It still amazes me when SEO blogs blindly tout advice we’ve all heard before. “Write great content, build a quality site, don’t get shady backlinks” and so on. Of course, I know why they’re sharing the advice, but the “right way” certainly isn’t the only way that works.
Take paid links for example, an SEO tactic that has seen Forbes, JC Penney, Interflora and Expedia penalised by Google. It’s probably the first thing that new SEO’s hear not to do when it comes to link building. Surely it’s not still working, right? Grab your favourite beverage, we’re going in…
After Interflora were penalized – highly suspected to be due to link buying – Google’s Matt Cutts issued a further warning regarding link buying and selling:
“Selling links (or entire advertorial pages with embedded links) that pass PageRank violates our quality guidelines, and Google does take action on such violations. The consequences for a linkselling site start with losing trust in Google’s search results, as well as reduction of the site’s visible PageRank in the Google Toolbar. The consequences can also include lower rankings for that site in Google’s search results.”
While paid link buying is undoubtedly happening “off the radar” for smaller webmasters looking to get fast and highly profitable rankings in Google, big brands aren’t afraid to continue where others left off.
One of those big brands, are Wix. The website building platform that last year IPO’d at a valuation of $800 million dollars.
It has been a rocky twelve months for them on the stock market, reaching a high of $31 per share and now sitting at just $17. One thing that has been more stable though, is their growth in search traffic.
Oh, and how many links they’re buying. Take a look…
There are many more purchased links out there than just these examples but that graphic should get the point across. Interestingly they do have a lot of links which have been paid for but are no-followed. This would suggest they are trying to be at least slightly careful about deploying this tactic. This only applies to one of the examples in the screenshot above, however.
The rest are definitely passing juice.
Just to verify that they are indeed paid links. I contacted one of the sites they purchase links from. Here was the reply:
$65/m seems like a great deal to me for a homepage PR 6 link. Especially when it’s niche relevant and you have total control over the anchor text. I should also note that they’re only linking out to a handful of other sites at the moment.
Another of the sites they are purchasing links from don’t hide what they’re doing via private email. Instead, they have a page openly showing what they offer:
(I blurred the text to hopefully protect the site selling links as much as possible).
This has helped them to double their search traffic in just one year with a monthly estimate of their search traffic to be worth $2M (if you were to buy that traffic in ads).
Search Metrics, another tool that compares similar data, does not show such a big increase but my account is limited to looking at data for 6 months so I can’t see their growth over a long period of time.
Compete.com and Alexa.com do show a huge growth in traffic over the last year though.
Search Metrics also verify all of the rankings they’re achieving that SEMRush also reports on:
Just take a look at those search volumes.
Wix ironically have quite a few SEO articles on their blog but none of them (unsurprisingly) mention buying links on relevant websites. In one blog post they even use their rankings for free website builder as an example of good SEO.
Their team actually use Moz’s Pro tools and left this comment on a blog post a couple of years ago:
Also ironic is that the comment was left on a blog post about link penalties.
I did contact WixSEOTeam via Moz messages multiple times before this post but did not receive a response. I can see from their login timestamps that they have been online many times since I sent them – trying to get a quote for this post – but sadly to no avail.
Now that we’ve got SquareSpace’s biggest competitor out of the way (you’ll see why I focus on SquareSpace towards the end of the post) let’s look at another competitor: Doodle Kit.
I had never heard of them before, but I sure was finding them ranking for a lot of search terms. Here’s an example:
How are they doing it? Well, they certainly don’t have some squeaky-clean link profile that’s for sure. In fact, just like the countless examples I’ve covered in more recent blog posts, they’re putting anchor-text links in the footer of all their users websites.
From what I can tell they aren’t some huge brand name so I no longer assume whether Google knows about this and ignores it. I simply think that Google are not smart enough to track it.
It can’t get worse, can it? Yola are another company in this space taking a YOLO approach to link building. I could almost copy the exact text I wrote about DoodleKit because once again they’re simply stuffing keywords into the footer of all their users’ websites.
At tiny (lol) 74% of their backlinks simply contain the text ‘free website’. Yet, it hasn’t hindered their SEO efforts at all. Don’t worry, on Matt Cutts’ vacation blog post he said he left the Google web spam team in very good hands 😉
If Google penalties these days come in the form of awesome rankings then Yola have been penalised hard. Via SEMRush:
And on the list goes.
On one hand I can’t really blame them for what they’re doing. Why follow any guidelines at all when ignoring them works so well.
With 40 million backlinks you must assume Weebly are building natural links by writing great content and getting people to link to them. Oh, you don’t?
This has to be the funniest anchors cloud I’ve ever seen:
I’m breaking my rule of only putting 600px images in posts to share that. I can just imagine the reaction of some SEO’s when they get an email from Weebly saying “We’ve been penalised in Google, any ideas why?”
But, of course, they haven’t been penalised.
Instead, by inserting links in the footer of their users websites, in the tens of millions, they’ve managed to get themselves millions of visitors from Google every single month.
I’m going to get Old Spice on you for a second. Look at that anchors cloud screenshot.
Then look at how much search traffic they’re getting.
Then back at the anchors cloud.
Then the search traffic.
I think I’ve covered in more detail then I’ll ever have to why I’m focusing on Dark SEO. That’s the only real shining light in all of these crazy brands who are ranking with “forbidden” links: There are still a lot of holes to be exploited for a lot of money.
After looking into the backlink profile for Squarespace – the website building tool that has received over $40m in funding – I instantly liked them.
They’re no doubt a company that is pressured to make money and hit growth targets, but they didn’t succumb to planting links in their users websites in order to get more traffic from Google. In fact, I couldn’t find a single example of any shady or suspicious links whatsoever in their backlink profile.
I’m impressed, Squarespace.
It’s just a shame Google aren’t.
Now, they’re certainly not a company that is struggling to get traffic to their site. All estimates I can find suggest they get close to (if not north of) 2 million visitors per month. Similar Web however estimate only 20% of their traffic comes from search. Alexa is even lower with its prediction at just 12%.
But the question remains, if they were following their competitors into performing Dark SEO, would their business be thriving even more? I know some of you are probably thinking “but these others sites wont last very long”. Well, Wix clearly had something to clean up back in 2012 and they still do today. Two years is a long time to be profiting from bending the rules.
While they do have natural, “organic” links, those paid links have surely helped them get far more search traffic from Google than Squarespace.
All other traffic platforms I check essentially say that the Wix website gets double the amount of traffic that Squarespace do (I know organic results alone don’t count for all of that).
SquareSpace are simply not ranking for as many relevant terms as other websites in the space who are pretty much breaking all of the rules. Just look at this competition report from SEMRush:
This report is basically compiled by looking at the sites which continually rank alongside Wix for various search terms.
There’s Yola.com – who you have seen above are stuffing links into the footer of all their users websites.
There’s Moonfruit.com – I didn’t cover them in this post yet (I’m trying to stick to my promise of not going overboard with making a point) but they too are performing shady link building.
There’s webstarts.com with millions upon millions of spammy backlinks. These primarily seem to be generated by their own users.
Website.com and Ucoz.com have similar shady profiles. The latter with over one million links for “create a free website”. I don’t have to tell you how they got those.
And then there’s Godaddy. If you’ve followed this blog for at least 2014 then you already know Godaddy love to stuff links in their users websites too.
It’s not just SEMRush that doesn’t algorithmically put SquareSpace in the same league as Yola or Moonfruit or Wix.com. Similar Web and Alexa both group these sites together in their ‘related sites’ portions and also fail to include SquareSpace.
Yet when it comes to real human users and people in the market for a website builder, all seem to know about Wix and SquareSpace as the dominant players in the field. Look at any “Wix vs” search result and you’ll see them compared to SquareSpace in every link.
I was promised by multiple people at SquareSpace that I would get a quote from them that I could use in this blog post. Unfortunately that never materialised. I thought it would be good press for them and a good opportunity to talk about how they approach SEO.
I think a slight alteration to their title tag would work very well for them but then you’re running the risk of ‘over optimisation’. Either way, I hope a future algorithm change gets their SEO a bit more recognition.
7 years ago was the first time that someone blogged about Money Supermarket buying links to improve their Google rankings. Up until just a year ago they admit that they were still continuing with the process.
After their IPO, a lot of stock fluctuations were blamed on changes in Google:
Andreas Nicolaides, who is an in-house SEO for Money Supermarket, was recently interviewed about their Google penalty.
When asked how the brand is going to act regarding SEO in the future he said “[using the disavow tool] is a fundamental part of our process moving forwards as it mitigates as much risk as possible from sites around the web linking to us. Due to the size of our brand we attract copious amounts of SPAM that link to us on a weekly basis and this is the only way to ensure that the links generated don’t pose a negative threat.”
Spam? Like those tens of thousands of links you’ve purchased around the web (many in blog posts)?
It’s not only for car insurance where they’re buying relevant anchor-text links either. They’re doing the same for the following terms:
These industries are notoriously difficult to build natural links in so they’re not only being bought by Money Supermarket but many of their competitors as well. It’s almost a case of whoever has the biggest link budget wins.
You can certainly get those rankings to come back if you want them to:
It must have been a huge, huge job to try and remove and disavow the tens of thousands (if not more) links that they’ve purchased over the years. They can definitely afford to pay the staff for it though.
The truth of the matter is that they were buying links for six years before they saw any real repercussions for doing so. And what happened in that time period?
After a dip during the credit-crunch, things have only got better…
(I have a feeling I’ll be using this chart again in my upcoming SEO and the stock market blog post).
When asked about whether the penalty was justified, Andreas responded with the following quote, “Google don’t give out manual penalties without good justification to do so. I think that answers the question.”
It certainly does. Luckily for Money Supermarket they were very late to the justification and very forgiving afterwards.
There are always going to be two types of people who read posts like this. The first type of person is just curious to know about certain tactics that are still working but they aren’t reading this post with the plan to actually go and start buying links.
Then there’s the other type of person who is a little more jaded towards Google – and has some websites which can be a bit riskier with their SEO – and might seriously consider what I cover. In this case, the possibility of buying links to their website.
Right now, I don’t buy links to my websites. That being said, I’m not really against it either. After doing a lot of research for this post (I found a lot of smaller sites ranking well I promised not to cover) I’ll probably contact some relevant sites in some industries to see if they have links for sale.
In the casino and gambling world, link buying is probably the most common link building tactic that I see. Sites in industries where links are notoriously difficult to get naturally tend to do very well purchasing links on a month-to-month basis
Just like private blog networks, links you’ve bought are fairly easy to take down if you ever needed to and since you can buy them for short periods at a time it’s easy to see they’re having an effect.
To be clear though, I wouldn’t ever do this for a client unless they were comfortable for me to do so. Building dozens of link networks is doing all I need at the moment. Especially in industries where I’m not competing with people earning links through great content.
In my blog post two days ago I covered the Sky Rocket SEO survey which was posted on the Moz blog. Last time I looked at the most effective links. In another question, the survey participants were asked to rank what they believe to be the most harmful link building tactics.
Guess what came out on top…
This doesn’t really surprise me. I’m just posting it for some of you reading this post who may not be aware there are real risks towards this. There’s also the risk that you’re paying for links on sites which have already been discredited from “passing juice” and thus wasting your money.
Take time to think about the potential risk vs reward if you do go ahead and do this. Again, it should be obvious that you don’t want to risk the link profiles of clients or your own brands which have some reputation in a field.
Anything else though is game on…
Thank you for all of the comments in the last post. There will be 200+ by the time I’ve finished replying today. As always, I appreciate the feedback. This isn’t a temporary posting spree; there are lots more in the bag 🙂
In my last post I shared my thoughts on how I feel about “outing” companies and what they’re doing so please do read my disclaimer there. The short version is that I will never cover small brands / webmasters and only use as many examples as are necessary.
I don’t intend for – or want – any posts to have a negative effect on the SEO of any company I cover.