I've been working on optimizing our website for a few keywords for a couple of months. I noticed that there a couple of the companies/sites that are in the top five for a particular keyword have a large amount of backlinks. After doing some digging I discovered that the bulk of these backlinks are derived from "free" hit counters that have links to their site and direct keyword links attached to them. And they actually taken out Google ads to promote the sites that promote these free counters.
While I think this was pretty ingenious (or maybe I just don't know enough about sneaky ways to increase backlinks) I was wondering if doing this could throw up red flags for Google. In other words, is Google going to beat them or should I join them in their sneaky ways?