It occurred to me that a lot of popular SEO and link building companies are selling links in a very inappropriate fashion based on my experience.
It was time to do a checkup of the current state of the link building market.
Enjoy & Learn Christoph C. Cemper
….and so I asked a simple question, in various channels…
…that escalated quickly.
Were you scammed with link building services? If you are a link building client and feel scammed, mistreated, tricked, or simply been delivered substandard link building results, I would like to see it. Contact me here with details, and I promise to look into it personally (offer stands until further notice, so rather contact me sooner than later)
Christoph C. Cemper
Our product LinkResearchTools (LRT) has a set of SEO metrics that I will also use in the article to measure links. This does not mean that you can only do that with LRT. Some metrics like the unique Link Detox Risk® are not available in other tools though. Where applicable, I will highlight metrics from other tools you may already have access to.
We always encourage SEOs using many different SEO tools, as I have personally preached hundreds of occasions since 2003 and still do.
This post is an approach to bring light to an often very shady and unethical link-building industry. An industry that is so shady that for many years companies decided to give “Link Building” a different label on the invoice item, as “Content Seeding”, “Ad Insertion”, Digital PR", “PR Outreach” or simply “Consulting” because of the bad rep building links has gained.
There are good and bad apples in every industry, and this guide hopefully helps potential clients of link building agencies avoid the bad ones that I heard a lot about.
Disclosure of possible conflict-of-interests: If you read this post and learn more about LRT, then decide to use it as an additional SEO weapon in your arsenal, then we benefit from it commercially, and we hope you too. Nothing in this post should imply that you have to use LRT or claim that LRT is the only truth for your SEO. All our data points and their interpretations are evaluations based on personal experiences and observations made over almost two decades of work in search engine optimization, link building, and link audits. More than any other tool, LRT is aggregating a lot of data and trying to make sense of it with those interpretations. We are not related to Google or any its offerings. Neither LinkResearchTools GmbH or the beneficial owners are affiliated to Google, any link building company or other services that work on getting linked on other websites, as commonly understood as “link building” or more fashionable terms for the same work.
Phew, now we got that out of the way - let’s start with the juicy part…
I’ve noted the fact that most link building companies are what I would call sunshine SEO metrics, domain-based metrics that look good, regardless of the work result of the link builder. Domain-based metrics like Moz DA and Sistrix SI (Visibility) have been around for over a decade, and recently Ahrefs joined the club and established Ahrefs DR as a very popular domain-based metric that is used for pricing of link building work.
Domain-based metrics are useful for website owners to see a trend for their own domains overall. And it is also true that a page on a domain with poor domain-metrics can only be poorer.
BUT, and this is key here: a domain-metric can NEVER give you an indication of what quality a certain link will have. In the appendix, there’s a video I made to explain that a little more in detail.
And while all these domain-based metrics are calculated in a different way, they all have in common two things:
therefore saying “I will get you a link on a high traffic DR 50 site” does only mean that you will get a link on a page of a site that has some other powerful pages, and does not mean that your link and the page it’s on will have any SEO power, rankings, traffic, link power, link trust and much more.
Needless to say, if you use sunshine SEO metrics to sell your link building services, then all the links delivered are valued by the domain’s history and overall results - not by the actual work result.
The proof-of-work is not done correctly here though, as often the resulting links and pages the links site on are completely pointless to build and have, lacking internal linking, indexing in Google and any page-specific power, trust. In addition to that, they could even carry a risk for your rankings being on websites known for selling links, for example.
Here is an example:
Imagine for a moment that you spend over 1 Million USD on links and get 1367 really poor links on “High DR” sites. With most of your pages having no power, no trust, and very high penalty risk.
Here are some of 1367 to review from an audit in a private site clinic.
Some really poor links acquired for over a million USD in link building fees. Full list screenshot at the end of the post
For those SEOs not familiar with LRT metrics
Using the domain-based metrics would make these links look a lot better.
As someone who has a very broad overview of the link building market said
re: * “All on links with powerful domains, but totally crap subpages.”*
if that was the main criteria, then 80% of link builders would not be in business
And I agree.
Would you think Link Sellers would recommend a measurement system that makes them SELL fewer links potentially?
No, of course, unless you tell them to.
You could specify the quality criteria for your link-building deliverables.
And I’m sure the price for such links would be astronomic if such poor links as above are in the 1000 $/EUR range already.
Another client gave me a light bulb moment with this statement:
Over the years, I’ve scaled a lot of sites and burned a lot of money.
Mainly because in the last decade I’ve done courses that purposely lie to sell you their services.
I’ve bought backlinks, and they won’t use your tool (*LRT) because they’d sell fewer links or cost them more money to run the company.
I’m starting to realize some of these so-called BIG SEOs say your tool is pointless because it will affect their bottom line
But I, as a link buyer, should demand these metrics.
And it’s very naive of me not to have done this.
But I feel the industry is not educated enough on this.
(corrected for spelling)
The mentioned metrics, LRT Power and LRT Trust, are even available for free in our free LRT Browser Extensions, for a very long time.
LRT was built for the sole purpose of aggregating many different sources initially in 2006 when I realized that we could not use the long-outdated Moz DA metrics and link index. Later we published LRT in 2009 to the public and in 2012 Link Detox for even more quality control of links. In 2012 we also closed down our link building agency CEMPER.COM (operating 2005 to 2012) to avoid any potential conflict-of-interest.
As I learned over the following years, not every company in the SEO market is free of conflict-of-interest.
One “link cleanup company” even bragged to me that they are first getting them hooked (with spammy links), and then later sell them the audit. We had such cases mentioned as well in “Link Building Scam #8 - Selling toxic links, then charging for penalty removal”
The next part in the confusion about link quality was that more recently, the topic “Links with traffic” came up. Links with traffic were even called the “new standard” recently.
I also got the impression that people mean different things when they refer to links having traffic.
And it was confirmed quickly to me.
And Bibi pointed out correctly that we as an industry are actually talking about two different things in regards to links with traffic.
Links with referrer traffic means that you have a link on a page and real humans click through to your website from it.
That is what I also assumed people are all excited about when they talk about links with traffic being the new standard.
And I was not alone.
Links on pages with organic traffic, are just links on pages that rank for themselves and have (even estimated) traffic from organic search.
Getting links on pages that rank has been the number one rule in link building since I entered the market in 2003, and many hundreds of people will confirm how I’ve been talking about using Google search for link prospecting.
There are other people who expect a lot from “Links with traffic” https://twitter.com/Nicci_PT/status/1362374318236327937
A link from a site that will likely bring valuable traffic with it, so a link would be placed for offsite value, where as a link with traffic would be placed for offsite value as well as the likelyhood that the readers of that site would click through to the link on your site.— Nicci PHT 🏴 (@Nicci_PT) February 18, 2021
when the reality seems to be different.
This video goes over all the thoughts and confusions in regards to “links with traffic” I came across.
We found out that the “new standard in links with traffic” was only just about links getting traffic from organic rankings.
That was a sub-sub chapter of Cemper’s Golden Rules of Link Building #5 from 2009, which we recently updated.
This video explains
We’ll probably also republish the Golden Rules of Link Building based on this update, after updating and adapting to the common understanding that traffic links mean links from ranking pages.
But what should come across clearly is this:
Over the years, it became even clearer how important knowledge about rankings is.
In LRT, we introduced the metrics.
KWdomainas the measure for the number of keywords a domain ranks for, in 2008 - internally. And public since 2009.
TitleRankHomeas the measure for the rankings of the homepage for it’s title(!) in 2011 - a year before it became REALLY important as yet another proxy to spot links penalized by the Google Penguin algorithm.
Now I don’t recall when Ahrefs added their “Traffic metrics”, but I know that Semrush had it since 2008 at least, and before that in SEOquake or SERParchive, the “parents” of Semrush.
Experienced LRT users like Rick Lomas know the value of these metrics for many years.
I thought to remember that Ahrefs announced something in regards to traffic data, and specifically clickstream data, and somehow I got the impression that they also measured downstream click traffic from source pages to target pages to estimate the referrer traffic a link would get.
It turns out I was wrong. As a current review indicated, we’re only talking about organic rankings and traffic from Google based on the rankings of a page still.
Or DID they have it, and it was changed when the big clickstream data provider was shut down by Google? Jumpshot was one of the big data harvesters that abused Google chrome extensions for their “traffic panels”. The owner company AVAST shut that Jumpshot company down in January 2020 and so a lot of buyers of the traffic data were affected as well. I believe that may have led to my confusion.
But to my followers and me, it was also quickly revealed how that (organic) traffic metric could be quite easily manipulated.
And this is pretty clear. If you have metrics that measure the number of keywords a website is ranking for, then you can manipulate that by redirecting more rankings to it - at least temporarily.
Also, because of the way how rank tracking tools like Sistrix, Ahref, Semrush, and others work, there’s no way to detect or avoid such manipulations. If an expired domain has 1000 rankings for terms related to “woodworking” and you redirect them to a dating site domain, then at least for a certain period of time, that dating domain also ranks for (a lot of) “woodworking” related terms.
These rank checking tools simply just parse the SERP and see which domain comes back.
I don’t understand how getting links from pages that rank organically should be the new standard. In all the years of our work as link building agency 2005 through 2012 that was a basic criterion.
The key message has always been:
The best page to get a link for KEYWORD is the page ranking #1 in Google for KEYWORD.
Simple as that.
I remember back as a link building agency; we even had another metric called “CEMPER Juice” that would perform dozens of Google queries per page before calling it legit. That metric was so expensive that we had to remove it from LRT over the years and replace it with other metrics as a proxy signal.
So, if you ask me, real Link Builders have always provided “links with traffic” in that sense and also advised our clients to run their other link building providers through our metrics for that reason, going back 15 years now.
There has been in the past, and obviously, still is a lot of poor link building going on, where links are placed on completely deindexed, filtered, or even penalized pages.
The following list was compiled from the above preamble as well as the statements made by independent people in various forums, such as Twitter SEO Signals and Proper SEO group. A screenshot of those statements is attached at the end of the post. Commentary added is the personal opinion of Christoph C. Cemper and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of others.
There may be SEOs and link building clients that know EXACTLY what they ask for, what they get, and how to use the result.
From my personal experience over the years, this is a very small fraction.
The general link buyer, the general marketing manager, gets indoctrinated about the “best methods to vet a link” and none of these methods even mention that a link is measured on a page-level, not a domain value.
The SEO industry had this problem since MOZ launched their unholy DA (Domain Authority), which became the GO-TO link selling metric.
Many years ago, we stopped offering MOZ DA in LRT for two reasons.
In the past years, Ahrefs has taken over the lead as a link selling metric with Ahrefs Domain Rating (DR).
Ahrefs has a smart team, and luckily they also do a fantastic job at explaining how they calculate domain rating.
They are also not shy to confirm that.
So that’s correct, and I agree with all of that. Thanks, Ahrefs-Team, for that.
They later ask a bit confusing question.
But how come high-DR websites often outrank low-DR websites in the search results?
Which again implies that websites rank.
Websites don’t rank, sorry.
Pages rank. Pages of websites rank.
And what is meant probably is
But how come pages on high-DR websites often outrank pages on low-DR websites in the search results?
They lead correctly over to internal linking.
Getting a link on a page with High DR (i.e., High Domain LRT Power) CAN get you a valuable link, if - and only if:
the page with your link is linked from other prominent pages on that website. Be it the main navigation or other important articles. Very often, your linking page is posted as a blog post or news article and quickly vanishes in the archives, where they are not (as prominently or at all) linked - and sometimes even deindexed.
the page with your link passes the Google smell test I could write a whole book about the Google smell test. Just imagine you are showing that link to a Google engineer and have to tell him the story of the link. Does the story of why the link is there make sense? If not, you have a problem.
the page with your link has some key page metrics this is the result of the above. In LRT, we would say the Page Power and the Page Trust is both greater than Zero. In Ahrefs, you could look at the UR, the “URL rating”.
However, many link building clients don’t even seem to ASK for link-specific and page-specific metrics.
Now if both Google and the data provider of the DR metric Ahrefs say that you cannot judge a link with that or similar metrics:
Link Building companies have a conflict of interest to use strict and accurate metrics.
It appears many don’t even question if they should use a metric that would reduce their output and actually vet links a lot stricter.
Many people suffer from this.
PBNs are a powerful vehicle to manufacture page power, page strength, link juice, oomph. Whatever you may call it.
PBNs are also very dangerous. Why?
PBN originally stands for “Private Blog Network”. The reality is, however, that they are more “Public” than “Private”. The PBN operators create vast link networks on expired domains, and that’s nothing new at all.
The methods got fancier, and one “off-label use” of Link Detox has always been to try to identify if LRT finds spam patterns, network effects, and such. That could be seen as an approach to harden the link network.
However, if a client gets “natural organic Digital PR outreach” sold, and then the link building company just puts articles upon an existing, high-risk PBN network, without disclosing the fact that they are participating in an especially dangerous link scheme that is a clear scam in my view, and others.
Also, quite often, simply poor PBN links.
PBNs are often rebuilt from expired domains. Domains from organizations that have ceased to exist went bankrupt or were forgotten to renew by their domain holders.
A common practice is to “recover” all the content from web archives and put it back to life.
That makes the expired domain and its rankings often “live again” as the ABC Conference, the XYZ Company, or the QQQ Foundation - whatever it was before.
Do the organizations you get links from really exist?
If a client gets tricked into believing that they got a link from that XYZ Company or ABC Conference that has long ceased business, then that’s a clear scam in my view and others.
With the endless amount of WordPress sites being vulnerable or compromised by plugins and themes that were “nulled” or simply built to place links, the “hacked links” topic is more relevant than ever.
There are uses who openly and in public if it is “safe to use” cracked or nulled themes or plugins. That would mean a violation of copyright and usage terms. And there’s a market for such users. They get WordPress themes that had more work on them than “nulling” (which was a term to very elegantly remove the copy protection in the 8-bit games area, with just one byte. Today, it just means commenting out some code in the plugin).
Nulled WP themes and Cracked WordPress plugins are a security risk, in case you missed that memo.
Needless to say, the practice to “insert links” into other websites without their consent is illegal in every legislation I know about.
But just like with other Cybercrime, it’s a question of how well such crimes are policed. The comment sounds like Ukraine may be especially relaxed in regards to hacking, but I am not a legal expert.
If you are paying for services conducted illegally, then the question of YOUR liability is a big one. Again this connects to the legislation that
It’s possible that your link building provider is as cold-hearted as this person is saying.
what ppl do in the end is their business
Well, to my knowledge, it is always YOUR fault, your business as a manager or agency to make sure that you do NOT engage in illegal activities including hacking, breaking into other people’s computer systems or websites, also not if you do it “just for the links”.
Can you hold your link building company liable for such things?
Were you even aware of such practices existing?
While there are plenty of ways to check if a website is penalized by Google and other search engines, there’s little motivation for link sellers to do so.
Refer to the section about “Links with Traffic” to understand why it’s imperative to build links on pages that rank. That requires the domain to be NOT penalized.
If there’s money to be made based on irrelevant stats, and the criteria is only a simple domain-based metric, then you could see that.
This company has an offer for $9,999 for a mere 27 links only qualified by Moz DA as it seems.
I received a sample delivery for one month, and there were even 25, not 27 working links in it.
But the result looks VERY bad.
Ten of the resulting links had a Page Power*Trust of 0. Worthless.
What’s worse, based on the Link Detox Risk (DTOXRISK) of the linking pages, only 7 have a low risk.
I would therefore recommend to disavow 18 of the expensive links, or destroy 2/3 or $6666 of that link investment. Right away.
Now I don’t get up in the morning to burn my money or my time - what about you?
Just to be clear, the Host Power*Trust is greater than ZERO for 24, which means the domain-based metric looks - almost always - OK. Ahrefs DR may also show higher/different numbers, but that’s not the point.
The point is that links cannot be measured by domain-based, i.e., host-based metrics. EVER.
In the list view, we see a familiar pattern for the $9,999 links.
would you spend $9,999 for these 25 links? we recommend not to.
We see in the chart that quite a few links HAVE page-based metrics set: some page power, some page trust.
The real problem here is that so many show a DTOXRISK greater than 1000.
While in some industries like online gambling, casino, porn, or other niches, it’s possible that the market is so spammy that you can go to 1100 or 1200, THIS market is not - based on my experience.
That means only seven links in here pass the criteria on a technical level.
Your links are placed on pages in hopefully useful and relevant content.
Usually, I would reveal some of the actual linking posts of that example here, but I have sworn not to reveal specifics.
There let me tell you.
It’s a real mess.
I call this link building result a scam because
None of the promises were kept, and it was a total waste of money in my eyes.
Sorry to the company buying those links, who spent that money for three months in a row. That must be 30k now for 75 garbage links.
Of course it all comes down to the contract made.
But when links purchased to be built “permanently” are removed after the contract ends, then that’s a clear link building scam.
In the case of rental links, where the buyer pays a monthly fee, that would be OK though.
Building links and then removing when the client ends the engagement.
Or just removing them a few months later.
I know links aren’t forever. But I’ve seen many cases of companies intentionally removing the links so they can continue to get paid.
A lot of people mentioned this practice, like:
I don’t know how many times in those hundreds of comments I read this.
While there may be legit outreach service providers genuinely pitching well-prospected websites for links, it seems a lot of link building providers are just selling out of their existing network of (PBN) sites.
Not doing custom outreach for their clients and just using the same set of sites they’ve been building links on for the past three years
Now if you sell me proper outreach, and then you go and just insert links into posts in your WP Multisite network, I call that a scam.
I mentioned that already in regards to conflicts of interest.
There are companies so dirty in ethics, that they even brag about getting you hooked with toxic links then charging you for the rehab again.
A lot of companies seem to have no problem to deliver the same old spam links that caused the link penalties to happen in the first place.
This reminds me that a while ago, I was restoring a 2007 article about link techniques to avoid, just for fun, and published it here. I was not aware that so much poor link building was still actively being provided back then.
Some posted pretty nice statements on this topic:
This one is up for discussion. “Reputable” business directories like Whitespark, Brightlocal, Yext have been around forever.
Everyone can sign up with a profile there, and maybe that makes even sense.
I am personally not so sure about that, at least not these days.
Are there still agencies out there that provide the simple registration and “management” of such link directories as a “SEO consulting” service and then even mark up the registration fees?
I don’t know.
I’ve not seen your links.
But here’s my offer to look at your deliverables, the links you paid more for, to get an idea and give you my opinion.
I need the typical spreadsheet of links for that, your domain, and the agreement or promise made. I’m really surprised at how vague link building services are still offered and promoted, and I think buyer’s education is where it all starts.
This is where I want to help.
I agree with James that a big part of the problem is ignorance on behalf of customers who don’t understand how or why “high authority” links work.
I think a big part of the problem is ignorance on behalf of customers who don’t understand how or why “high authority” links work. The best links in the world won’t do much in the long run for garbage content, with a high bounce rate and low conversions. On the other hand, if UX, site structure, and on page content are correctly optimized, a few great links can do wonders.
To me, the “scam” comes when companies sell top-price links to sites they know will not benefit. I don’t really blame them for selling a product people want… I just think 90% of website owners would be better off spending their link budget on almost anything else. Imagine spending money on getting your website penalized.
People love spammy links, though! For example, my YouTube tutorial on money robots gets like 5X the views than my videos about UX/Content…. Can you guess which drives more traffic to my websites? Youtube videos or Money Robot links?
Very correctly stated, people are looking for a quick fix.
Link Building in 2005 was a quick fix. You gave the company money, and they did their magic.
Nowadays, companies spend $500-1000 per link that often does nothing for them.
The fact that it is still going on means that links are still helping them, even at these very low-quality rates.
so some link drive value and others don’t
what matters is the end result
people will keep doing link building as long as it continues to help them rank better
The question is are you getting more of those links that move the needle?
Rob Kafka coined an interesting phrase, calling himself a “Link Snob.”
After seeing so many poor examples of link building, several can be called outright scams. Others are just the result of terribly poor work.
It often appears that’s “good enough” for the client, which is sometimes “just an employee that wants to check off a task”, as one commenter said.
My recommendations for everyone building links is to
If you are one of those guys that skim almost 7000 words and need an “actionable take away”, here it is
Use page-level metrics to measure links. Moz DA, Ahrefs DR, and Sistrix SI are domain-level metrics.
Bonus takeaway slide: To develop your skills, spend sufficient time to read long-format content with enough focus, then take time to think about it. Maybe re-read some more complicated parts again, which is very useful in technical topics like SEO, software development, DevOps, Physics, Medicine, Economics, you know - those more advanced disciplines.
So far, I’ve only had very mild negative feedback on my questions and statements, mostly from anonymous “trolls” or newbies, as Lasse calls them, here
You can’t please everyone.
I’m very aware that not everyone will like this post and discussion I started, especially the “BIG SEO” link building companies and “SEO Superstars” that teach and preach the wrong measurements for the links they sell via some shady side-business or “partner” they have.
Using and promoting metrics like Ahrefs DR, even if Ahrefs themselves say you cannot judge a link with it is, at least very ignorant.
But since this “training” comes from experts in the field who (claim to) have tested 53,146,525* links, we can probably cross out the ignorance and call it an unethical or outright scam.
You maybe didn’t know this:
A made-up, crazy-looking number always seems very realistic, that’s an age-old copywriting trick.
It increases conversion like crazy, and I’ve tested and used myself 117,542 times over the last 18 years three months and 18 days in business.
See what I’m doing here? :-)
I call the use of wrong metrics to measure links unethical and the business practice to use sunshine SEO metrics scammy.
This conduct is not shown by one but many companies, and it’s not new at all.
I have to accept that some people can live with a major conflict of interest, but I don’t support that and have been disgusted by it for years.
In fact, I swallowed it for almost a decade since I stopped offering link building services myself, and before that already.
I was shocked to see all the trash links once we started offering Link Detox for a Tweet or a 1$ payment.
Now is the time again to shed some light on the scammy parts of our beloved SEO industry.
If you like this post and would like to contribute with examples of you or your clients being scammed by shady link builders, let me know.
Our job is to help you in your position as a client.
I’m with Alex Curr when he says
Simply put, clients hire people to do things they are unable to do themselves; the job hired for is the consultant’s job to do properly and ethically, not the clients.
Enjoy & Learn Christoph C. Cemper
Some questions arose if people are actually being scammed by link building companies with various angles.
From my point of view - the only way to be scammy is to promise one thing and execute something else. Everything else is - bad agreement. Don’t take me wrong, when we speak about link building, I am the client. I know what I want, and if someone gives me that and I later find out that I didn’t ask something specific - it’s my fault.
I don’t know much about brain surgery (in fact, I know absolutely nothing), but if I ever needed it, I would expect the doctor is claiming to be a “brain surgeon” to be skilled in it and do the job properly. And wouldn’t expect to have to sit a course afterward.
Simply put, clients hire people to do things they are unable to do themselves; the job hired for is the consultant’s job to do properly and ethically, not the clients.
This chapter should discuss a couple of angles.
An interesting aspect came up in the discussion.
Who’s responsibility is it any way to make sure the buyer gets some links worthwhile to pay money/time/resource for?
One commenter suggests that 90% of the link building clients are employees of a company and know exactly how poor the result after.
Some people said that it’s the sole responsibility of the buyer to check and verify the work results of link builders.
I tend to agree, and this is why we developed our technology in 2006 that became LRT later. After all, we were also brokering links besides building links ourselves.
It gets a bit edgier if the link building company also provides SEO education for the link buyers.
I believe if the buyer was left to believe that the delivered links should help the rankings in Google, then we’re crossing a line.
While I’m no legal expert, this is where the promised effect is not delivered often, given the poor quality of the resulting pages, often not even ranking in Google. Then I would call this a clear “not as promised” scam.
Many link-building clients, however, just order “High DR links”, meaning links on pages that are hosted on domains with high DR. That specification does not talk about the internal or external linking of such links, and it surely doesn’t promise any effect.
That being said - the pure belief that links on really weak pages of strong domains help manipulate Google rankings is in the head of the buyer, and the sellers cannot.
If SEOs are aware of big numbers of worthless or even toxic links, then it’s probably another story.
Do YOU expect to get back 2/3 of shit links, like Michael here?
Most are shit. But sometimes shit is helpful. There are different grades of shit. Throw hot, fresh chicken shit on a garden, and it will add too much nitrogen too fast and burn/kill it.
Or add a bit of well-aged chicken shit or rabbit manure and watch the blossoms grow.
But you need a good foundation of the earth, lignin, compost, and soil microbial to best take advantage of it.
Note: you are reading a draft version with only 6956 words of this article; more to be added.
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