The Hidden Risk of Trusting Link Building Networks

Yesterday someone emailed me this quote

"People that pay for things never complain. It's the guy you give something to that you can't please." ~Will Rogers

and I think it is true on so many levels. If you want real feedback from someone ask them to put their money where their mouth is. Few will, and so most free feedback is garbage.

But when you pay for something you are giving a much stronger/cleaner signal, which is easy to trust & value.

What a lot of SEO professionals don't realize is that when they rent text links many of them are paying for their own demise. If you go through a central link broker that operates at scale you are telling them:

  • what areas your business is focused on
  • what keywords are important to you
  • what links you are buying
  • how much you think you will make from the marketing

That is fine if you are a huge company with tons of other quality signals which can't be replicated. But if you are a smaller company, what happens when that link broker is also a web publisher? Hmm... xyz is spending $5,000 a month with us to promote that site...well they must be making some good money off it - lets clone it. ;)

The equivalent to trusting most your link buying to a single link broker would be doing a public export of all your bids and conversion data for PPC. You wouldn't stay profitable very long with that strategy, and if you share your link purchase data with some of the shadier (and more well known) link brokers you can expect the same result.

A friend of mine recently mentioned buying some links and then seeing a number of sites pop up which seemed suspiciously associated with people who work behind the scenes at their link broker. Oooops!

Buying links from a central network is not only risky from a Google risk management perspective, but also from a "thanks for the data, fool" perspective.

Published: May 28, 2010 by Aaron Wall in business


May 28, 2010 - 5:47pm

One might argue that the same can happen to someone that trusts their SEO program management to an agency/provider that also moonlights as a content creator publisher.

Though perhaps not as prevalent as what you describe in this post, I know that this goes on as well (SEO/PPC providers cloning a client's business model...especially when the product/service being sold isn't a specialized skill/product).

In any case, solid post and very thought provoking.

May 28, 2010 - 6:41pm can happen under any circumstance. Which is why it is good to build something that is defensible, in an area with some specialized knowledge and/or deep social connections, AND to not outsource everything.

But the independent contractor typically isn't going to have the labor and financial resources that the 2nd round of a link broker (who sold his first link brokerage for $10's of millions) would. So IMHO the later is much more likely to cause serious top line damages to your profit margins. But either can hurt pretty bad!

May 29, 2010 - 4:59pm

Great take on a very real problem. The primary issue is, of course, that on the Web you're forced to go public with just about everything you're doing - meaning that anyone can suss out what you're about.

E.g. there's lots of tools out there allowing people to analyze what their competition is doing: link wise, advertising wise (think AdWords), hosting wise etc. Plenty of marketers advising you to piggyback on other people's success, too.

So it certainly doesn't rest there: of course scaled up link brokers may be happy to get all your data on a silver plate, but so may hosting providers, copywriters, SEO consultants, bookkeepers and, for that matter, Google with all their nifty "free" analytics tools and their ill disguised spyware.

So if you don't spread your bets (aka your activities) as widely as you can, you're all the more likely to be copycatted and even downed with your very own arsenal of weapons, tactics and ideas.

Even then there'll only be so much you can do to prevent it from happening.

May 29, 2010 - 5:18pm

Agree with fantomaster on this one. There is no such thing as "marketing/SEO privacy" on the web. We're all naked here. The only advantage you have is early adopter / discovering new techniques before others do. Other than that, you can spend your way up the rankings and outlink and outmuscle the competition if you have the budget. And still your link profile of your site is there for all to see. You can't buy privacy.

May 29, 2010 - 10:26pm

Great posts Fantomaster & Andrew!

I think there are some fairly sustainable advantages you can gain

  • domain names
  • social relationships
  • quality editorial links
  • brand perception
  • awareness & distribution
  • email lists & subscribers
  • etc.

But part of the point of this post was that when you offer yourself up to a link broker you are putting it all on a silver platter. So its best not to go that route *unless* you are already confident that you are so well developed that cloning would be next to impossible.

I know for a fact that some link brokers do indeed look at their client lists and ad budgets for "niche discovery" in terms of what keywords to target and what industries to target.

The fear of cloning is much greater if you are running an affiliate or AdSense type of website which is easy to clone, rather than something that does 1 or more of the following:

  • requires heavy domain specific knowledge
  • requires significant customer interaction
  • relies on lots of offline sources / business relationships as well
May 30, 2010 - 7:11am

some ppl buys tons of backlinks with idea to get high value. for big commercial sites as Walmart, for example, that might be a true. but other 'dark' side of that story that brands, companies lost their respect & renome due to fact that automatic-users are not a human which form your marketing / branding mission.

May 31, 2010 - 12:20am

I don't think companies lose respect by ranking better and getting more exposure :D

Generally most people do not see the paid links...only their end result (better rankings + more exposure). So if a company is about even with competitors in other marketing aspects (and then buys a few links) then they can look like a trusted clear market leader by getting better rankings and more exposure, which allows them to have more customer interactions, more marketshare, and more customer feedback to rely on to improve their business.

Sites like the "organic" of today were the big link buyers of years gone by. Link buying gave them the rankings which got them the exposure needed to get the user interaction to build the large database of reviews.

June 2, 2010 - 8:20pm

Working in the legal vertical, there are few companies that have solid link building plans. Even within that small number of providers, there are still those who are bending the rules just a bit. At the end of the day Google decides which paid links are good or not. They decide when you're over the line. I read a book on parenting that said children constantly push the limits of their parent to learn the boundaries. Sounds much like aggressive link building too!

June 7, 2010 - 12:01am

Something people still don't seem to recognize is the value of a good (honorable, respectable) consultant.

My clients trust me not to compete with them or leak their opportunity info. Of course, of at least that's how I think. I've built that trust into my consulting formula.

But many, many consultants are low-cost and rely on such "additional opportunities" to pay their bills and survive. They can bid less than half of what a "good" consultant charges, because they plan to take advantage of inside opportunities they "discover". I see it over and over.

The most interesting is when a client leaves to work with a less-reputable (and cheaper) consultant, and comes back to me later for help battling a "new competitor" -- yes a new site or network of sites that appeared after they worked with said "consultant". It's an expensive way to do business, for sure. How much will it cost to compete with someone who knows your business model and was paid (by you) to study your marketplace?

Pay a top character consultant and do it right the first time. Keep it under wraps, plan ahead, put the barriers into place as much as is feasible and get the forward momentum going.

June 7, 2010 - 12:45am

Yup. People look for shortcuts then complain about getting scammed when they get exactly what they pay for.

This is where it pays to spend extra to work with someone who is well known and someone who has invested hundreds of thousands of Dollars worth of their time to become well makes them less likely to spend that invested capital up by screwing over their customers.

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