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What Can We Learn From The Latest Brand To Be Called Out For Paid Links?
Move over JC Penney. Another brand is getting attention over buying links, this time Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corporation. Today’s news is less news and more a reminder of lessons that SEO companies, clients and publishers all need to keep in mind, to avoid trouble.
Josh Davis drew attention to the DBCC situation in his post today, documenting how after receiving three link requests from the same person, he finally followed up, only to be pitched on placing a link from one of his articles to the DBCC site in return for $30 per month.
What’s Dun & Bradstreet — the nearly 200-year-old Fortune 500 company that brokers information about people and companies for business decisions — doing buying links? It’s not. DBCC was spun-off from D&B in 2010 and is a privately-held company, providing credit solutions to small businesses, with a license to use the D&B brand.
That DBCC isn’t a Fortune 500 company takes some of the “wow” factor out of the story. In addition, we’ve already had stories about big companies ranging from JC Penney to Overstock to even Google itself getting caught for paid links. That makes what DBCC was doing seem even less newsworthy to some. After all, doesn’t everyone do this now? What’s really new or unique here?
I supposed there is nothing particularly new, but clearly there’s a bunch of reminders that are useful to have out there.
Judy Hacket, the chief marketing officer of DBCC, sounded pretty horrified when I talked with her today about the situation. Her department was scrambling to discover how exactly it ended up with these links being purchased.
Davis connects the link request in his story back to iAcquire. Hacket wouldn’t say if DBCC is working with that firm, citing possible confidentiality clauses in contacts. She did say, however, “we have absolutely no agreement with iAcquire or anyone else allowing them to use any grey hat or black hat practices.”
Hacket was also adamant that DBCC had no desire to violate any of Google’s guidelines.
“We would never endorse something like this,” she said.
Of course, we’ve heard this type of denial / shock before. Recall what JC Penney said last year, after the New York Times profiled it for using paid links:
J.C. Penney did not authorize, and we were not involved with or aware of, the posting of the links that you sent to us, as it is against our natural search policies.
Curious to learn more, I asked JC Penney what those policies were after the New York Times story came out. A JCP spokesperson emailed me back:
We are not going to provide our policies, but obviously, they would include staying within Google’s guidelines.
Well, obviously! Except they didn’t, otherwise JC Penney wouldn’t have been banned. When JCP said it didn’t authorize or was involved with paid links, it meant that its SEO firm did all that. As I was told further in my email exchange:
SearchDex ran our SEO program. We do not pay for links as they go against Google’s guidelines. SearchDex was terminated because as our SEO provider they should have known. This was a clear failure on their part.
It was also a clear failure on JCP’s part, for not understanding what its SEO company was doing. The same is true for DBCC. Indeed, I’ve been joking that for some time, whenever some large brand gets dinged for paid links, it’s handy to have an SEO firm they can pin the blame on.
The reality is that for the large companies or brand names, this type of behavior seems to get a 90 day slap, then they’re back in Google’s good graces. It’s difficult for Google to permanently remove an important company that people expect to find. That means as a client, or as an important brand, keep these lessons in mind:
- Do you fully understand how your SEO company will obtain links for you?
- If you don’t want paid links, have you made that crystal-clear?
- If you approve of buying paid links, are you prepared for a potential short-term PR black eye?
- If you approve of buying paid links, is that worth a potential short-term Google penalty?
If you’re not a major brand or an essential resource that Google has to list, there’s really only one question you need to ask. Are you prepared to lose all your traffic from Google? That’s because for the non-essential people, being caught for paid links can be a death sentence, not a temporarily set-back.
SEO Company Beware
As for the SEO company buying links, you’d better be prepared for your client to toss you to the wolves, if a paid link campaign comes to light. Also do be prepared for that campaign to come to light, unless you’re incredibly careful with whom you are soliciting.
In this case, the SEO company pitched someone whose “About” page explains that he writes about marketing. That should have been a warning that this person is probably somewhat savvy about paid links, so some disguised pitch for one wasn’t wise.
I get these types of pitches myself. So does Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s web spam team. If I’d gotten this type of email sent to me on behalf of a major brand, I might very well have written about it myself and concerns about “outing” be damned. I’d view it as a protective service to the general human population. It’s like watching someone drive backwards on the freeway. They’re a danger to everyone.
As for iAcquire itself, it won’t comment on the case, citing client confidentiality. It won’t acknowledge that it was involved in any way, nor confirm if it has worked with DBCC. But the company did give me this statement:
We work with many of the largest brands in the world. It’s very common that we run into large brands everyday buying links from blog networks and large paid link marketplaces, and our mission as a business is to direct brand strategy towards whiter hat link building approaches.
That movement often takes time and effort – and, in the real world in working with big brands with pre-established objectives it frequently is a multi-step process, and requires a lot of education at both the SEO manager, online marketing marketing manager and CMO-levels. We are literally driving the education process every day.
To be clear, we are not a link network. Every link we build is based on the very same principles touted throughout the industry. Our links are contextual and relevant through outreach performed by 40 actual in-house people that sit in our Arizona office and everything is pushed through strenuous quality assurance.
Our business is to push brands to white hat strategy, but we frequently acquire new customers that are still on that path, and we support these companies toward that white hat direction. We have been investing significantly into our content marketing, social media, and digital PR channels to more rapidly make those changes internally and for these brands.
Regarding the article written about our company, we can’t talk about specific strategy for specific customers or potential customers – due to confidentiality agreements. Financial compensation for links does not represent the strategic direction of our company. iAcquire’s services are holistic and include a great deal of content marketing, digital PR and social media promotion, and on-page SEO consulting.
We’ve never had a problem with Google’s algorithm and our clients – and, we understand that it is important for us to continue to drive the market towards techniques that best represent the guidelines established by search engines. iAcquire continues to evolve its service lines, and recently brought in Mike King to help drive that direction to ensure we are considering search engine guidelines and industry best practices. In addition, he continues to promote these best practices at various conferences worldwide.
Wait, is iAcquire suggesting that DBCC — assuming it eventually emerges as a client — was one of those companies needing to be nudged into the white hat world? Cofounder Joe Griffin effectively said no, when he emailed this follow-up statement:
We aren’t talking about D&BCC (when we mention that we transition people from grey to white in the second sentence) – we can’t talk about specifics of clients or potential clients – we are prevented from doing so.
The enterprise world has a lot of nuances, and we believe we have more than anyone helped to correct SEO brand strategy as it relates to off-page SEO and specifically as it relates to killing black hat link networks.
At the end of the day we run into a lot of different goals, and different approaches, and we try to bring all clients to a fully white hat solution. Our team is heavily focused on high quality editorial content and creative development to attract links. We do a TON of link reclamation as well.
We brought Mike on board specifically to continue to build upon this direction. Mike is one of the best in the business in educating SEOs about how to properly implement off-page SEO strategy – he’s helping us here as well.
We are not a paid link company. We deliver holistic off-page SEO to small and large companies – and are the leading charge in proper off-page SEO education.
By Mike, Griffin is referring to Michael King, who I’d say has built a good reputation for himself in some SEO circles over the past year in his writings and speaking. He’s spoken at our own SMX events and is slated to again next month. He’s sharp, has lots of insight, and he seemed a win for iAcquire when they hired him about two months ago.
Suffice to say, I was pretty surprised that he appeared mixed up with all this. He’s seemed very white hat. I think it’s great if he’s going to help iAcquire and/or its clients move to white hat activities, but I’d say the sooner the better, if iAcquire really doesn’t want to be known as a paid link company.
Right now, however, if that link request is effectively coming out of iAcquire’s work, it might not be a paid link company, but it sure seems as if it has been buying links. That’s tough to square talk of following search engine guidelines.
Google, Oh Google
Meanwhile, there’s Google. This time last year, it was counting the news about JC Penney as a win in the war against paid links. A year later, has anything changed? Was it really that much a deterrent?
I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard some say that many SEOs buy links. That’s it’s just what you have to do. I don’t have any good survey data to back those types of statements up or knock them down.
Fair to say, however, today’s news didn’t surprise many. Even if it it had been D&B itself, I’m not sure if the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal would have cared to run stories, as they did last year with JC Penney and Overstock.
I do know that Google has got to come up with something better than counting links. I keep expecting that social will be a larger signal, and my previous story below explains more about why this makes sense:
In the meantime, we’re stuck with the increasingly creaking, rotting link signal. But for anyone who thinks that’s an excuse for anything goes, look again to what I said the Client Beware section above. Are you really big enough to take a chance on being dropped from Google?
Finally, I did ask Google if it had any comment on the DBBC situation. Nothing specific, just this general warning:
Our guidance on paid links remains the same as ever: paying for links that pass PageRank violates our guidelines, and Google takes appropriate action in response.
If you don’t know what PageRank is, well, read our guide: What Is Google PageRank? A Guide For Searchers & Webmasters.
Publisher Beware; Link Broker For Shame
For those being approached about selling links, this is a reminder that Google really doesn’t like you to do that and has penalized sites for doing so since 2007. If you’re approached out of the blue with a link request, unless you block that link by using something like the nofollow attribute, you’re placing your site at jeopardy.
Don’t expect the link request to alert you to any of these things. The request that went out on behalf of DBCC was a classic example of non-disclosure. It lacks warnings about possible Google penalties. It even required that there be no visible disclosure, which might very well violate US Federal Trade Commission guidelines. From the request:
Link must not be marked as Paid in the visible content or source code (Common designations include: Partner, Links, Paid Links, Ads or Sponsored Links)
The link can’t have any disclosures, we want it to appear natural.
The whole thing reminds me of the type of spammy requests I get all the time. While people in the SEO space may want to debate whether it’s fair or required or commonplace to buy links or not, I don’t see much room for debate that you shouldn’t try to foist a paid link on someone without full disclosure.
As I wrote before, in my Conversation With An Idiot Link Broker article from 2008
There are plenty of people who disagree over the paid link issue, plus whether Google actually penalizes sites that hard for it. That disagreement is no excuse for unethical behavior. And there is unethical behavior in search marketing, and this is a perfect example of it. No risk was disclosed. When asked repeatedly about risk issues, they were denied….
You want to buy links or be a link broker? Then be upfront that this is an activity that Google does not like and that the faint hearted shouldn’t apply. Only after you’ve scared the heck out of them should you start talking about the ways that you’ll try to reduce the risk, if they choose to carry on.
Personally, I’m somewhat amazed, or really, disheartened, over some of the comments Davis is taking over his post. As I said, some dismiss the paid links as old news. Some are angry, viewing his post as some unnecessary “outing” of paid links.
No one seems bothered that some SEO firm was potentially getting a third-party web site into trouble with Google. That’s the most disturbing aspect of all of this. That’s not new, either, but it ought to be stamped out.
Postscript: DBCC has now sent a letter out to its SEO agencies saying in part:
Without our knowledge or approval, certain parties have reached out to other parties to link to our website (the “Unauthorized Links”) for no valid reason….
Please be informed that we are not affiliated with nor do we have any relationship with these companies.
We ask that you remove any Unauthorized Links immediately unless you believe the content is relevant and provides value to your users. Under no circumstances will we authorized payment or pay for any Unauthorized Links.
You can see the full letter below:
DBBC says a copy was also sent to Google, and it’s part of what DBBC is doing to try and rectify the situation. The list of companies it named in the letter are:
DBCC said it also sent a copy of the letter to the published contact addresses of those listed. The list matches those that Josh Davis listed in his original post on the paid link situation, companies he connects with iAcquire.
iAcquire was not listed in the DBBC letter. However, iAcquire has now been banned from Google since this story came out, probably because Google believes it either works in association with some of the companies named above or that it controls them.
iAcquire Banned From Google After Link Buying Allegations is our story has more about that, plus has a postscript where I explain the connections more.
Postscript 2: See iAcquire: We’re Abandoning Paid Links
Postscript 3: See Google Lifts Ban On iAcquire; Company Blogs Of Being Reformed
- Official: Selling Paid Links Can Hurt Your PageRank Or Rankings On Google
- Time For Google To Give Up The Fight Against Paid Links?
- Conversation With An Idiot Link Broker
- New York Times Exposes J.C. Penney Link Scheme That Causes Plummeting Rankings in Google
- 90 Days Later, J.C. Penney Regains Its Google Rankings
- Google’s Action Against Paid Links Continues: Overstock & Forbes Latest Casualties; Conductor Exits Brokering Business
- Google’s Chrome Page No Longer Ranks For “Browser” After Sponsored Post Penalty
- Google Chrome’s Paid Link Penalty Now Lifted
- Home Depot To Correct Misleading Link Request
- Google Launches “Penguin Update” Targeting Webspam In Search Results
- Two Weeks In, Google Talks Penguin Update, Ways To Recover & Negative SEO
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.