
Let’s say a blogger agrees to sell you a link.
Do you think you’re the only one?
Or do you think they’re selling links to other link-builders, too?
Most of the time, it’s going to be the latter.
Here’s why this isn’t good:
If a site accepts links based not on merit, but cold hard cash, they’ll likely end up linking to a lot of unrelated junk.
This puts your link in a questionable “link neighbourhood”.
In layman’s terms, this is akin to hanging around with bad influences (i.e. the people your mum told you not to talk to). You’re lumped into the same questionable crowd by the power of association.
But here’s the question: can Google spot this algorithmically?
And if they can, I’d bet money that they’re using their powers to identify and penalise anyone buying links. Or at least devaluing them (thus making them worthless).
It would appear that the link buying and selling industry in 2018 is alive and well.
I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether $361.44 (or $77.80…plus content) is:
- a) worth the money
- b) worth the risk of getting caught
If you want our advice, buying links is rarely worth the money.
Why? Because it’s riskier and more expensive than building “natural” links (in most cases).
But, if you are going to pay for links, it looks like buying guest posts will probably give the best bang for your buck.