Link Building At The Speed Of Natural

“Natural link building” has long been a sore spot (some would call it an oxymoron) among many in the online marketing community. The general argument goes something like this:

“Any link that comes about because you pursued it cannot be considered natural.”

or

“The very act of seeking links makes any link you obtain unnatural.”

or

“A link is supposed to be validation that your content is of some value.”

The above arguments are all flawed, and I’ll include several examples to illustrate why later in this column.

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The “natural/not natural” argument is the link builders’ version of the larger white hat/black hat SEO argument, and it obscures many, far-more important points.

I realize my opinion ultimately doesn’t matter, and that the fact I call myself a “natural linking strategist” could make me a liar, a hypocrite, clueless, or some combination thereof. But, there’s more at stake here than opinion and semantics.  Fortunes are being won and lost based on an algorithm that we are told wants to find “naturalness” among the signals it discovers across the vast sea of code that its bots canvass every day, week, month and year. (After year!)

The algorithm adjusts, continually seeking to improve its ability to identify that which cannot be trusted among that which can be. Marketers devise techniques and tactics to try to appear natural. Some succeed; some fail. The algorithms adjust again.

It’s a cycle that repeats, with the machines getting smarter over the long-term even if sometimes during the short-term they get it completely wrong. (Weren’t those live tweets in the Google results fun? You could drop an F-bomb for the world to see instantly.) Google specifically mentions “natural” in its guidelines, so it’s a safe bet that part of Google’s algorithm is devoted to spotting signals of naturalness.

Natural Linking Strategist is not my title as much as it is an ethos — guiding beliefs that characterize an ideology. I know I just went all LinkMoses, but I’m prone to do that because I’m passionate about what I do and even more passionate about how I go about doing it.

Speeding Up Naturalness

At the core of why I think you can build links and call them natural is a question I ask myself about every link I pursue. That question is:

What would happen if all content was known to all people?

There are many answers, but the one which is most important to link builders is this: Certain people would link to certain content that they wouldn’t have linked to before because they didn’t know it existed.  After all, you can’t link to that which you are not aware of.

I believe that the best natural link builders are those who understand how to manually speed up the process that slowly happens every day. People learn about new content, and they link to it. Or they share it.

The challenge is that the Web is so incredibly large that even someone who is an absolute expert in a given subject cannot possibly keep up with all the content that is related to that subject. This is where the natural link builders find their sweet spot. This is where I have lived for 19 years now, helping speed a linking process that could happen naturally if allowed to, but perhaps not in our lifetimes.

The Web is forever, while those of us in charge of its URLs are nothing more than fruit flies with keyboards. We won’t be here for long, but the Web will. A librarian maintaining a curated list of links to Web content about volcanoes may retire (or die) before she ever discovers that amazing Pompeii animation content for teachers over on The History Channel’s website, and that would be completely natural, given that we can’t all know about every piece of content that exists.

It would also be perfectly natural for me to discover that librarian’s list of curated volcano resources and links and then contact her to introduce her to the content I just mentioned. She might just link to it — or she might not, depending on her criteria and judgment. And I believe this is natural.

If you disagree, please think back to my question: What would happen if all content was known to all people?

The answer is that she either would or wouldn’t link to the content once she found out about it. And if this doesn’t happen now, or next year, or in the next decade, it will happen. People with expertise and passion about a subject will be helped to discover the resources that they can pick and choose from for their collection.

It would be easy to dismiss this as nothing more than a corollary to the “infinite monkey theorem,” which states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.

Except that humans with expertise are able to discern and distinguish, whereas monkeys (and bots) cannot.

Examples Of Natural Link Building

Here are those examples of unnatural natural links that aren’t unnatural promised earlier:

1. .Org Link — Your company is a dues-paying member of the National Poodle Fungus Association (NPFA) and has been for 22 years. The NPFA does not have a website and decides it’s about time they did. So they build one, and they choose to create a member page which lists and links to each member’s website. Given that you have been a member for 22 years, naturally, you get a link.

You wouldn’t have received the link had you not been a paying member. But isn’t that a paid link and therefore unnatural? The classic “pay to join a .org association and get a high-trust link” technique? No, it isn’t. You were a member long before the NPFA had a website. You were a member long before there was a Google. So how can any of this be unnatural?

Silly example? Absolutely. But don’t let that get in the way of the point. Links happen in more ways than can be summed up by the single word “natural.”

2. Requested Link — I send out an email to the owner of a website that is devoted to the films of John Wayne. I am contacting him to let him know about a new website launched by a major movie studio that sells a new collector’s edition DVD boxed set called, “The Films of John Wayne.” I ask him to include a link to the new John Wayne site. He does so.

Now, even if I begrudgingly agree with you that this is an unnatural link because he linked to it only after I asked him to, here’s what happened next: the owner of that fan site devoted to the films of John Wayne mentions it to a friend of his who is also a John Wayne fan and runs a discussion forum and blog about John Wayne. His friend also links to the DVD site. It so happens that one of the participants on the discussion forum owns a John Wayne collectibles site, and he links to it as well.

Even if I agree with you that the first scenario is an unnaturally obtained link, does that mean any links that come about from that link are also unnatural? I don’t think so.

3. .Edu Link — Ed Smith is a financial planner who specializes in estate planning. He gives free seminars at the local community college once a month for people who want to learn more about estate planning. Ed has to pay a few bucks to rent a room and projector, and he run ads in the local papers inviting people to his free seminars. Ed wants clients, and these seminars are a good way for him to get new clients.

Because he is doing his seminar on a college campus, his seminar is listed on the college’s website in the upcoming events section. Within the description of his seminar, there is a link to his company’s website. This was not an “editorially earned” link. It’s a link he got because he was giving a presentation on a college campus that happened to have an online event calendar which allowed for the inclusion of URLs/links. In fact, Ed has no clue how Google works and no understanding that the link he just picked up might also help his local organic search rank. From a link building perspective, Ed is clueless. But this link is unnatural since it wasn’t editorially granted, right? I disagree.

The takeaway here is that “natural” is ultimately futile. Impossible to define. Our linking strategies should not be classified as unnatural simply because we pursued them. Your activity and actions on the Web result in further activity and actions on the Web by others. At the end of the day, building the right kind of links is simply about speeding up that which could happen naturally if all content was known to all people.

(Stock image via Shutterstock.com. Used under license.)

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Link Building | Link Building: General | Link Week Column

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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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  • Kevin

    Thanks Eric, interesting article, agree with most of what you said. I’m just curious – in your columns you talk about “publicising content”, often through email outreach. I suspect you have perfected the art of this over your 20 years : ) My question is this – do you, like many web marketers, get involved in content creation and development? I often hear about you publicising content to gain links, but you never seem to talk about content creation. Do you get involved with your clients on this level, or is your trade simply prospecting and outreach? Be good to know. Cheers, Kevin (UK)

  • Louise Burgess

    It’s like the old philosophy favourite, “if a tree falls in a forest and no-one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” question. If great content exists but no-one knows it’s there what was the point? Outreach and social media are the megaphone for great content, but without great content, it will be impossible to engage anyone, get any shares or generate any links.

  • Larryful

    Does Google mind a “natural” link such as occurs in a bio after an article – like say ‘linking strategies’ for example? Is it editorially given, or perchance is a keyword-rich anchor text such as this used to game the search results? I personally don’t mind it, and think it’s a practice that an author “naturally” wants to do – heck, the author’s article was accepted, and that is a point for curation. However, what does Google think about it? I know of examples where clients had keyword-rich anchor text in bios, and these were given specifically as examples from the Google Search Quality Team as being inorganic/unnatural. Just thought to mention it, as the end of an article such as this has a controversial type of link (natural or not?) at the end of it ;).

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

    Kevin – I get involved in the content creation strategies/ideas and subject matter, yes, at the strategic/concepting level. I do research and identify potential content topics and deployment strategies. I do not create content myself. Many who look at my site would agree :) Once the content has been created, I help publicize it. As for outreach, I did some rough math and over the course of 19+ years I have sent out at least 100,000 individual one-to-one emails on behalf of someone else’s content, so I do have a pretty good feel for what is effective (and why, because I often ask that exact question to people who reply positively to my outreach).

  • Chad Harris

    Louise- if the content lives on a site and google crawls it…who cares if anyone else nows about it. Yes- I know, you are like…did you not listen to anyone. I have a very beautiful retail website- I market a lifestyle about the life my wife and I live and I also had a wonderful manual penalty for 88 days of hell. Funny thing, we now right extremely user based content and could care less if anyone knows about it except for 2 people. 1 being the robots crawling our site daily and the other is the person that enters those 15 or 16 digits on the plastic card that holds the treasures to the universe- Mr. or Mrs. Credit Card. Have fun with this- Chad

  • http://websitecash.net/ Scott McKirahan

    Wow, I wouldn’t have though it possible, but you convinced me, Eric. I was of the camp quoted at the beginning of this article up until I read this piece. I think I may even link to it, though I’m not sure from which blog yet.

    Of course, all of the examples you gave are what most people would consider pretty white hat, natural links (although that .edu link won’t be worth much when it disappears after the seminar is over).

    But, I’d argue that, although the .org link was the result of a paid membership that happened before there was a website or a Google, it still doesn’t make it any less of a paid link. If you hadn’t paid, you wouldn’t have a link, no matter when that payment occurred or why. It’s the reason I think all paid directory links should be ignored (yes, even yours, Yahoo). Google’s already done that with press release services – a move that should have been made years ago!

    Very little of what I see going on now, though, fits your examples. The big push over the past year or so has been guest writing. I think if I were Google, I would be very suspicious of and, in fact, completely ignore all author bio links. In fact, I would ignore every link within an article to anything that the author of a piece is associated with. Sorry, but that just plain “ain’t natural” (unless you are talking about one’s natural instinct to self-promote).

    I’ll give you link outreach, though. To me, it is about the only real natural link building method there is, whether you reach out via Email, social networks or through relationships developed on blogs or forums. The day that search engines only count links obtained that way, is the day when ranking websites based on links finally becomes a valid signal.

    If I believed that social networks would not eventually be manipulated and abused, I’d be willing to say that their links should be just as good as a website link. Although algorithms are starting to pay attention to the social networks, I believe that they, too, will be devalued in the not too distant future because they will be so easy to manipulate.

  • http://headred.net/ Sukh Singh

    Thanks Eric,

    I do feel confused as to ultimately whether I am doing the right, natural thing, so I just go by the best and most honest thing I can do given the rules and restrictions in place at the time – outreach about great content to specific, related people/industries toward a mutually beneficial end – a great resource for the recipient and a good link for me. Everyone has to gain something at the end of the day, if creating business wasn’t a consideration then there wouldn’t be an adwords, or google plus wouldn’t be pushed more than other social networks, as long as we go about our strategies in an honourable way by providing good content to people I think we’re doing ok!

  • http://headred.net/ Sukh Singh

    Thanks Eric,

    I do feel confused as to ultimately whether I am doing the right, natural thing, so I just go by the best and most honest thing I can do given the rules and restrictions in place at the time – outreach about great content to specific, related people/industries toward a mutually beneficial end – a great resource for the recipient and a good link for me. Everyone has to gain something at the end of the day, if creating business wasn’t a consideration then there wouldn’t be an adwords, or google plus wouldn’t be pushed more than other social networks, as long as we go about our strategies in an honourable way by providing good content to people I think we’re doing ok!

  • Yevgen Zatiychuk

    “linking strategies” in the byline do not look natural, “EricWard.com” should be the anchor (opinion of a bored manual reviewer).

  • http://www.actmedia.net/ Amulya Infotech

    Really I agree this : “The very act of seeking links makes any link you obtain unnatural”.
    The natural way of linking is when you found with some quality info or content and its linked. What all other tactics followed to gain inbound links would be unnatural. So lets we need to speed up the naturalness. Bring up own ideas as content and show your web presence by prominence and innovativeness, thereby you ll be linked naturally..

    Thanks Eric. its mattering to article.

  • Kevin

    Thanks Eric, good to know. A second question, if you don’t mind: do you ever use broken link building in your link building process? Or do you rely solely on the strength of your client’s content alone in order to earn links?

  • http://www.imigniter.com/ A. Lee Hardin

    Hi Eric, heard about you from a college a little while ago, definitely like and favor your philosophy personally.
    In a lot of ways, it sounds like what google is saying is they only want to count editorial links (seemingly to them, the only valid vote), whether or not there is editorial context…? While the .edu link example would that it is not an editorial piece since it is not a blog post or something, I would argue that it “is” or does have editorial context. The school clearly doesn’t let anyone post to it freely (I’m guessing), only certain school related events are listed (surely not frat toga parites), must be correct and is probably removed if no longer valid. To me that sounds like an editorial “policy” for their calendar, which to me makes it an editorial link and should be counted. -my .02.

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

    I like this logic and agree. That example does have a thin layer of quality control (and even curation) taking place, in that it is much less likely that people would book meeting rooms and give presentations at a library if they were not for legitimate purposes. Again, we can argue there will be outliers, and their will be, but when taken as a collective, I like the signal, and feel it’s credible.

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

    I agree %100. I also think it is quite possible that Google can choose when to trust an author bio’s anchor text and when it’s suspicious. In this case, it’s feasible that because the overall historical inbound link profile of searchengineland.com is of very high quality, Google could give anchor text on this domain greater algorithmic credit, if such a thing exists :) Can I prove it? No. Just a hunch.

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

    We could try a test. I currently rank at position 7 for the term linking strategies. I’ll ask Danny to pull that anchor phrase from that bio link and let’s see if I dive (or rise) over the next few months. It’s also possible it’s already been devalued (or never helped in the first place) since I have 50+ articles here with that exact bio link/phrase.

  • http://www.imigniter.com/ A. Lee Hardin

    Philosophically, I believe a link (vote) should not have to be editorial in nature to be recognized. It is not required for me to provide context when I vote for President (or Like a video on facebook). It’s my right to decide whether or not I share my reasons publicly or privately. Google clearly over-reaches in a lot of their ‘guidelines’. They can also be a bit draconic and ambiguous (is it possible to be both vague and absolute at the same time?) when providing so-called ‘guidance’ (if they really offer it at all). In the end you have to decide for yourself what is best for you or your business and let the “chips fall as they may”. Users should be the ultimate judge (and with their wallets as the anvil, they are). As such, I respectfully descent with Google on this matter.

  • Larryful

    Sounds like a plan, Moses – let’s see it in action!

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    I think the key to natural link building is relevancy. All of these links could have happened on their own, given enough time, because there is a logical, reasonable connection between the sites. That relevancy is what makes things natural because you don’t have to work too hard to find a reason for those two sites to link to each other. When you have to force a link, and squint to make it make sense, then it’s not very natural.

  • Dillip K Mohanty

    Thanks Eric for such a wonderful article. Definitely it is true that it is really impossible to define a clear line between natural & unnatural links. But when we are talking about Google SERP, then we don’t have other choice rather should follow the guidelines. Yes, some webmasters are complaining in similar grounds you mentioned above. But I can only say that ignorance of law is itself a crime in this regard though I am not completely buying the same.

    Do you think Google is acting like a strict guide? I don’t think so. If it so, then many of the top ranking sites in different niche might have fetched penalty. I usually analyze top sites to know why they are ranking in top. I come across many sites violating Google guide lines clearly. Even a top question-answer site has invisible links in other sites. Still it ranks in top 5 positions for many competitive keywords.

    So, the question is why such site still rank in top. I think though Google has defined the guidelines, still it is trying to think in your line of thinking. For example the case I mentioned above may be a case of negative SEO. So, Google may be too flexible when it comes to apply the guidelines. It may consider the whole scenario like how the back-link metric of a site has been evolved since the beginning.

    That’s why in most cases, Google ignores or devalues links rather than putting a penalty. But when it finds a definite pattern of getting spam links, it has to opt a penalty for that site because it is certainly unnatural.

  • http://wtff.com/ JustConsumer

    You consider Link as the way to share, but it’s not.

    The Link came from the scientific society as the way to say Thank You to the certain people or groups of people for the information or help provided while the certain scientific work took place.

    See any scientific print. At the end you will see page(s) with something like :
    We used following in our work :
    - title1 by professor1
    - title2 by Institute1

    This is not like “Please be aware, about the following articles as well”.
    This is pure Thank You for the certain information or help provided.
    This is where Larry Page and Sergey Brin got the idea of the Links as the factor to rank. The more Thank You, the more valuable, the higher rank.

    Keeping this in mind your question “What would happen if all content was known to all people?” makes no sense. Only content one can say Thank You matters, talking about the Links.

    It would be an absurd to force anyone to say Thank You or speed up this process. Would you pay tips on the restaurant entrance ? ) Rhetorical question.

    That’s why Link building by itself is unnatural. Appreciation can’t be built.

  • http://wtff.com/ JustConsumer

    You consider Link as the way to share, but it’s not.

    The Link came from the scientific society as the way to say Thank You to the certain people or groups of people for the information or help provided while the certain scientific work took place.

    See any scientific print. At the end you will see page(s) with something like :
    We used following in our work :
    - title1 by professor1
    - title2 by Institute1

    This is not like “Please be aware, about the following articles as well”.
    This is pure Thank You for the certain information or help provided.
    This is where Larry Page and Sergey Brin got the idea of the Links as the factor to rank. The more Thank You, the more valuable, the higher rank.

    Keeping this in mind your question “What would happen if all content was known to all people?” makes no sense. Only content one can say Thank You matters, talking about the Links.

    It would be an absurd to force anyone to say Thank You or speed up this process. Would you pay tips on the restaurant entrance ? ) Rhetorical question.

    That’s why Link building by itself is unnatural. Appreciation can’t be built.

  • Guest

    I was working in what you call the “scientific society” at Oak Ridge National Lab while concurrently taking graduate courses in Library Science at the time Sir Tim was working on the hypertext protocal (late 1700′s), so I am not oblivious to the points you are making. Nobody is forcing anyone to thank anyone else on the web. But you are incorrect when you state that appreciation cannot be built. After all, how can I appreciate anything until I know it exists (other than God, perhaps, or my children’s futures)? How could those scientists “thank” other scientists for their work if they did not know that work existed, and more to the linking point, how could they thank them unless they knew the proper URL for attribution/thanks? And how was it they came to know it in the first place? We can deconstruct or parse all day long, but at the day, the method we choose to thank, broadcast, tweet, plus, like, pin, thumb, text and send URLs to each other produces a massive amount of data that an algorithm can analyze. All I do is present URLs to those who did not know they exist. They then either thank (link to) it or they don’t based on their determination of the value of that content and how it aligns with their content. At its core, it’s all the same as it ever was.

  • Guest

    I was working in what you call the “scientific society” at Oak Ridge National Lab while concurrently taking graduate courses in Library Science at the time Sir Tim was working on the hypertext protocal (late 1700′s), so I am not oblivious to the points you are making. Nobody is forcing anyone to thank anyone else on the web. But you are incorrect when you state that appreciation cannot be built. After all, how can I appreciate anything until I know it exists (other than God, perhaps, or my children’s futures)? How could those scientists “thank” other scientists for their work if they did not know that work existed, and more to the linking point, how could they thank them unless they knew the proper URL for attribution/thanks? And how was it they came to know it in the first place? We can deconstruct or parse all day long, but at the day, the method we choose to thank, broadcast, tweet, plus, like, pin, thumb, text and send URLs to each other produces a massive amount of data that an algorithm can analyze. All I do is present URLs to those who did not know they exist. They then either thank (link to) it or they don’t based on their determination of the value of that content and how it aligns with their content. At its core, it’s all the same as it ever was.

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

    JustConsumer – I was working in what you call the “scientific society” at Oak Ridge National Lab while concurrently taking graduate courses in Library Science and creating Gopher systems at the same time Sir Tim was working on the hypertext protocal (late 1700′s), so I am not oblivious to the points you are making.

    Nobody is forcing anyone to thank anyone else on the web, and I feel you are mistaken when you state that “appreciation cannot be built”. After all, how can I appreciate anything until I know it exists (other than God, perhaps, or my children’s futures)?

    How could those scientists “thank” other scientists for their work if they did not know that work existed, and more to the linking point, how could they thank them unless they knew the proper URL for attribution/thanks? And how was it they came to know the of that URL in the first place? They knew of it because they had read those papers and those papers helped influence their own research, so they wanted to provide the electronic version of a hat-tip. And how did they learn of those papers? Continue this line of thought back far enough and you will arrive at that moment when “someone first told someone else about something they had never seen before”. The web simply made it possible to show the when and where. And it remains the same.

    We can deconstruct or parse all day long, but at the end of the day, the method we choose to thank, broadcast, tweet, plus, like, pin, thumb, text and send URLs to each other produces a massive amount of data that an algorithm can analyze. All I do is present URLs to those who did not know they exist. They then either thank (link to) it or they don’t based on their determination of the value of that content and how it aligns with their content. At its core, it’s all the same as it ever was.

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

    JustConsumer – I was working in what you call the “scientific society” at Oak Ridge National Lab while concurrently taking graduate courses in Library Science and creating Gopher systems at the same time Sir Tim was working on the hypertext protocal (late 1700′s), so I am not oblivious to the points you are making.

    Nobody is forcing anyone to thank anyone else on the web, and I feel you are mistaken when you state that “appreciation cannot be built”. After all, how can I appreciate anything until I know it exists (other than God, perhaps, or my children’s futures)?

    How could those scientists “thank” other scientists for their work if they did not know that work existed, and more to the linking point, how could they thank them unless they knew the proper URL for attribution/thanks? And how was it they came to know the of that URL in the first place? They knew of it because they had read those papers and those papers helped influence their own research, so they wanted to provide the electronic version of a hat-tip. And how did they learn of those papers? Continue this line of thought back far enough and you will arrive at that moment when “someone first told someone else about something they had never seen before”. The web simply made it possible to show the when and where. And it remains the same.

    We can deconstruct or parse all day long, but at the end of the day, the method we choose to thank, broadcast, tweet, plus, like, pin, thumb, text and send URLs to each other produces a massive amount of data that an algorithm can analyze. All I do is present URLs to those who did not know they exist. They then either thank (link to) it or they don’t based on their determination of the value of that content and how it aligns with their content. At its core, it’s all the same as it ever was.

  • http://wtff.com/ JustConsumer

    No, it’s not the same.

    When Professor1 shows an article to Professor2 and Professor2 doesn’t like it, then this is the end of the chain. This article is not valuable, that’s it.

    When LinkBuilder1 shows the article (by posting link) to Person1 and Person1 doesn’t like the article, then the chain doesn’t stop, because search engine bot considers this action of show as the sign of the high value. But there is no value, just the show.

    As the result we have SERP full of the content shown instead of quality content.

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

    The search engine does not automatically consider the show of the link as a sign. The value of all signs and signals is determined by the credibility of the existing signs the sharer already has. Let’s agree to disagree.:)

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

    The search engine does not automatically consider the show of the link as a sign. The value of all signs and signals is determined by the credibility of the existing signs the sharer already has. Let’s agree to disagree.:)

  • http://wtff.com/ JustConsumer

    This is another story what and how search engines do.
    The point of this story is, that according to you Link is The Show, but it isn’t. Well, at least it shouldn’t be.

  • http://wtff.com/ JustConsumer

    This is another story what and how search engines do.
    The point of this story is, that according to you Link is The Show, but it isn’t. Well, at least it shouldn’t be.

  • Ed Yates

    Just a question about the ‘accelerating natural link acquisition’ debate…

    DEPLOYMENT STRATEGIES:
    Do any of you guys use direct (above board) advertising such as sponsored display, adwords, sponsored tweets, facebook advertising, banners or affiliate strategies to direct a mass of traffic to a source of linkbait / linkable asset with the sole intention of garnering links from your helpful content?

    Sure, I’ve seen people do this online for concepts that have multiple uses ~ such as linkbait campaigns with 2 or 3 calls to action inside etc.

    I just wondered whether anyone here ran a advertising campaign solely for purposes of adding Noz to the link harvesting engine that is ~ their amazing content…

 

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