Of all the many ranking factors out there, link building, combined with content, is definitely among the most important.
Because it usually correlates so heavily with ranking and organic traffic, there are a lot of people offering backlinks and link building services.
Many are legitimate, but a lot of them you could safely refer to as link building scams.
Some agencies, like dofollow, have been building links for years, know what Google wants to see (and what they don’t), and have built a strong editorial process around quality, relevance, authority and naturalness.
We know how to spot and avoid many of the recurring link building scams that any site owner or company doing online business will eventually confront.
Throughout the following article, we will break down how those scams work, what to look out for and why they are a waste of time and money–if not outright dangerous.
Link building scams that are going to hurt your ranking in the search engines
Private Blog Networks (PBNs)
A Private Blog Network is a network of sites that are set up in order to send links to what is usually called the “money site” in order to help it grow and…make money.
While they can quickly help you increase your ranking, those increases are usually only temporary.
Google is getting better with every passing algorithm update at identifying and neutralizing these tactics.
Not only do some website owners love PBNs as an easy and comparatively cheap way of directing links to a new website they want to rank, but link builders selling links to clients love them too.
Why go to the hard work of prospecting and doing outreach, and negotiating with oether sites if you can just create a source of endless links and then sell them to your clients?
Well, because these are the kinds of links that could really hurt a client’s SEO, so doing it this way is unethical.
One of the many problems with PBN backlinks is that they can be quite tricky to spot, especially if you are new to SEO and link building.
This is especially the case if you are just relying on domain metrics using an SEO analytics tool like Ahrefs.
A lot of these private blog networks are built on expired domains with a lot of residual domain authority that can make it look like links are coming from a high quality website.
Spotting a link building service that’s trying to sell you PBN backlinks
There are quite a few signs that a link building service is trying to sell you links generated using a PBN.
They might promise:
- Backlinks from a large number of websites
- Guaranteed placements on high domain authority websites
- A set number of links
- Links with a very short time-to-live timeframe (i.e., immediately)
- Unusually low prices
- No editorial process rejecting or validating sites as a good backlink opportunity
Take a look at the below email we received a while ago. It’s par for the course for these kinds of link building scams, and you are bound to get them at some point while running an online business:
“Thousands of websites,” they state–so that’s the first red flag on our above list.
The ability to choose a specific number of links (with specific domain metrics)--that’s the second and third red flag right there.
And no editorial process other than DR/DA and traffic–there’s another red flag.
This is clearly someone trying to sell us a bill of goods.
They are almost certainly either generating these links via Private Blog Networks that they control personally (or someone they are associated with) or buying them from link farms.
This brings us to the second link scam to keep your eye out for.
More likely than not, the scammer we showed you in the previous example would have been using a combination of PBN and link farm.
This is almost certainly the case given the fact that they are selling a specific kind of link building opportunity: guest posts.
Guest posts are probably the biggest link building scam out there right now given how popular guest posting is as a legitimate link building tactic.
Someone reaches out to you offering to write guest posts on your behalf, with each post containing a link back to your website.
The problem is that these guest posts are being hosted on sites whose sole purpose is to sell links to anyone willing to pay.
These are sites that, as with Private Blog Networks, are often built using expired domains with leftover domain authority, giving them the appearance of quality.
If Google sees these kinds of referring domains in your backlink profile, it may decide simply to neutralize any SEO value you thought you were getting (thus wasting your money).
Or, if you have enough of these kinds of links to your name, Google may decide that your attempt to manipulate page rank warrants a manual action penalty.
Google might decide to limit the offending page’s visibility, hurting its ranking and traffic.
This could have serious financial consequences for your business in the form of lost sales and conversions.
Get enough of these links, and Google may eventually decide that your site warrants temporarily deindexing, meaning that you are no longer visible to people using the search engine.
Getting a site reinstated can take months.
Spotting link farms
Spotting link farms (and link builders trying to sell you links from link farms) is usually pretty straightforward.
Keep an eye out for:
- A very basic template design
- A lack of contact information or information about the person/people running the site
- Articles with no author or “guest author” labels
- A large number of articles covering a wide range of topics (many of which are unrelated)
- Hardly any original, non-guest post content
- Outbound links to sites in niches that Google is leery of–cannabis, gambling, health and finance, pornography
If you notice these red flags–either while looking for places to build links yourself or while dealing with a link building freelancer or agency–walk away.
The best result is you just waste some of your time and money. The worst case scenario is Google penalizes your site, and your search engine optimization is hurt.
The most prominent red flag: ranking for random error queries
The most surefire way to identify a link farm is if the site is ranking for random error queries like “[pii_email_4sd9344sd99ap72r4oes] or other proxy or pirate movie searches.
People running link farms will rank for these error queries because it’s an easy way to generate what looks like legitimate traffic.
Doing this also tends to build a lot of links from Web 2.0s like Google, which will artificially boost the domain rating (DR) when looking at the site metrics in Ahrefs.
Another lesson in why metrics, by themselves, don’t tell you the full story about a website and why it’s important to perform a much more thorough backlink analysis.
Spammy directory and forum links
Another common link building scam involves placing links in form posts and in the comment sections of blogs.
By themselves, these aren’t necessarily bad links to have and can form part of a healthy, diversified backlink profile–provided they are not the predominant type of link you have and you pick and choose your opportunities wisely.
They aren’t going to offer much in the way of SEO value, but search engines do respect these types of links so long as it doens’t look unnatural.
But there are unscrupulous link builders and link building agencies out there that will attempt to sell their clients spammy versions of these links because they are easy to generate.
What’s more, through the use of software that automates the process, you can generate a lot of these kinds of links in a short amount of time.
The problem with these kinds of links is that, when they are left as is, they are often interpreted as unnatural by Google, and very often, they don’t even stick around long enough for you to see any of the little benefit they would have offered in the first place.
They are noticed by forum and site moderators and deleted for the spam that they are.
Spotting link builders trying to sell you directory links
The good news is that it’s usually easy to spot link building services trying to trick you into paying for this type of link.
They often will tell you upfront that this is how they build links.
While transparency is always good, the problem is that a lot of these link builders will tell you that forum and comment links are valuable when they are not.
A few ways to spot forum link builders include:
- People guaranteeing you backlinks
- Unbelievably low-cost links
- A lot of links quickly
HARO link scams
This one is a bit different than the other link building scams on the list because it usually doesn’t involve payment.
It can evolve into a request for payment, but usually, it’s a simple bait and switch.
Understanding how it works involves you knowing a bit about HARO (Help a Reporter Out), the digital PR service that connects sources and journalists.
It’s a great way to build high quality editorial home page links from some of the web’s biggest blogs, magazines and news outlets.
We’ve built some fantastic HARO links for our clients over the years.
HARO has been around for a while, and while it is still a great way to get high quality links pointing to your home page, it has become overrun with marketers using it to try and game search engine rankings.
Anyone can create a HARO account (on both the source and journalist side of the equation), so there is really nothing stopping spammy marketers from using it to troll for backlinks.
You sign up for a free account and are able to post and respond to queries in an email that gets sent out three times a day (except for U.S. holidays).
This is what it looks like
You, as the source, then select the queries you have the experience/expertise to respond to and pitch the journalist or blogger on the other side. If they like what you have to say, they might include you in their article, along with a dofollow backlink.
It’s a great way to do quality link building.
HARO link scams
Here’s where the scamming comes in.
Scammy link builders will post a query under false pretenses (i.e., that they are someone actually using HARO for what it was intended and not baiting you into responding to link building scheme).
The people who respond to the query will then be met with one of two messages–the first is for a classic link exchange.
In return for linking to your website in their article (if it even is their article and they aren’t link building on someone else’s behalf), they require a link from your article to their site.
Link exchanges are, at best, grey hat link building techniques.
They can sometimes make sense, provided they are done tactfully by experienced link builders who are up to date on the latest search engine technology and Google’s philosophy on link building–Google does not like link exchanges.
The other message you might be met with after sending a pitch is an offer to sell you backlinks.
This type of bait and switch is a lot less sincere than the first one because it isn’t offering anything for “free,” which is the ethos of HARO–expertise in exchange for PR.
HARO has become such a heavily-used link building tool that it has gotten to the point where people straight-up list a willingness to exchange links as one of the pitching requirements.
If you aren’t willing to trade links, don’t bother responding. At least they’re trying to save you time.
Spotting HARO link scams
Spotting HARO link scams is something that you can really only get good at once you’ve fallen for them a few times.
Some of the key things to look out for, however, include:
- Immediate responses after pitching a query. Legit writers and journalists can take a while to get back to you. They have a lot on their plate and usually spend a lot of time going through their responses.
- Responses from Gmail accounts. If the person responding to your HARO pitch has a Gmail and not a professional Gsuite account (preferably with verifiable credentials associated with it), it’s a red flag.
- Generic business, SEO and marketing queries. These are the most common HARO link bait, in our experience, because they are questions that anyone can easily answer after spending a few minutes on Google. They are designed to attract the greatest number of responses and, therefore, the greatest potential link building opportunities.
This shouldn’t dissuade you from using HARO as a way to build links, but you need to go into HARO with your eyes wide open so as not to waste your time.
Scammy and unproven link builders
A good way to understand the link building space is to understand the gold rush mentality. This is the mentality that drives large numbers of people to lucrative opportunities for easy money.
Websites compete for ranking in the search engines and, ultimately, organic traffic.
In order to increase those rankings, websites and online businesses need to do a lot of things, but one of the most important is to develop a backlink profile that communicates trust and authority to Google.
This makes links high-value commodities. Naturally, there is a lot of money to be made selling these commodities, and so, of course, people flock to such a market.
And, of course, a bunch of those that flock are going to be charlatans after easy money–people interested in capitalizing on the profits but unwilling to do any of the legwork required to provide something of value to the buyers.
They are hoping to exploit the naivete and the knowledge gap between those selling the commodity (themselves) and those paying for it, profiting off the asymmetry. They tell you it’s gold, but if you can’t tell the difference between gold and fool's gold, how would you know?
There will also be those that want to offer a legitimate service but just don’t have the experience or wherewithal to do it.
There are plenty of link building agencies out there trying to grow legitimate businesses and which want to do good work for their clients, but using outdated and incomplete information and tactics.
They’re too new and maybe rushed into the SEO industry because a YouTube video or a friend told them it was a good place to make a buck.
Either way, you should know how to spot both.
Spotting the inexperienced
The best way to spot inexperienced link builders is to ask yourself, “do I know more than this person/these people?”
If during an introductory call, you get the feeling that you have just as good, if not a better grasp on contemporary link building best practices, there’s a good chance they are not that experienced.
Of course, there are website owners and SEOs out there who use outsourced link builders for a variety of reasons, and who have an advanced understanding of linkbuilding themselves, they just don’t have the time or inclination to do it themselves because it’s not their core business.
There are also inexperienced link builders out there willing to do good work for less money than you might expect to pay an established, reputable service.
It’s up to you whether to take a chance on them, but it’s not always a bad gamble.
Spotting scammy SEO services, including link builders, takes a little more detective work.
Here are a few things to look out for:
- A link building service with no case studies. If link builders know what they are doing and are confident in their knowledge and tactics, the proof will be in the pudding. They will have hard evidence that what they do works.
Of course, you can’t expect any company to give away all of their proprietary secrets and business model, but you should expect to see examples of what they’re offering you in action.
- Testimonials that don’t mention people and brands. Anyone can create fake testimonials, and a lot of people do. If testimonials and social proof lacks specificity, it’s a red flag.
- Check out their backlink profile. A link building service is selling you their ability to build backlinks. If they haven’t built any for themselves, what makes you think they will know how to build them for you.
If you have access to an SEO analytics tool like Ahrefs, you can see what kind of links an agency has built for themselves. If you were trying to learn investing, would you take a course from someone who doesn’t make any money in the markets?
Good search engine optimization involves knowing how to avoid the scams
Any website or online business that makes organic traffic an important component of their digital marketing strategy is going to have to wade into the link building space eventually.
Knowing how to navigate the hucksters, false promises, and potentially detrimental link building traps will save you a lot of time, money and anguish.
If you have the budget for a serious, experienced, cutting edge link building service with a proven track record of skyrocketing ranking and organic traffic, reach out to dofollow and let’s chat.