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March 3, 2011

Paid Links: Just Sign on the Dotted Line

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It’s been a busy couple of months of spam crackdown. We’ve got journalists from big-time publications like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times trying to expose “evil SEO,” and Google following closely behind, putting out spam fires left and right on sites for really well-known brands.

On top of that, we’ve seen some major algorithm updates to further slash spam from Google’s search results. And, here at Bruce Clay, Inc., we’re finding clients of ours faced with potential partnerships that could end up very badly for them.

We’ve had two separate instances recently where clients were approached for partnerships by seemingly reputable companies, asking to participate in spammy tactics – under contract no less.

So, in this post, we’ll take a look at some of the not-so-obvious spam tactics that are creeping into business agreements, so you can keep your eyes open for partnerships that may compromise your site and your business as a whole.

2011 Spam Penalty Recap: We’re Only Three Months in, People

First, let’s look at a brief overview of what’s been a hot topic all year (all three months of it): spam penalties. You might remember a little post Bruce Clay wrote recently on paid link penalties. I hate to say, “We told you so” – but Bruce has a sixth sense about things.

Attach

And while many people felt like the topic was beating a dead horse, Bruce saw the urgency because he felt something on the horizon. In case you need a little recap of all the stuff that’s been going on with the spam crackdown this year so far, here you go:

Overstock.com: The online retailer was busted for offering discounts to students and faculty at colleges and universities for adding links within their content that linked back to Overstock product pages for several keywords. For more on this, check out SEO Roundtable’s post on Overstock.com’s great rankings and penalization.

JCPenney.com: This retail giant took a hit from Google when it was exposed as a link-purchaser after it was investigated for ranking so well organically for several generic keyword phrases. J.C. Penney denied it knew anything about it. Read more about the J.C. Penney link scheme at Search Engine Land.

Forbes.com: The popular publication was warned by Google to clean up its act last month and get rid of all the unnatural links on its website. Looks like Forbes was selling links to manipulate PageRank on other sites. Check out TechCrunch’s write-up on Forbes link spam for more information.

Google algorithm updates: In the past couple months, Google made two algorithm updates, both content-focused and aimed to eliminate more spam from the results. One was targeting sites that scrape content, the other was geared towards sites like content farms. The latter was a biggie – affecting around 12 percent of sites in the index, according to Google

Spam Goes Legal: Contractual Obligations Now Creeping into Spam

Recently, we had a couple clients approached by businesses presenting partnerships to them that would include spammy tactics. What’s interesting is that now, we’re seeing contracts coming into play for these partnerships.

Ink Pens [explored]

For businesses that are not well-versed in the intricacies of what spam is, it’s not always obvious spam is part of the deal.

Fortunately for our clients, they have the ability to ask the experts about the transaction before anything becomes official. Some businesses are not so lucky.

In recent cases, we’ve seen clients presented with offers that would populate their sites with very relevant content, but any links within that content would be able to be followed back to the content provider.

If you see a contract with terms similar to this, know that this is a red flag:

  • Business A populates their Web pages with content elements from Business B. This is attractive to Business A because it doesn’t have to create the content itself, and the content is relevant to the site, so it seems like a great SEO fit.
  • Business B’s content has links in it to the pages/websites where the content originates. This benefits Business B because its site will be receiving the PageRank from Business A’s site.
  • Business B contractually obligates Business A to allow the links to be followed, with stipulations that say something to the effect of “using a rel=”nofollow” attribute or Meta Robots tag is not permitted.” This essentially protects Business B from Business A deciding that it does not want to allow followed links anymore, presumably if and when Business A figures out what is happening.

To be clear, this scenario is inducing both parties to participate in a purchased link scheme. Even if you’re not directly paying for or selling links, and even if those links are not directly benefitting your site, those are purchased links in that scenario. It’s essentially bartering content for links. At least that’s how we believe Google will see it.

What’s even worse about this situation is that the companies that are approaching websites with this type of partnership are asking them to enter into contractual agreements. This could not only cause penalties to the websites by Google, but legal problems for the business as a whole.

The really awful part is that in many cases, the average business does not fully understand the complexities of spam. And without the ability to ask an SEO expert, many companies may end up engaging in spam and not even know it.

Play Nice, Please … Thanks

What if you do understand what spam is, and you’re approached by an offer like this and don’t think it’s a big deal? Remember, participating in link schemes hurts the value of Google as a relevant info destination and therefore, hurts us all.

If your website isn’t ranking well, then purchasing links in moderation and without a footprint might seem like a harmless idea. But, if you’re caught, having paid links will be painful – especially if you’re well-ranked already. And it’s not just Google that’s on a mission to track down spam.

Giant Sandbox

If you’re involved in a paid links scheme that seems harmless, you’re still at risk if anyone finds out. And it’s not hard to find out.

We know who approached our clients. And with journalists on the prowl to expose spam these days, they’re conducting investigations for clues leading to breaking big stories related to spam and Google.

Not to mention that your competition is likely always watching you, and looking for opportunities to gain an advantage.

We’re all in this sandbox together, so please, play nice. The way to get links is via quality content worth linking to, including useful and relevant information for your audience.

And if you’re approached by a company that’s trying to make you enter into a contract for anything related to links, no matter how reputable that business is, or how relevant the partnership might be, get a second opinion before you sign on the dotted line.





13 responses to “Paid Links: Just Sign on the Dotted Line”

  1. Brent Rangen writes:

    Hearing a few of my clients saying they are receiving non-requested proposals regularly now via the phone, regular mail, and email.

    Most of them that I have seen are with companies that have a private site network, or something where they have access to a private blog network. Most don’t focus enough on relevancy and I’m sure several are the “bad neighborhood” scenario. You see PR, but can’t find them in the index!

  2. Jessica Lee writes:

    Brent, very interesting. Again, lucky that these businesses have someone to look into it for them. Thanks for reading and have a great weekend.

  3. Vlad Rascanu writes:

    wow….It boggles my mind when I hear of these things. I would expect these tactics from the smaller companies and I’m ok with that because companies that are only willing to pay a few hundred dollars for competitive terms “are getting what they paid for”, but I wouldn’t have suspected big companies to do this. It really sucks because these sort of things ruin everyone’s reputation in the SEO industry.

  4. Chris Gedge writes:

    Not only is buying links against Google’s TOS it is now a legal requirement in the UK to disclose if a link is paid or not. An article here explaining more – http://www.holisticsearch.co.uk/2011/02/28/asa-regulations-seo/. So if you want to stay on the legal side of paid links they have to be disclosed, allowing Google to see exactly where they are. Dont forget that nofollow tag people!!

  5. Jessica Lee writes:

    Hi, Vlad — I suspect more companies than we think are engaging in this stuff. Only now that the mainstream media is involved, it’s becoming more and more exposed. And you’re right, it’s only perpetuating the myth that SEO is a deceptive practice. Thanks for your comment and have a great weekend!

  6. Jessica Lee writes:

    Chris, verrrry interesting development. Thank you for sharing this with our readers. I am going to pass this information along to others! Thanks a bunch.

  7. MicroSourcing writes:

    It’s a PR crisis for firms who have been ‘outed’ for spam. JC Penney has gone as far as an image overhaul by changing the logo.

  8. Ofir writes:

    Great post. Spam can hurt you big time in the long run…I have seen it happens…

  9. Nick Stamoulis writes:

    It’s not a good time to participate in anything remotely “spammy”. It seems more and more likely that you will get caught. This is why I always say that it’s important to have a basic knowledge about SEO before getting involved, just to know what’s right and what’s wrong.

  10. Jessica Lee writes:

    Oh, wow — I didn’t know about the logo revamp. Hopefully it’s not as disastrous as the Gap debacle.

  11. Jessica Lee writes:

    Indeed it can. Thank you for reading, Ofir!

  12. Jessica Lee writes:

    Hi, Nick — you are so right. The problem is that it’s getting trickier to recognize it if you don’t have a technical SEO background. That’s why it’s always great when businesses can consult SEOs. Thanks for your comment!

  13. Uriel Tedgi writes:

    we are starting all over again…..it get even more confusing what is real spam and what is not, after all we just need to stick what we all time believe what is right…there is NO short cut.



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