How SEO Greed Can Ruin A Perfectly Good Linking Strategy

By now, you are likely aware of the Rap Genius “Tweet In Exchange For Anchor Text” link scheme, hencefore to be known as TieFating.

Barry Schwartz reported last week on John Marbach’s exposé of the popular music site, Rap Genius, which had started an “affiliate” program in order to get links pointing to their website. After it was exposed, Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam team, said, “we’re aware and looking into it.” The site was then officially penalized for link schemes.

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Links can do many things, but don’t get greedy…

In a nutshell, the folks at Rap Genius offered to tweet a link with a URL to any blogger that linked to the Rap Genius site using specific keyword rich anchor text to the lyrics of very specific songs by very specific artists. In exchange for these keyword rich anchor text links, Rap Genius would then tweet out a link to the blogger’s site/post, and that would result in their site getting “massive traffic.”

I won’t rehash the details here, as you can read the original story to learn more, but the thing that struck me most was that none of it had to play out the way it played out.

What happened is a perfect example of a potentially useful linking technique being ruined by a poor — or perhaps greedy — choice of implementation requirements.  It’s obvious to any mildly experienced link builder that Rap Genius was after improved search rank based on the anchor text they required bloggers use in the links they inserted into their blog posts. Code was provided for copy/pasting. Various song titles and artists and the word “lyrics” were included in the anchor text.

It’s a open and shut case of bounty-based rank seeking by promising “massive traffic” via a tweet in exchange for a keyword rich anchor text link. On this, we should all agree. If you don’t agree, and you feel this type of linking strategy was not intended to manipulate Google, please feel free to explain why in the comments below.

It Didn’t Have To Happen

What’s so ironic about this situation (in addition to the not-aptly named Rap Genius), is that this could have been a very useful and powerful content promotion tactic had it just been implemented in a different way — and this goes not just for Rap Genius, but for any site.

The first mistake was demanding anchor text. That’s greedy and unnatural. The links they were seeking would have been just as potent and explanatory whether or not they’d contained the words [lyrics, song name, artist name] in the anchor text. Heck, the links could have even said “click here” and likely accomplished the same thing, given the other content and semantic signals present on the pages.

What do I mean? Here’s are two fictitious examples to make the point.

Now here are two questions about the above examples.

  1. Is there any doubt in either example as to what content you will get if you click the link?
  2. Is there any doubt as to which of these examples was designed to try and affect Google search rank and which one wasn’t?

Aside from the obvious intent of example 2 above, isn’t it a bit insulting to Google to believe they could not figure out what each of these links represented even in the absence of anchor text? Yes, it is. And this is also why, in 19 years and over 100,000 outreach emails, I have never asked for anchor text. It’s not a signal of relevancy, it’s a signal of manipulation.

So the key mistake in the execution of this linking campaign was demanding anchor text, rather than just letting the bloggers create the links naturally.

There was another tactical error made by promising to tweet out a link to the blog posts containing those anchor text rich links. The error? Quality control. You cannot tweet URLs without regard to the credibility and quality of the site you just tweeted about. That’s the very definition of tweet spam. If you are going to offer a tweet-for-link campaign, which in and of itself is not a violation of any search engine’s quality guidelines, you must limit the tweets to only those you find to be on topic and relevant to your followers — and oh yeah, hosted on truly excellent sites.

In other words, any content you share should be vetted, curated, and quality controlled. The deciding factor on what you tweet should never be whether or not the URL you are tweeting contains keyword rich anchor text links.

Another tactical mistake was not asking those blogs to use use nofollow. Don’t kid yourself. They knew what they were doing and hoping to accomplish. This campaign was all about search rank, driven by a promise-of-traffic tweet incentivization.

It’s Not The Tactic, It’s The Intent

This is what’s sad to me as a linking strategist from the pre-Google days. There are ways to implement bounty linking strategies that are effective for click traffic without violating Google’s Quality Guidelines. And it doesn’t matter if you believe Google has no right to be the “police” of the web. The moment you asked for keyword anchors in exchange for tweets, your intent became obvious.

I like the strategy. The execution and intent were the problems.

Don’t build links for Google — do it for traffic.

Don’t demand anchors — let them happen as the webmaster wishes.

And don’t open this up for any blogger — show some respect for your followers by only tweeting truly outstanding posts, not just posts that paste your code and and anchors.

There are some brilliant linking strategies that get bad names and press because they were chasing the wrong carrot. But that doesn’t make the strategy bad. It’s just recognizing the right carrot you need to be chasing, and executing your linking and publicity campaign accordingly.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: SEO | Google: Web Search | Link Building | Link Building: General | Link Week Column | SEO: Spamming

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About The Author: has been creating linking strategies for clients since 1994. Eric publishes the strategic linking advice newsletter LinkMoses Private, and provides linking services, training and consulting via EricWard.com.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://www.hiswebmarketing.com/ Marie Haynes

    ” If you are going to offer a tweet-for-link campaign, which in and of itself is not a violation of any search engine’s quality guidelines…”

    I would disagree with this statement. The link schemes section of the quality guidelines states the following:

    “Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; ***exchanging goods or services for links***; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link”

    Asking for a link in exchange for a tweet is in my opinion an exchange of a service for a link. Any time a link is incentivized it is unnatural.

  • Liran Hirschkorn

    Not if you “no-follow” the link.

  • http://www.ericward.com/lmp Eric Ward

    Exactly! Incentivized linking should not be done for rank. It should be done for direct click traffic. Rank might improve later as an after-effect if the content merits earned links from the right sources. Incentivized links do not violate Google Quality Guidelines if they are clearly marked as such. That’s where RG failed.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Those guidelines were really meant in terms of bloggers who might receive free products or services in return for reviews. The reviews generate links, and while no cash passed hands for those links, Google say the rise of this type of material and decided it was effectively the same and made nofollow necessarily.

    The idea that saying you’ll tweet someone’s article if they link to you — that feels like a stretch, for it to be applied to that.

    If that’s going to count, then Twitter recently made it where if you embed a tweet on your site, then your site might appear within that link.

    Google itself recently offered the ability to embed Google+ posts into any page.

    In both cases, those could be seen as “services” offered for an exchange back.

    Of course, if they use nofollow, supposedly all is good. With Google, the embed is rendered with Javascript, which potentially blocks as well as nofollow does. Then again, it’s a clean link back to Google. Then again, maybe Google blocks it some other way. Then again, maybe it doesn’t.

    And that’s the difficulty with all this. At this point, Google’s rules have become so encompassing that asking for any type of link at all, regardless of incentive, could be deemed as trying to manipulate PageRank.

    I don’t want to enable anyone to think well heck, the rules are so confusing that it really should be anything goes. I’m no fan of tools that let you buy a ton of links or spam blogs for links and otherwise clearly aren’t in the sense of having earned links.

    But it’s also pretty clear that Google still heavily depends on links and that plenty of sites that deserve to earn links just don’t get them magically happening. So link building is going to have to continue.

    In this increasingly hostile link building climate, I think that when Eric says to build links for traffic, not to influence Google, that remains very good advice. If you’re acting to get direct link traffic from sites that you think have an audience you want, that’s the closest match to the type of links Google wants you to earn — and most likely to stay in the safe zone.

    Still, there’s a part of me that imagines that some retailer might want to invite customers to link to them just for the direct traffic and yet now have to think “oh dear, asking people I have direct relationship with to link to send us traffic better be followed by making sure they know how to add nofollow, so I don’t fall afoul of some Google penalty.”

    And all that just makes me wish, in the end, for two things:

    1) Google should more rapidly move toward making use of social signals in addition to links, because the link-based ranking system feels more and more like it’s just patched together with all these rules

    2) If Google doesn’t think a link should count, then don’t count it. That effectively acts as a penalty without all the negatives of adding a formal penalty on top.

    I think in the short term that Google views those penalties as changing behavior. But in terms of crappy links schemes people did that Penguin hit, just taking the credit away alone would have hurt those schemes. Adding in the penalties opened up the whole “negative SEO” backlash.

    In terms of big brand, yeah, I guess somehow Rap Genius didn’t get the lessons that supposedly the slaps against JC Penney, Interflora and even Google itself were supposed to teach. And if Google banning itself for bad linking practices doesn’t teach a lesson, I’m not sure how many more wrist-slaps are supposed to do that.

  • Jonathan Jones

    Hey Eric,

    What’s your opinion on the quantity of links going through to Rap Genius?

    i.e.
    http://i2.wp.com/vlexo.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/16-links-one-article.png?resize=745%2C400

    That’s 16 targeted anchor text links pointing to various pages on RapGenius.com.

    Also, do you think the fact they’ve been penalised has done more good than harm for their long term strategy? They’ve gained links from the LA Times, TechCrunch, Search Engine Land (teehee), Gawker, The Register, IB Times, Independent (UK), Vice, Billboard.com, Forbes, Business Insider, ABC News, NY Times, MTV and much more. Those are backlinks which don’t come easy. Do you think Google will assess these links to Rap Genius in their algorithm as relevant, if they get let back in the search results? i.e. will these high authority links help them?

  • http://www.ericward.com/lmp Eric Ward

    I guess the best way to answer this is to say I don’t think RapGenius intended to spark this firestorm of media attention and links, but my hunch is now that it’s happened, they are “happily apologetic”. This particular scenario is really interesting from a risk/reward perspective. RG has now “earned” many legit links as a result of what is technically an “unearned” linking strategy. Will others imitate it in hopes of getting the same type of attention and links? Of course they will. Will it work? Who knows?

    I think in the long run RapGenius ends up more well known and better linked as a result of this. I know I’d never heard of them until this happened, and I’ve visited their site now a few dozen times. And there’s the rub. Be bad and accidentally end up good.

    In the true story movie “Catch Me If You Can”, a long time check counterfeiter gets busted. But after doing time, he is hired by the FBI. That certainly wasn’t his original plan, but nicely played, even if by accident.

    Links will always be vital to your success, but links will ultimately fail as a singular ranking signal. They already have. This is why seeking traffic based links that are not pursued just for search rank is crucial to your future success. It sounds counterintuitive, but you have to pursue links with the mindset that search engines do not exist. Zen schmen, I know, but it there it is.

    If you create inbound linking strategies for traffic that totally ignore search engines as a traffic source, you’ll end up with the exact link profile the engines wanted to see in the first place.

    Seriously, if this wasn’t true, I wouldn’t be here.

  • http://www.hiswebmarketing.com/ Marie Haynes

    Hi Danny,

    I definitely get your point about the Google Plus and Twitter embedding. I can see how site owners can be confused. One thing that bothers me is that Google can get away with requiring people to link to their Google Plus profile in order to get authorship, thus giving a huge boost to Google Plus.

    I do think that Google is using RapGenius as an example. The penalty seems far too harsh for the crime. With that said though, we don’t know the full extent of what RapGenius has been doing. Perhaps there are more link schemes that just aren’t public. The site has a LOT of blogroll links and while it’s possible that these are all sites that are legitimately recommending a good site, it’s also possible that they were gained through incentives – either monetary or otherwise. My gut instinct though is that the vast majority of their links are good ones.

    Also, in regards to whether or not exchanging a link for a tweet is unnatural, I think that the scale matters. If I link to you and you tweet about me, Google’s not going to care. But, if a large percentage of your links are gained in exchange for a tweet then that can be seen as an attempt to manipulate the search engines. And then, as Eric mentioned, the real problem was that RapGenius dictated the anchor text that should be used.

    I agree with you that many sites will be afraid of gaining any type of followed link for fear of going against the Guidelines and that is sad.
    Also, I agree that it would make more sense to just discount the unnatural links rather than penalize.

  • Jonathan Jones

    Hey Eric,

    Thanks for the response. I hope you don’t mind me using your response on my blog. I’ve cited back to your comment — if that is okay.

    I especially liked this part in your comment:
    “Be bad and accidentally end up good.”

    That’s an awesome quote.

    It’s going to be interesting to see when RapGenius bounces back, what exactly will occur.

  • wood railing

    Hey Eric,
    The second example link actually points to ‘eample .com’

  • wood railing

    Hey Eric,
    The second example link actually points to ‘eample .com’

  • http://www.elite-strategies.com/blog Patrick Coombe

    Exactly Eric, this is very true. We know RG was trying to get do-follow links to improve their results. No where in their “pitch” did we see “and please nofollow your links to comply…”

  • http://www.ericward.com/lmp Eric Ward

    I mean no offense, but you’re incorrect on your dates. Here’s your proof.

    http://www.ericward.com/yahoo.html

    That’s 1994, with all due respect sir. My own first site had navigational links with topics/categories, so it wasn’t only possible, it was happening. And I use keyword anchors today on -my own- site, for navigational purposes and yes, in hopes that if Google feels my content is credible, they might reward me. However, I won’t seek out keyword links from other sites. The ones I do have are in author bios like the ones above, and that’s not for rank, that’s for click traffic.

    But…to acknowledge your point, I’ll rephrase. Pre-google or after they launched, I never asked other sites for anchor text, because it has never felt appropriate to ask for it. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t happy if I got it.

    Example: in 2006 I worked on a project for PBS/Children’s Hospital Boston about content that included a virtual stem cell lab. I think it’s still around but has changed URLs over the years.

    When I would identify sites that I felt would be inclined to care about this content, I would reach out (sometimes via email, sometimes via phone), and invite them to visit the site and share it with their readers in “whatever manner they felt was appropriate”.

    This is one of the points where public relations and link building intersect. The most credible content owners are not going to let you tell them how to link to you. It would be rude to ask. IMO, you introduce the content to the right people, and then shut up. If you want to drop an anchor in a press release, that’s fine, but technically that’s a self produced link, not earned, so don’t expect that to drive rank on its own. If others read it and write about, the anchors they use are by their choice. Might help might not.

    Then, let things happen from that point as they will. The resulting collection of earned links will have a natural anchor text distribution, some with keywords but most without, because each site that chooses to link to it does so in their own way.

  • http://wtff.com/ JustConsumer

    How am I incorrect on the dates ?

    I said : “Means no one would understand you, if you would ask for anchor text 19 years ago (in 1994).”

    How does the email shown refute this statement of mine ?
    Did you mention “anchor text” in it ? No, you didn’t.
    Why didn’t you mention ? Because “anchor text” wasn’t defined yet.
    “Anchor text” didn’t exist and that’s why you didn’t mention it.

    You could have such conversation with Jerry Yang on BBS even in 1990, but how would it be related to the “anchor text” appearance ?

    Sorry, but your statements about SEO related activity since 1994 are just funny. Probably this is good promotion while in pub, but among professionals this is not serious.

    Conversation with Jerry Yang in 1994 is not SEO ) Not even close.

    re : ” you introduce the content to the right people, and then shut up ”

    Absolutely agree.
    I just can’t understand why do you call such activity as link building ?
    This is usual web activity called web promotion. It has nothing to do with SEO. I do it, millions of other people do it this or the other way. Why tie it to SEO ? To make SEO looks better ? ) I doubt it will help )

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    You seem to have learned some untruths in your history of the Internet.

  • http://wtff.com/ JustConsumer

    Unproved statement.

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    “Unproved statement”:

    Example 1: Means no one would understand you, if you would ask for anchor text 19 years ago (in 1994).

    Example 2: You could start to use phrase “anchor text” 17 years ago (in 1996), but it is also doubtful, because web link was not used as the signal by any search engine.

    Example 3: Google was the first who considered link+anchor text as something important. But it was presented in late 1998 only.

    All three statements are provably wrong.

  • http://wtff.com/ JustConsumer

    And what does stop you from providing proofs ??))

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    Just google it.

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    Just google it.

  • http://wtff.com/ JustConsumer

    It was expected, that Michael Martinez can’t prove his statement )

  • http://www.ericward.com/lmp Eric Ward

    If anchor text didn’t exist how the heck would Yahoo have been able to link to my site?

    I didn’t mention anchor text in my email to Jerry because Yahoo’s protocol for links in 1994 was to use the company name as the clickable anchor text by default.

    And while we’re on the topic of pointless trivia, Yahoo did actually use that clickable anchor text as part of their directory’s three core ranking signals: Category, Company Name, Site Description.

    You seem to just want to argue. Ok you win. Enjoy the magnitude of this epic rhetorical victory.

    The point I was trying to make was simple: link building should not be for SEO, it should be for promotion, click traffic, publicity. You don’t tell others how to link to you, let them do so as they wish.

    Have a Happy New Year.

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    Your trollish expectations mean very little in the scheme of all things. Happy new year.

  • http://wtff.com/ JustConsumer

    Eric, you hear what you want to hear, not what was said.

    First of all, read the email you provided.
    “Can you help me create new category for Web promotion services?”
    How is it related to the anchor texts or links ?
    Category online means group, directory, folder, class. This is not link. Don’t you understand this ?

    Secondly, do you understand difference between “anchor text” as text and “anchor text” as signal ?

    Thirdly, re “Yahoo did actually use that clickable anchor text as part of their directory’s three core ranking signals”
    Proof please.

    You made this conversation pointless, because you expect that everyone should just listen to your promotional statements, no questions asked.
    Well, sorry, but it doesn’t work for everyone.

    Correspondence with Jerry Yang from 1994 is not enough reason to hire you.

    Furthermore, it shows that you’re not very good in promotion, because your own promotional campaign is questionable.

    Sorry again, that not everyone follows you and Happy New Year.

    P.S. Just for the record. I agree with the simple point you were trying to make … when it’s made simple way.

  • http://shockleymarketing.com/ Ricky Shockley

    Wow! Trying to skip through this meaningless conversion brought on by “JustConsumer” to get to the REAL discussion! Jeeeez

 

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