About a month ago, while doing research for one of our SEO clients, I came across one of their competitors who was buying links, lots of links, on various websites, blogs, and really surprising to me but local TV stations as well. People “buy links” or purchase “paid links” because the more links your website has, the better you can then rank on Google.
Google doesn’t like this, as you can imagine. Google wants their search results to be based on the algorithm and tries very hard to prevent that algorithm from getting gamed. Links, according to the “White Hat SEO” theorem that we subscribe to, should be earned.
It’s a dramatic contrast between the two points of view, where one side wants to game the system for easy rankings, the other side strives to earn the rankings so as not to run the risk of being penalized by Google (see above, poor kittens).
So you can imagine my surprise when I find these links, all of which were clearly not placed because they were earned, or because this website was choosing to link to them out of any sort of relationship, but instead these links were paid for, and that goes against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines on manipulating PageRank.
Google says pretty clearly, “Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.” I don’t know about you but I’m not willing to risk the success of my website, of our clients websites, by “cheating” at SEO for temporary gain.
As I typically do I reached out to my Facebook friends, I connected with a hidden Facebook group Image Freedom runs for people we connect with at conventions called SEO Secret Sauce, and I reached out to some experts. I didn’t exactly get the answer I wanted.
One of my friends, and I won’t out him here (though knowing him he’ll out himself via the comments) told me that when it comes to buying links your job is to not make Google look stupid. That if your website has a few Paid Links, but also has other organic SEO that you’ll be fine. The trick is, according to my friend, to not be obvious about it and to use it as a leg up to boost your otherwise White Hat SEO tactics.
What pissed me off is that what he said made a lot of sense. It makes a lot of sense but it goes against everything that Rand Fishkin and the SEOmoz folks teach. It goes against the label of “White Hat SEO” and it was very much NOT what I wanted to hear.
I kept asking around.
An SEO who I very much look up to Lindsay Wassel from Keyphraseology told me that the thing to remember is that in all things SEO, it’s a marathon and not a sprint. That even though I’m looking at this example of Black Hat SEO succeeding right now, that doesn’t mean that the more they push that envelope the more they’re also inviting Google’s wrath.
Again, this was good advice, but it was NOT what I wanted to hear. I wanted to know that there was a magical Matt Cutts button somewhere (Matt Cutts is the head of Google’s Web Spam Team) that shined a light in the sky and magically all the bad SEO tactics would be kicked in the groin.
That wasn’t what I was told however, so I kept asking around.
I reached out to some professionals that I look up to very much, and again not going to out them here, but I was told by one popular SEO blogger that in his 15 years experience he’s seen Google’s Paid Link reporting tool only work about ten to fifteen percent of the time.
Yet again, this was NOT what I wanted to hear.
I was down. I’ll be honest. The team here can tell you that my White Hat SEO bubble was on the verge of breaking. So much emphasis on content, so much emphasis on Social Media and earning positive reviews, building relevant links, all of it, hung in the balance.
Finally I reached out to Tom Critchlow, one of the few SEO’s who I will pay a thousand dollars to attend an event, hell five thousand if I take our whole team, just for the chance to see Tom speak. His talks at LinkLove in New Orleans this year were fantastic and I look very much forward to seeing what he and the Distilled team have in store for us at SearchLove in New York.
I reached out to Tom and I told him that I was down and starting to wonder if Rand Fishkin’s content powered socially driven White Hat SEO dream wasn’t in reality a Peter Pan fantasy.
Thankfully, Tom set me straight.
Tom asked me point blank if the website I was optimizing for deserved to beat this company that was using Black Hat SEO. I paused for a moment, “Deserved?!”, I thought. They’re doing Black Hat SEO, of course they don’t deserve to… oooooh.
This is when Tom told me what I’d been waiting to hear.
I took a step back and I looked at the two sites side by side, I looked at the other competitors against our client’s site and to be honest, there are still some things that we have in the works but that haven’t yet been fully implemented to help our client DESERVE to rank higher on Google than these other sites.
I was looking back, I was turned around, and when you’re turned around, you can’t take a step forward. Tom told me about Good To Great, a book by Jim Collins, and talked about the Flywheel concept. The Flywheel concept is that if you ever stop pushing the wheel, if you’re ever not making forward progress, you’re killing your momentum.
By worrying about these Black Hat tactics, I was not pushing the Flywheel for our client. I wasn’t helping them develop their blog, or their mobile site, I wasn’t helping them earn positive reviews from their clients.
I wasn’t doing my job.
Tom held a mirror up and asked me if I deserved that which I was going after, and the answer, I’m sorry to tell you, was no. I had, and have, a lot of work to do for this particular client, who lives in a very competitive local space against large sites who have been doing SEO for years.
If I’ve exhausted every tactic, built every organic link that we can build, received citations and reviews and written blogs and… you get the idea. If I’d done all that, and was still beaten by these Black Hat tactics, then maybe I can doubt what Rand Fishkin represents, what Distilled teaches at their events, but I clearly wasn’t there yet.
SEO can be a frustrating industry because you take action today and you may not see results until 30 or even 60 days later. Google, as amazing as their tool is, is still fairly slow.
So I brushed myself off, I went back to the lab as Eminem would say, and I faced forward, choosing not to worry about what the competitors were doing, how they might be cheating to win, until I’d exhausted every tactic that White Hat SEO’s execute on every single day.
With that in mind, I thought I’d reach out to those local TV stations that were selling Paid Links on their homepage. TV stations in the past had been great clients and they probably had no idea that what they were doing could potentially hurt their own rankings on Google.
We’d spent nine months last year consulting with another local station here in San Antonio and I reached out with the open heart that if I shared Google’s Webmaster Guidelines with their web team that maybe they’d join me in the White Hat SEO race.
This is where it gets interesting. One of the two TV stations, their webmaster to be specific, forwarded my contact information over to our client’s competition. My phone rang and on the other end of the phone was a very upset businessman wondering why I was trying to out his Black Hat paid links to these local TV stations.
I’ll admit, I’m not proud of it, but I was amused as hell.
He went on a small rampage yelling into the phone, asking me if I wanted to go to war with him and tried to intimidate me with stories of his service with the Air Force as a Combat Controller (I was in the Air Force myself). Here I was, worrying about him doing these Black Hat tactics when clearly he was more afraid of me doing the opposite, so afraid that he’d call up a total stranger and threaten acts of violence over his ranking on Google.
It’s that old saying that the Bear is more afraid of you than you are of it. I had really gotten under his skin. White Hat SEO was as scary to him as his Black Hat SEO had been to me.
He knew he’d gotten caught. He knew people were starting to ask questions and were drawing attention to his link buying activities. The proof was right there in his Open Site Explorer link profile. He’d failed to stop Google from looking stupid and he knew it.
My epiphany came at the cost of a little drama, a few physical threats and a few lost hours, but my faith in White Hat SEO was completely restored. My belief in everything that I’ve stood for over the last two years was reinforced and I saw, staring the bear in the face, that he truly was more afraid of me than I had been of him.
I’m on the right side of the fence, our results speak for that, and I won’t be making a change to the dark side any time soon.
Want to hear Tom speak? – Tom Critchlow and other SEO greats like Rand Fishkin, Wil Reynolds, Michael King, Laura Lippay and more will be presenting at the New York SearchLove Conference. The entire Image Freedom team will be there and we’d love to see you there too. Click here for info on tickets and accomodations.
UPDATED – We have received confirmation that one of the two TV stations carrying “paid links” on their homepage has made the offending link “no follow” after talking with us, so score one more for the White Hat effort!