Content for Links


There seems to be a lively debate centred on content for-links as a link building strategy and on the apparent loss of rankings a particular site who are alleged to be using this approach. We have been explicitly named in some posts and are therefore responding to, hopefully, help to set the record straight. We apologise in advance for the length of this post! Can we also thank the many people who have responded in a balanced way in other posts – it is reassuring to know that not everyone is driven by a crushing competitive agenda or simple malice. KEY POINTS FOR ANYONE IN A RUSH! - Chris Young is NOT associated with our search businesses - We specifically avoid creating a co-operative network - any technology and databases used are simply for efficiency - We NEVER pay for links or content-for-link partners - We cannot confirm or deny any specific client associations for legal reasons THE DETAILS WHO IS INVOLVED? First of all, we cannot confirm that we have any relationship with sites named in some of the other posts. We are contractually excluded from publically discussing the identities of some clients which, as most of you know, is not uncommon in our industry. This response is neither a confirmation nor a denial of a relationship - we promise we are not being evasive - that’s the best we can do on that front according to the lawyers – sorry! We would also point out that per the section at the end of this post, there are other firms using a very similar approach. Secondly, we can confirm that Content Now LLP is Co-Owned by UK Offer Media Limited (Kieron Donoghue, MD) and Search Sciences LLP (Simon Snelling, CEO). We provide a range of solutions for clients including content-driven linking campaigns. Thirdly, Chris Young is a close friend of Simon’s but he has absolutely no involvement with the running of our search businesses -- so please direct everything at us!! DO WE CREATE CO-OPERATIVE NETWORKS? No. We entirely agree that co-operative networks are harmful. It would seem that our use of technology in parts of the process has been completely misinterpreted by some people as intending to create such a network. Quite the opposite. As an example, we exclude ALL clients from linking with each other under any of our campaigns although many would be highly relevant for each other. This is the opposite to the approach taken by many firms who ruthlessly raid their own databases for potential link partners. ALL potential link partners are identified from public sources, including the main search engines, based entirely upon their relevance for the client in question. Period. The information we hold in our systems is used for the management of conversations with potential and live link partners. It is not used to target them. We have specifically built our systems and procedures to avoid such a network, recognising that such networks are a problem elsewhere in the SEO industry. DO WE USE BLACK HAT TECHNIQUES? No we do not. We can only assume that the use of a client-hosted response page that links to one of our systems has been entirely misunderstood. The response page is simply there as an option for potential - and existing - link partners to use for sending messages (we all know how flaky email can be sometimes) and to provide FAQ and more detailed information on various elements of the approach and campaign. It also allows partners to obtain and to provide information which goes directly into our systems, helping with accuracy and efficiency. Once again, it is absolutely not used to create a co-op network. We make no bones about the fact that we keep our brand visibility at a low profile during conversations with link partners. Any of you who have ever actually run a linking campaign will recognise that the activities of unscrupulous firms, many of them located off-shore, have made an approach by an SEO firm almost meaningless – how is a poor site owner supposed to distinguish from a genuine and ethical offer versus a spammy co-op network – or worse – contact harvesting exercise? This is absolutely the ONLY reason we minimise our involvement. We work extremely hard to stick to best practice and we stand tall by our work. In fact, any of you who have ever had a linking dialogue with any of our client campaigns beyond the initial email will know that we state that we are managing the campaign responses at the foot of the email. We will address the issues specifically surrounding the ethics of content-for-links in a further section below. ARE SITES GETTING BANNED AS A RESULT OF THE APPROACH? The only comments that we are able to make on specific cases (see restrictions in “WHO IS INVOLVED?” above) are 1) there are now a number of posts suggesting that there are other factors at play here possibly relating to a new version of the site in question. 2) we have had NO reports of ranking penalties for clients, many of who have been running content-driven campaigns for some time. Actually quite the contrary – all of our established clients are flourishing for relevant search terms. PAYMENT FOR LINKS We do not pay for links. Period. We have turned away clients who wanted us to run paid linking campaigns. Any time a potential link partner responds requiring payment, we will add them to our exclusions system – we know of thousands of sites that require payment for links and we never contact them again. CONTENT FOR LINKS – IS IT ETHICAL? Ask 20 SEO specialists regards linking in general and you’ll get 21 ‘best practice’ approaches. Whilst the search engines rightly penalise overly aggressive tactics; co-op networks; off-theme linking; paid links and so forth, there is widespread acceptance that link popularity remains a significant factor in achieving decent search engine rankings. Perhaps in an ideal world, all sites would be so amazingly stuffed with brilliant link bait that the right links would miraculously appear – how nice would that be? We completely recognise the benefits of social media optimisation, link baiting etc. and practise in these areas. However, in 2009, there remains a healthy market demand for the direct approach to creating relationships with relevant link partners through legitimate means. There is widespread debate as to the validity of reciprocal linking (which incidentally we also practice carefully based upon relevance). Paying for links is quite rightly against Google TOS and is unethical – primarily because the motivation is wrong which effects relevancy and because it creates an unequal playing field wherein those sites with the deepest pockets win. Linking must therefore be about the fair exchange of value. For some clients this may be some form of reciprocal or three way type linking; for others it may involve offering relevant content in return for a link. The point here is relevant. The client and link partner will be in a relevant space for each other. The content will be specifically researched and hand written by our own (UK based) writing team or in some cases the client’s own editorial team around a relevant theme specifically agreed with the link partner. No-one is ever coerced and all link partners have the absolute right to approve, modify or reject the content created for them at any time. We never make any attempt to disguise the fact that the link is the objective – link partners understand this. From the link partner’s perspective, content is often something that they struggle to produce in their own right. Don’t assume, as has been suggested elsewhere, that this is some massive SEO firm preying on a bunch of unsuspecting one man bands. On the contrary, many of the content-for-links partners are full sized businesses who recognise the importance of content but just don’t have the time or resource – made worse by the current economic climate. SO WILL THE PARTNER BENEFIT FROM THE CONTENT? The best answer any honest SEO firm can give to almost any SEO question, given that none of us control the search engine algorithms, is that to the best of our knowledge they should. We don’t think there will be too many people arguing that relevant content isn’t helpful for SEO. The content is unique, written specifically for the link partner on a subject relevant to their site. There is one simple undisguised HTML link to the client’s site included towards the end of the content. To the best of our knowledge and based upon over 10 years of link building experience, once the search engines have indexed the content, the link partner is likely to see the benefits long before the engines attribute ranking benefit for the client from the link – it varies tremendously but the search engines understandably view new links with caution and attribute value to them only over a period of time. Actually, we regularly receive requests from link partners for more content; some become content clients (or linking clients); others have even pinged us simply to thank us and to tell us they were ranking for the content. ARE WE PERFECT? No of course not. The odd bit of sub-standard content may make it out there. A few partners may not be perfectly on-theme. Our processes involve humans throughout and as we all know, none of us are perfect! Any errors brought to our attention are promptly corrected and we are constantly striving to improve systems and processes. We have a decent, very hard working team and we are deeply proud of them. Just as importantly we have a lot of happy clients with good rankings, as we hope do the ethical and fair SEO bloggers among you! IS IT US? Aside from the comments above regards client confidentiality, we are well aware that our approach has been copied by a number of webmasters and, indeed we are told possibly some other SEO firms. This means that emails of a similar structure may well have come from other firms or individual webmasters – just to add to the confusion! CONCLUDING COMMENTS There is probably tons more to say but this post is far too long already. We realise that some of you will have questions and we will do our best to answer them but please bear with us if responses are slow – pressure of work as usual! As a final thought, if the content-for-links approach is so “black hat” because it is motivating partners through the value of the content to include a link, where does that leave, for example, content affiliates who are paid for the traffic – some via natural links tracked via merchant’s own programmes . . .or many bloggers . . or possibly the bulk of today’s social media system . . .where does it stop? Have a great weekend. Thanks and kind regards – Simon & Kieron Kieron Donoghue & Simon Snelling Partners and Co-Founders, Content Now LLP UPDATE: As of just before 10AM GMT this morning (April 27th 2009), the site that was at the centre of the discussion has begun to re-appear at #1 in the Google SERPs for its brand name. It appears to be ranking for some other terms as well. This isn’t totally consistent as yet because it takes a while to replicate around data centres so you may see it jump in and out of the results. Given that the drop in rankings for this site originally sparked this debate, we thought you would appreciate the update.

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17 Responses to Content for Links

  1. Jim says:

    Great post Kieron, i made a similar post with very similar arguments to yours http://linktank.co.uk/the-content-for-links-debate/ and agree it is ethical if done in the right way which people are just not doing.

  2. Hi Kieron

    A very eloquent post, and quite admirable. I own Red Cardinal where the original email was published. I have just one question:

    Why not simply include a notification with each piece of content that tells the reader who wrote the article and why the link is there?

    This would be transparent, and I doubt Google could easily justify penalties for same.

    I still feel that there is a risk to the publishing site, and that you have a duty to inform them of that risk – the email I received was IMO disingenuous.

    Not withstanding the above I do admire your overall response.

    Rgds
    Richard

  3. King says:

    Some excellent points here.

    I have issues with the original blog post, mainly:

    1. “Alex fails to mention that such content on your site goes against Googles TOS and risks a penalty for the publishing site”

    What a ridiculous statement! Why on earth would “Alex” mention this? Has Google said it breaks their TOS? No of course they haven’t, so it is all down to individual interpretation of the “rules”. Perish the thought that this may vary from one person to the next!

    2. In light of point 1, it seems very strange to then complain “Worse still – site owners arent even offered payment for selling links to GoCompare.”

    Make your mind up, either you want them to meet the TOS or you don’t! And the actual sentence doesn’t even make sense – “site owners aren’t even offered payment for selling links”. That.is.because.they.aren’t. selling.links. Dear oh dear.

    3. “Site owners take all the risk while GoCompare take all the benefit.”

    Really? Not if all the speculation of a penalty is to be believed!

    4. “Im generally pretty white-hat when it comes to SEO,”

    Only pretty white hat? So not 100% white hat then or the word ‘pretty’ wouldn’t be required. I question the credibility of the whole post in light of this.

    5. “I have a problem with GoCompare.coms email. They are preying on site owners who wont realise the risks of adding this unique content.”

    These people aren’t complete morons, if they have a website and are interested in getting some unique content – at no monetary expense to them – then they are perfectly capable of getting online and doing a bit of research to find out if there are any potential pitfalls. They have a choice.

    There is an element of risk for all of us whatever we take for free or buy.

    I deal in FACTS. These are my opinions.

  4. Kieron, Simon,
    A respectable response that I largely agree with. However there is a risk that these sorts of link building campaigns can spiral in to spam.

    An honest, ethical request for content/links can easily deteriorate in to an aggressive campaign where the site owner doesn’t understand the implications of their actions. Just like phishing, the site owner may perform an action without knowing the full extent of the outcomes. This could be a Google ban which may ruin their business.

    George
    Insiders View

  5. Kieron says:

    Thanks Richard,

    Very much appreciate the comment regards our post. Regards adding a notification statement to the content we produce, link partners occasionally add something along these lines or ask us to add it for them which of course we happily do. The balance is currently in favour of not including such a statement as standard for a number of reasons:-

    1) we genuinely believe that the content will be helpful to the link partner and have no evidence of any penalty so adding a statement by default raises an issue that we have never seen existing in practice;

    2) the link partners want to take the credit for the content themselves and see this as one of the main benefits;

    3) if we added a statement as standard, lots of site owners would regard it as a blatant attempt to further increase the client’s brand name visibility on the page and may reject it on that basis;

    4) if there is any “footprint” risk with the content-for-links approach, an explicit, standardised statement of this nature could exacerbate it.

    We’re always listening and trying to improve what we do. If we see a widespread issue we will of course address it properly and ethically as needed – if adding a notification statement ultimately proved to be the right thing to do we would most certainly do it.

    Best regards – Simon & Kieron

  6. Looking at the rest of the industry and how they have responded, It is refreshing to see an honest, well thought out reply to potentially damaging allegations.

    It is always better to get both sides of the story.

    As you mentioned, the truth of the story is more about the latest content refresh and redesign rather than the link building tactics although it’s important to take both in to consideration.

    We have seen some SEOs suggesting that it’s all a link bait tactic – put on your tin foil hats – although I don’t buy that!

  7. Kieron says:

    Hi George – you are absolutely right in that any campaign, if overdone and not properly managed could spiral out of control and be counter-productive for the clients and link partners alike. To be honest, we regularly have to push back when clients ask us to be too aggressive, reminding them that too many links acquired over too short a time frame is in no-one’s interest and runs precisely the risks you describe. We have walked away from business on this basis on more than one occasion. Links should be carefully acquired in sensible numbers (which of course vary considerably depending on client status and size) on an ongoing basis, reflecting natural link acquisition. As with everything else we do, managing the outcomes of campaigns is down to people rather than technology and we constantly adjust the number and type of sites we are approaching to control precisely this issue. We are often asked to “rescue” clients who have previously used link building services that have delivered insane numbers of co-op network type links over short periods of time.

    Hope that helps – Simon & Kieron

  8. King says:

    I’m staggered that the individual who wrote these last two comments is the same individual who was so quick to get a highly inflammatory and sensationalist story out there. To then follow it with “it is refreshing to see an honest, well thought out reply to potentially damaging allegations.” is, quite frankly, laughable.

    Insiders View – You come on here and you say you “largely agree” with Kieron’s response and yet yesterday you felt obliged to call content-for-links ‘black hat’ and INCORRECTLY said that it involved “a standard cooperative link exchange”.

    This is NOT TRUE.

    You also said that GoCompare are “back to their old link building tricks”.

    Again, NOT TRUE.

    Correct me if I am wrong but their “old link building tricks” involved buying pay per post links on US blogs. They may have some new link building tricks, but they are not back to their old ones.

    I am all for hearing both sides of the story, however if you are going to stick your head above the parapet with what are (in your own words!) “potentially damaging allegations” against perfectly legitimate businesses then you have a responsibility to get your facts right. The last two days has brought out the worst the industry has to offer in terms of so called SEO experts who simply jump on the bandwagon rather than present a well reasoned argument that can stand up to scrutiny.

    And actually I don’t care whether GoCompare have a penalty, and I don’t care whether they have slipped because they have redesigned their site, all I care about is CREDIBILITY, and some people are fast losing theirs!

    As I always say, these are my opinions.

  9. Will says:

    King

    At last someone from the SEO community who is making sense. Far too many blog sites blindly rush in after spotting something and post sensational ‘tabloid’ attention headlines to create a stir. Others than read that post, make 1+1=5 and you have a conspiracy theory with no basis of truth.

    Has GoCompare received a penalty we dont know and will never know.

    Has the site redesign got something to do with their positions probably, but again will never know for sure.

    Is content for links back hat and against Google TOS no.

    Will

  10. King says:

    Well Will they do say “fools rush in”!

  11. Matt Davies says:

    Wishing this “King” chap would leave some clue as to who he actually is, between his comments here and on blogstorm he’s made more sense than the rest of the “community” put together.

  12. PPCblogger says:

    Kieron, thanks for the honest blog post.

    I would argue though, when a car insurance comparison site using your system requests my blog about PPC/SEO (the one in my signature) as a relevant on topic blog to add content to, your targeting is probably a little out IMO.

    I also received another e-mail to another website I own, again completely off topic and non relevant to the subject matter.

    Perhaps you can argue that you can tailor any piece of content to any site, but I think there is a line.

    If I have received two e-mails like that, I would say you probably need to take a look at the quality of your system and improve it’s relevancy.

    “We genuinely believe that the content will be helpful to the link partner”

    I guess you have to argue that or the whole thing falls apart.

    It might well have some truth to it, but on the whole average content for average content sake there will be little benefit. But if webmasters can approve/decline the articles, it’s their choice and fair enough.

  13. Kieron says:

    Hi PCBlogger

    There some isolated areas where targeting isn’t 100% which we are constantly working to address. Client / market conditions mean that we have to use technology as well as human review at the top of the process. All dialogues with responding partners thereafter are managed in great detail by experienced account managers in our UK team. Despite our systems being over a million lines of server code located on multiple servers, they are still not perfect and we sometimes unintentionally contact sites that are definitely off-theme – blogs and sites that rank well for diverse themes are a classic example of this. We constantly monitor this across all campaigns – always working to improve.

    However . . .

    The most important thing here is that we won’t actually end up establishing links (content-for-links or otherwise) with off-theme sites – if an off-theme site responds, we will apologise and explain that we got it wrong – this happens sometimes and the dialogues are almost invariably cordial in the end. This is also used as input to further improving targeting as above – we try very hard not to make the same mistake twice. There are also endless controls in our systems to ensure we don’t bombard specific sites – the only people that tend to see more than one approach in 45 days (the current threshold) regardless of relevance are the tiny percentage of people that own lots of multiple, ranked domains. It sounds as though you could be in that position.

    On the rare occasions when this occurs – and I’ll say the same the same thing here – we’re always happy to exclude a list of domains for a given site owner. Our exclusions system is fairly sophisticated, excluding for a variety of reasons and at different levels with different effects – so we can generally make sure we opt you out of any approaches that wouldn’t be of benefit to you but not necessarily prevent dialogues for other appropriate themes – all driven by your preferences.

    Hope that’s helpful and please don’t hesitate to ask if you need more help or information.

    Best regards – Simon & Kieron

  14. Jim says:

    Kieron/simon, ive tried to keep my feelings to myself on all this as i dont want to be seen as a competitor rubbing his hands with glee but this comment..
    “Client / market conditions mean that we have to use technology as well as human review at the top of the process.” is rubbish.

    What conditions cause you to use technology(automated tools im guessing)?

    Im sorry but thats just bad SEO. if your pitching your company as a “quality” service then offer quality not automated spam. that sort of talk gives the industry a bad name. Automation has no place in this industry in any circumstances.

  15. Pingback: What happened to GoCompare? Their Banning, Penalty & Re-inclusion into Google

  16. Kieron says:

    Hi Jim

    If you unpick the approach of absolutely anyone in the industry you will find issues. We just dont have the resource to open an entire new branch of the debate surrounding elements of our business so please dont think we are being evasive we really do have to get on with some client work.

    Our technology exists to support the team and the process, not in place of them.

    The words automation and technology are hugely emotive, particularly in this industry. Simon has personally and carefully designed, built and constantly refined all of our systems by hand over the last 6 years. Again, the technology exists to support the team and the process, not in place of them. Humans are at the centre of our business. We are therefore a combination of people, process and technology.

    All we were trying to do in the previous post was to provide an honest acknowledgement that the results of this combination are not always perfect. By Client / market conditions we mean that whatever your approach, in 2009, fewer people are willing to become involved in linking than they were even a couple of years ago — in no small part as a result of precisely the type of debate we have seen over the last few days — coupled with the activities of less scrupulous firms. Clients are under ever more financial pressure themselves and some of them are very small businesses trying to get a foothold. All of us in this industry therefore have to be as efficient as is reasonably possible in delivering acceptable results to their clients. It is a delicate balancing act and the balance is not always perfect we totally accept that.

    The net output of our activities is relevant links and content for all parties: our clients, their link partners and the search engines. We try extremely hard to minimise any compromise inherent in achieving this and it is a process of continuous improvement. On the occasions upon which we get it wrong, we react promptly, professionally and courteously and we do our best to learn from it.

    Finally, perhaps to put this thread into perspective, we have had many notes of support through from our clients, partners and various other contacts in the industry over the last few days. Quite a few of them have been saying how they cant believe the intensity of the debate surrounding our approach given the activities they see on their own sites every day from some well known SEO players and firms, blatantly offering payment for links and all sorts of other trickery which it wouldnt be appropriate to discuss here.

    That doesnt leave us feeling smug or by any means complacent quite the contrary we feel privileged to be involved in this industry and to have the clients, partners and capabilities that we have today. We will continue to work hard to improve what we do for all parties now and in the future.

    Thanks and kind regards Simon & Kieron

  17. Kieron says:

    We created this post with the intent of giving our opinion on the subject of content in exchange for links. We believe we have now done this and I am now closing this thread for further comments. As much as we would like to sit and debate this further we have clients and a business to run which must come first.