4. Incentive-Based Link Requests
Incentive-based link requests use an incentive as part of the
process of requesting a link. This can run dangerously close to
violating the search engines’ Webmaster Guidelines, but there are also
ways to do it that remain compliant with those guidelines.
The concept is
to develop content with the intent of publishing it on third-party
sites. The site that is publishing the content provides a link back to
your site in return for being permitted to publish the content.
Ideally, this content should be distinct from the content on your own
site to avoid any risk of duplicate content issues.
Widgets are another way of syndicating content to third-party
sites. They have the advantage of coming with a way to package the
content so that it is not seen as duplicate content. This is because
publishing the widget calls back to a remote server to fetch the
content. The result is that a search engine crawler does not see the
This also results in any links embedded within a widget being
invisible to the search engine as well. However, it is possible to
implement a widget in such a way that it has an HTML wrapper around it
with a simple HTML text link in it, a link that is visible to the
Popular widgets can get adopted by a large number of websites,
and can result in a large number of links as a result. Widget
campaigns can also result in links to deep pages on the site.
4.2. Dangerous tactics
Of course, the incentives can be over the line too. For example,
proactively going out and buying links might be a way to rapidly
acquire links, but the search engines are increasingly good at
detecting these types of links algorithmically (and discounting or
even penalizing them).
Google also provides a method for third parties to report paid
links directly to Google on an anonymous basis. There is every
incentive for those third parties to do so.
Based on these risks, buying links is a dangerous practice, and
it is harder to safely execute than it appears to be on the
Another dangerous tactic is doing a large percentage of your
link building through reciprocal links. Once again, this is easy to do
in principle. It is not hard to find sites that will accept the “link
to me and I will link to you” value proposition.
However, the search engines potentially view this as barter.
They are not likely to question a few selected link exchanges with
sites closely related to yours. It becomes a problem when the link
swapping becomes a significant portion of your backlink profile. That
is a situation that looks manipulative, and they will most likely
discount those links.
5. Direct Link Requests
If the site looking for links is a high-quality site with unique
and/or authoritative content, the publisher may simply need to tell
other publishers about what it has.
If there is already a relationship between the publisher
requesting the link and the publisher being asked to provide the link,
this process is pretty easy. The requesting site sends the other party a
note with whatever pitch it wants to make. This pitch is easy to
personalize, and the nature of what is said is likely to be guided by
the existing relationship.
However, if the person requesting the link does not know the
person from whom she is requesting the link, it is a very different
ballgame. Table 2
summarizes how to decide how to contact a site, including how much
effort to put in.
Table 2. Categorizing the value of potential links
sites||Targets may result from large-scale research.
Contact is by email and is personalized but likely in a somewhat
automated way. These types of sites are being relied on to
obtain a volume of links. No customized content is
sites||Targets may result either from large-scale research
or from industry knowledge by the publishers of the link
destination site. Contact is by email and is personalized,
likely done by a human but with only low to moderate levels of
effort in customizing a template. No customized content is
sites||Targets are identified by principals of the
business or senior marketing people, or through market analysis.
Email contact is entirely customized and tailored to the
targeted site. Phone calls may also be used in pursuit of these
links. Content may be developed just to support a campaign to
get links from these types of sites.|
sites||Targets are identified by principals of the
business or senior marketing people, or through market analysis.
Email contact is entirely customized and tailored to the
targeted site. Phone calls may be advisable in pursuit of these
links. Face-to-face visits may also be involved. Content may be
developed just to support a campaign to get links from these
types of sites.|
5.1. Creating a value proposition for direct requests
One of the key points is how the publisher can make its pitch
interesting enough for the potential linking site. As noted earlier,
this starts with understanding what content or tools the publisher has
on its site that would be of interest to the potential linking
Sites do not link to other sites for the purpose of helping
those sites make money. They link because they perceive that the other
sites’ users might value the content or tools on their own
This relates to the fundamental structure of the Web, which is
designed around the notion of interlinking related documents.
Positioning a site or a section of a site as being related to the
potential linking site is a requirement of each link-building
With high-value sites and very-high-value sites (as defined in
Table 7-2), it may
be worth spending a bit of time and energy on defining a compelling
value proposition. In many cases, it is even worth doing custom
content development to increase the perceived value and relevance of
the content to the potential linking site.
In all cases, developing a link request value proposition begins
with understanding the nature of the potential linking site’s content,
and then deciding how to match up the content of the requester’s site
Once you have done this you are in a position to contact the
site publisher and communicate what you have to offer, and request a
5.2. Basic email pitch
The most important thing to remember is that the person you are
emailing to request a link probably did not wake up this morning
wondering what links she was going to add to her site. And certainly,
she was not expecting or waiting for your email. Basically, you are
interrupting her to ask her to do something for you, and she has no
prior reason to trust you. Based on this, there are few simple
guidelines you should follow when making a link pitch:
Keep it simple and short. The person you are contacting is
receiving an email that is unsolicited. She is not going to read a
two-page email, or even a one-page email.
Clearly articulate the request. It is an investment to get
someone to read an email, and it is critical that the pitch be
clear about the desired result.
Clearly articulate why your site deserves a link. Generally
speaking, this involves pointing out the great content or tools on
the site, and perhaps citing some major endorsements.
Follow each and every guideline of the CAN-SPAM
Act. Unsolicited emails are not illegal as long as they
follow the guidelines of the act. Do not even think about
6. Manual Social Media Link Creation
Some social media sites, such as LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com), allow you to link back to your
own sites in your personal profile, and these links are not NoFollowed (i.e., they do pass link juice).
Leveraging this can be a great tactic, as it is simple and
In the case of LinkedIn, the process takes a few steps. There are
two major things you need to do:
Make sure you list selected web pages in your profile.
Go into the Edit Public Profile Settings section and let
LinkedIn know you want the web pages you specified to be visible in
your public profile.
The preceding process was what was required as of early 2009, but
the specifics may evolve over time as LinkedIn releases updates, or
LinkedIn may start NoFollowing those
links. Other social media sites that do not NoFollow links in their public profiles
include Digg, Propeller, Kirtsy, Technorati, MyBlogLog, and Mixx.
Two longer lists of such sites are at http://www.searchenginepeople.com/blog/22-dofollow-social-media-sites-offering-profile-links.html
and http://www.seomoz.org/social-directory. The
policies of sites regarding NoFollow
change on a regular basis, so you should check the current status of the
links they provide before investing a lot of time in pursuing this type
Another way to create links manually in social media environments
is by visiting social media sites, forums, and blogs and leaving behind
comments with self-referential links in them. The major steps of this
process, using blogs as an example, are as follows:
Build a list of blogs that are related to your topic
Start visiting those blogs and adding comments without linking
back to yourself, and develop a relationship with the author(s). The
early stages of the relationship begin when the author starts
responding to your comments. You can even reach out to the author
through one of the major social networks.
Once the relationship has been built and seems solid, let the
author know about a related value-add resource you have, either
through direct contact with her or in a comment. Make sure there is
a real connection between your resource and the content from the
author (even if you have to create the content on a custom basis,
These steps are meant to be conservative to avoid a backlash from
the owners and/or the authors of the blog. You can extend this process
to forums or social media sites as well.
There are ways to be more aggressive with this. Some publishers do
not really care about building relationships first and want to push the
process much faster. However, there are two significant issues with
Depending on the level of aggressiveness, it may be a
violation of the Webmaster Guidelines and the search engines may
choose to take action against the publisher who pursues this.
There could be a backlash from the community itself. Offending
one blogger may not be a huge issue, perhaps, unless she is very
influential. Offending hundreds of bloggers would probably be much
worse, particularly if you are trying to establish your site as
authoritative in a topic area. In forums, blogs, and social media
sites, offending people can quickly scale to a problem of large
7. Gray Hat/Black Hat
As we previously discussed, some publishers choose to push the
limits or ignore the Webmaster Guidelines in their quest for links. On
the next few pages we will look at some of the more popular tactics in
7.1. Buying links for SEO
One of the more popular techniques is to buy links. This has two
It is easy. There is no need to sell the quality of the
content of your site. The only things that need to happen are
determining that the third party is willing to sell a link, and
setting a price.
Since the link is an ad, you can simply specify the anchor
text you want. Anchor text is a powerful ranking signal, and this
is one of the major reasons people engage in link buying.
7.1.1. Google’s policy on paid links
The major downside is that buying links for SEO is against
Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Here is a brief summary of Google’s
policy on paid links:
Links given in return for compensation should not be
obtained for purposes of increasing PageRank.
The link should be freely given, and the publisher of the
potential linking site should be informed of what the publisher
is doing. An example of a link where the publisher is not
Google is not saying that publishers should not be able to buy
ads on the Web. Its policy is that links should be purchased only
for the traffic and branding value they bring. Google also
recommends that publishers selling ads on its site use the NoFollow links, which means they will have
no SEO value.
On another note, PPC campaigns using AdWords, Yahoo! Search
Marketing, and so on are not considered a violation of the policy
against paid links. This is because such links are easy for the
crawlers to recognize, and due to their paid nature, they do not
pass link juice.
7.1.2. Methods for buying links
There are three major methods for buying links. These
- Direct link advertising purchases
This method involves contacting sites directly and
asking them whether they are willing to sell text link ads.
Many sites have pages that describe their ad sales policies.
However, sites that openly say they sell text links are more
likely to get caught in a human review, resulting in the link
being disabled from passing PageRank by Google.
- Link brokers
As we mentioned earlier, link brokers are companies that
specialize in identifying sites selling links and reselling
that inventory to publishers looking to buy such
The major danger here is that ad brokers may have a
template of some sort for their ads, and a spider can
recognize a template as being from a particular broker.
- Charitable donations
Many sites of prominent institutions request charitable
contributions. Some of these provide links to larger donors.
Search for pages such as the one at http://genomics.xprize.org that links to its
supporters. This may be considered a legitimate link if there
is an editorial review of which sponsors receive
acknowledgment via a link on the institution’s site.
Sometimes these types of links do not cost much money.
However, Google frowns upon this tactic, so it’s best to use it with
care. One way a publisher can potentially make the tactic more
acceptable is to support causes that are related in a material way
to its site. However, it is not clear that Google would find this
Finding these types of sites may seem hard, but the search
engines can help with this. One way is to use a series of related
searches that will expose sponsor sites. For example, you could go
to the search engine of your choice and search on
This should bring up a number of sites accepting sponsorships.
However, you may want to target that search a bit more. If you have
a nursing-related site, the next step might be to search on
nursing sponsors, or even sponsors
inurl:nursing. You can also try other related words, such
as donors, donations, or
7.1.3. Strategies that are not considered buying links
It is worth noting that in some strategies, money is involved
in obtaining a link, yet such links are not considered to have been
bought. Here are some examples:
Using a consultant to help your articles reach the home
page of social media sites such as Digg (note, however, that
this practice may not meet with the approval of the social media
Paying a PR firm to promote a site
Paying a link-building firm to ask for (as opposed to
The key point is that these strategies do not compensate the
site itself for the links given, and the links are given
7.2. Link farms/link networks
In the early days of search, publishers developed link farms and
link networks as tactics for gaining cheap links. A link
farm is a website or a group of sites whose primary reason
for existence is to cross-link between themselves and other websites.
Generally speaking, the links are created through aggressive
Since these sites are typically very heavily interlinked, they
can be pretty easy to detect. Part of the reason is that since they
have little redeeming value, they typically do not have high-value links coming in to them from
other sites, and most of the links result from various cross-linking
Link networks are a similar concept. The
network exists for the purposes of creating links between sites, and
it can be a bit more sophisticated than a link farm. For example, you
could create a club where publishers agree to contribute a link in
return for getting a link from somewhere else.
If managed with great care, the clustering of links between
sites can be limited, and this can be a bit harder for search engines
to detect. However, the tactic remains highly exposed to a disgruntled
webmaster simply reporting the scheme to Google.
A related concept is the notion of three-way link
swaps (a.k.a. triangular link swapping), where Site A links
to Site C in return for Site B linking to Site A. In this scenario,
Site C may be the site the publisher is trying to promote, and Site B
may be a site it uses to provide low-value links to people it trades
This is almost always a scam, because Site B is probably a
low-value site with little to recommend it. So, the publisher of Site
A is providing a good-quality link in return for a low-quality
7.3. Automated link dropping
Spam tactics can include the concept of creating a bot that
crawls around the Web looking for open forums and blogs and leaving
behind automatically generated comments. Clearly this is spam, as no
human is involved in the comment process (other than the programmer)
and no effort was made to read the blog post or forum where the
comment was left.
The great majority of these comments are deleted or NoFollowed by the blog or forum software
content management system (CMS), but the spammer does not care because
she is operating on a large scale. If she leaves behind 1 million
comments and 98% of them are filtered by one means or another, she
still ends up with 20,000 links.
This is, of course, a very risky tactic. The search engines may
be able to detect this behavior algorithmically, or competitors can
recognize it and turn you in via a spam report. We do not
recommend this tactic.
7.4. Spammy giveaways
As we previously discussed, you can use widgets as part of a
link-building campaign. However, this tactic can be abused as well.
and then embed a link back to the widget publisher’s site in the
NoScript tags. Since this is the
and not the widget.
An example of someone who did this is discussed in the post
“Another Paid Links Service Disguised As Hit Counter” (http://blogoscoped.com/archive/2008-02-06-n19.html).
Four days after this post went up, the sites referenced lost all of
their high rankings in Google, and therefore lost most of their
However, be aware that making the link visible is not enough to
make this practice legitimate in Google’s eyes. Google has confirmed
that it considers tactics such as the use of unrelated widgets for
link building a no-no, even if the link is visible.
The underlying reason for this is that if the link is unrelated
to the widget, it is pretty unlikely that the link given actually
represents an endorsement of the web page receiving the link. The goal
of the person installing the widget is to get the benefit of the
As another example, Google considers the use of so-called
sponsored WordPress templates with embedded links, even if they are
visible to be spammy as well—unless, of course, the publisher
distributing the WordPress template is in the WordPress template
business. The key issue that needs to be addressed in these types of
link-building campaigns is relevance.
7.5. NoFollow uses and scams
One of the most common uses of NoFollow is to NoFollow all links in comments on a blog or
in a forum. This is a common and legitimate use of the tactic, as it
is used to prevent spammers from flooding forums and blogs with
useless comments that include links to their sites.
However, as you might expect, people did implement some common
scams using NoFollow. One simple
example of this is that someone proposed a link swap and provided the
return link but NoFollowed it. The
goal of the site using the NoFollow
was simple: to get a link that passes link juice, but not to provide
any link juice in return.
However, Google announced that it had changed the way it handles
NoFollow in June 2009. At this
point in time, NoFollow still
prevents the passing of link juice to the site receiving the link, but
it is lost to the linking site as well. As a result, this scam no
longer benefits those who attempt to use it.