Stephen Logan

The Ethics of Using Visitors to do Your Link Building, SEO and Social Work

4th Nov 2010 SEO Blog 5 minutes to read

Yesterday I ran into a little marketing piece promoting the latest competition by Desigual, a Spanish clothing brand [see: Clothing brand rewards fans for being kind online]. It wasn’t the fashion that caught my eye, but the way in which customers could earn rewards.

Competitions online tend to revolve around answering a question or signing up for a newsletter. This provides the company with the contact details of consumers and helps them to target future campaigns. It’s a simple enough ploy and one that is usually pretty effective.

However, in the case of Desigual competition entrants are faced with a whole new set of requirements.

Upon registering their interest (through a Facebook profile no less – already cunning), shoppers are provided with a list of blogs on which to leave ‘happy’ comments. If they are one of the first 100 to receive a reply from the blog owner, they will receive their favourite item of clothing from the Desigual range. Simple.

But hang on, isn’t this just buttering up blog owners? Couldn’t this be perceived as buying links; albeit in a roundabout way and with garments exchanging hands rather than cold hard cash? How can they benefit from having people comment on entirely unrelated blogs? Is this about links, or gaining access to valuable Facebook profiles – an update on the old fashioned email list?

The Great Gift Giveaway – With Strings Attached

Anyway, this got me thinking. There must be other marketing ploys (hypothetical and real) that would offer multiple benefits, including both social and SEO. Take this very fake example below:

Is offering an iPad in exchange for links illegal, unethical or innovative? As with Desigual, this is just a competition. It has a great prize that people will want and all they have to do in return is find a few links – how easy is that?

Again, it’s not paying for links per se, even if it is far more explicit than the very real example used earlier.  You’re not forcing people to add a link to your site (or, as is more likely, a secondary landing site that will redirect link strength back to your domain), it’s their choice effectively.

Think of the publicity you would get too. Okay, so it would mostly be negative, but the more people talk about it, the higher your potential uptake will become. That’s about as blackhat as you can get, but with the added ambiguity over whether it was actually contravening any rules.

For the price of a couple of iPads, this could be an inspired investment. Cheap publicity, low-cost link building and an SEO boost like you wouldn’t believe. It has social potential too. Once people start discussing the competition, it has the chance to snowball, increasing publicity and involvement. Essentially it is flagrant link bait with viral capabilities.

But what systems are out there at the moment exploiting this potential SEO loophole? How, about directory sites offering both paid and free services?

Devious Directories

Unfortunately for ‘Internet Heaven’, they chose to follow me on Twitter the very same day as I started thinking about just such a service. After investigating further, I found a rather odd system of link sharing.

Essentially they offer a premium directory service for websites who are happy to cough up a few quid for the privilege of a link back. There’s nothing wrong with this, paid directories don’t fall foul of Google rules because they are generally moderated – meaning that they won’t guarantee all sites will be accepted. It is entirely white hat.

What interested me about Internet Heaven was the free directory option (shown below).

It’s not unheard of for a directory to ask for a link back in return for a listing. Fair enough, if you need links and the directory is strong enough, that’s fine. This directory does things a little differently though.

Rather than providing a subtle banner, they ask that you to include an embedded text link in a prominent position on your site. A little odd, but still not entirely unheard of. But this isn’t just a straight text link to their homepage, in fact it isn’t even a link to their site in many cases.

The page you link to is dependent on a variable code. Hit refresh and the HTML code will magically change to another domain, with a new bit of anchor text. You could, therefore, be linking to anything.

Now I’m not here to suggest that these sites have paid for the privilege of having links directed at their site from unsuspecting site owners. There’s a decent chance that the domains are owned by Internet Heaven and they are simply sharing their link love a little. Who knows?

What is Black Hat, Really?

On the one hand this seems like a really good idea. It’s a great way to strengthen domains and, on the face of it, there’s nothing illegal about it – in fact they even claim to be Google friendly. On the other though, there is a nagging feeling that this has to be black hat – at least by traditional definitions. Links are traceable and I’d be surprised if Google isn’t wise to such schemes; whether or not they will act upon them is another matter though.

So why aren’t we all creating directories? Rather than giving away iPads or clothes, you can get links to your sites just by doing a little triangular linking. Site A links to Site B/Directory C and receives a link from Directory C.

There is a fine line though between being innovative and breaking the rules.  Opinions are likely to be split over whether any of the above techniques are entirely black hat; but in the case of the last two, the risk is far greater and the reward may be questionable. It wouldn’t be a recommended technique for most and certainly couldn’t be construed as ethical link building [see: How Do You Define Ethical Link Building in SEO].

Desigual have simply wrapped their marketing campaign/competition/SEO work into a seemingly innocent bid to help bloggers earn a few extra comments. By keeping it simple and building up the campaign profile, they can expect a decent uptake. It’s clever, not entirely original, but clever all the same. Better still, it’s entirely white hat – well, maybe an offish white.

But where do we draw the line? How can websites and businesses use visitors to do marketing on their behalf without breaking any rules or treading on toes? The line might be extremely fine, but being able to successfully tread it can bring significant rewards. Finding yourself on the wrong side of that line though can make life particularly tricky.

So what do you make of encouraging visitors and third parties to do your marketing for you? Are these examples black hat, innovative or just daft?  Can this mutually beneficial model be extended further, if so, what do you believe is possible? Is it ethical? Everybody has their own opinions.

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