You are reading a news article or report in your favorite newspaper or magazine, and without realizing it, you have just contributed to a certain company achieving a better position in Google search results. It’s possible that, while engrossed in the content of the text, or simply because it wasn’t of interest to you, you may have overlooked a link to a product or service’s website. One that seemed to fit with the text and appeared coincidental. It doesn’t matter if you clicked on it or not, if you saw it, or if you skipped it. Whether you are aware of it or not, you have just become a soldier in the battle for SEO, search engine optimization. This is link building, millions of pieces of content are published every day worldwide to achieve it, and the media relies on it as a significant source of revenue.

A study by Neeo and the podcast “Los Mediatizados” has provided figures: El Mundo charges €7,012, El Español charges €7,161, ABC charges €4,492, charges €4,719, El Confidencial charges €2,800, La Razón charges €2,532, and Público charges €2,178, just to give a few examples of newspapers with very different editorial stances. The same phenomenon occurs on the websites of major broadcasters, with COPE charging €2,662, Onda Cero charging €2,662, Los 40 charging €1,168, and Rock FM charging €1,154. This trend can also be found in financial newspapers, with Cinco Días charging €4,398 and Bolsamanía charging €2,312, in prominent magazines like Muy Interesante and Marie Claire charging €5,000, and on popular blogs such as Neomotor charging €5,569 and AutoBild charging €2,360. Even on television websites like Vertele, the rate is €4,396, and it extends to platforms like Forocoches, which charges a fee of €800. All online publications, regardless of ideology or topic, engage in link building and charge based on their number of visits and unique users. This can be contracted through marketplaces, where intermediaries like Growwer, Coobis, Prensalink, and Leotycs, among others, facilitate the process.

What is primarily being purchased there is the work of writers who create specific news to cater to the interests of a product, service, or to support influence strategies specifically crafted by lobbyists. If done poorly, it can be very obvious, somewhat amateurish, and even the least critical reader will realize: this is advertising. But if it is professionally handled by journalists from the same media outlet, as is often the case, or by contributors with sufficient experience, you will read it without realizing that it actually has a commercial intent. And here, we are talking exclusively about link building, which is just a part of paid content.

Professional journalism has always vehemently rejected these types of practices, arguing that its ability to serve as the Fourth Estate and tell the truth is only possible through economic independence, thanks to readers who pay for it. In the past, this was through physical copies, and today, through subscriptions. This is how new media outlets like CTXT or InfoLibre emerged before the pandemic, both of which stated in 2018 that they would not engage in these practices, which are now seamlessly integrated into their business models. It’s not that they have sold out; rather, there is simply not a single media outlet in our country that can exclusively survive on subscriptions or the combination of subscriptions and direct advertising, ads, and campaigns. This is why today, everyone engages in link building and paid content. Furthermore, the most widely read media outlets in Spain, and those that have grown the most, are the ones that have most decisively embraced these practices, often adding clickbait headlines and sensationalism: 20Minutos, OKDiario, and El Huffington Post.

And it’s not a local phenomenon. Established and highly prestigious international newspapers also engage in this practice, such as the French Le Monde, with a fee of €19,360, or the Italian La Repubblica, with €16,426. But this has gone much further. This September, the cultural magazine Vulture, affiliated with The New York Times, discovered that the website Rotten Tomatoes, known for its cultural journalism on films, has taken this practice to such an extreme that it has Hollywood completely under its sway. For those not familiar with it, it is a reference in cultural journalism about movies that removed film critics, claiming that critical opinions about titles, created by a community of experts, truly reflected the taste of the audience and not just that of expert and esteemed intellectuals. It has just been revealed that if a production company pays enough, its film will be rated as the audience’s favorite, and while critics scratch their heads and say otherwise in their sections, thanks to this paid content, Google search results display a resounding “this movie is extraordinary, go see it.”

This example helps us understand where the influence of link building is taking us and how it has become the true Fourth Estate today. With sufficient investment, the top Google results will consist solely of paid ones, and critical or opposing opinions will simply disappear. They will be buried so deep that they won’t reach anyone. You may find them on social media, perhaps, but they have less influence. Let’s not forget that paid content became popular precisely to allow media outlets to compete with social media for the public’s attention regarding news and to bypass ad blockers. This is how film criticism has become almost irrelevant, and the documentary with which Carlos Boyero ended his long career is a prime example of the changing times in information. Whether Barbie or Oppenheimer have dominated the summer box office through payments may or may not be significant, but for the same reason as the companies that engage in the most link building here, we rarely read news about their flaws or malpractices. They are buried too deep in the search results.