The mighty Jon Cooper of Point Blank SEO fame recently published a sequel to his Creative Link Building post, the latter/original becoming the most popular article ever to be shared on Inbound.org to date.
Inspired by Jon’s posts, I had a light-bulb moment when chatting to good friend and fellow SEO Emma Barnes:
@ejbarnes89 You must’ve seen some crappy links in your time! Hey, now there’s a blog post idea: asking SEOs for the worst link they’ve seen.
— Steve Morgan (@steviephil) April 18, 2013
Instead of the best and/or most creative links SEOs had built, what about the worst they’d seen on their SEOing exploits around the Web, whether it be through link analysis or more randomly?
I decided to ask a number of SEOs in the industry about their experiences, horror stories and/or funny encounters. There were a few caveats though:
- No outing! All examples must be anonymous so as not to implicate anyone specifically.
- It didn’t necessarily have to be the spammiest link they’d seen – I was also looking for links that had been poorly executed, incorrectly implemented, etc.
When asking for contributions, a few people declined, feeling a little uncomfortable with getting involved. I could understand, given the nature of the content. However when I had the idea, I never saw it as this negative or hateful post, and so I’m hoping people will see it as a good teaching point – i.e. certainly how not to build links! – and also get a few chuckles out of it.
NOTE: Even with the above caveats, it goes without saying that some of the examples are NSFW, so be careful if you’re reading at work! (I’ve labelled the ones that this applies to.)
Ok, so I’ll kick things off…
As many SEOs will know, you have some clients who don’t want to get involved with the SEO at all (they just want you to do it all for them), but there are those who like to get stuck in and involved as well. I once had a client while at a previous agency who wanted to help out. I won’t say what industry he was in – let’s just say it was household furniture. Anyway, we’d had discussions about our link building process before (e.g. keep it relevant, keep it high quality, etc.) and so I assumed he had a good idea about the good ways and bad ways to obtain links.
A little while later, he got back to me and told me that he’d just bought 100 links! I was concerned immediately. 100 links at once? Paid links?! I asked him for examples – and that’s when I started to panic. 20 of them were on ‘health’ sites (yep, you guessed it: the ‘v’ word)! The funniest was one that had a blogroll containing a dozen links: 11 of them had anchor text such as “buy [pill name]” and “[another pill name] 100 mg” and in the middle of them? One link all on its own, the odd-one-out, with the anchor text: “buy pine furniture”.
A few months ago I was doing a crawl of a list of competitors websites to identify some good content. Clicking on one that had tickled my fancy revealed something both hilarious and sad. The author had tried to include a link in his first sentence to a resource to give a reference to their argument. Unfortunately this author in question hadn’t learnt how to code a link in HTML and had managed to create a blog long anchor text.
Talk about optimising for the long tail…
One case that stuck in my mind is one link to a clothing store inside a wine forum.
The connection? They were talking about red wines and one spammer wrote: “yeah, red wines are the best,” and inside “red” there was a link (dofollow of course) to their page with red dresses.
Now… I get you had a link, and so you have the number to prove at the end of the month… but seriously… the brand is happy with that? Your agency? To me this type of spam is extremely stupid and not only for SEO reasons. It’s stupid because you are not creating anything worth it and so you have to do this crappy style.
SEOs should be artists.
In a past life, my agency team was asked by a VP (who knew very little about SEO) to start encouraging our clients to partake in a link wheel to help promote a new sister company. These were big brand names, so there was no chance I was going to honor this request. The misguided VP had success with a link wheel building vendor with his previous company and was completely sold on its potential. To him, this was good SEO. I gave him my point-of-view, and was immediately looped out of his agenda going forward.
Since he had clout, he was able to get many brands to buy-in; some of which were my clients. I found out the hard way that this project had gone through, when a colleague pointed out that this new company had a link page hyperlinked through the copyright symbol in the footer. To this day the link is still there, hidden from users.
Found a delightful batch of exact match anchors pointing at a client site from a sub-domain on a bust Polish Host, the links were executable malware PHP scripts! Lovely. Very competitive niche and these links appeared late March. Have contacted the owners of the going-out-of-business host but looks like there used to be shed loads of Malware!
The worst link I ever came across was whilst doing link profile analysis for a client who I had taken over after they had been using another SEO agency and fell out with them. It appeared that the previous SEOs had been using link networks to generate some of their backlinks. There must have been some automation process in place because the title text of the link turned out to be the Username and Password. They used to login to that link network. I Googled that username and password combination and found all the links they had created using that link network and all of them had the same title text. It was quite a well known SEO agency too.
Although not technically an SEO by trade I did have to comment on a backlink profile of one of my clients a few months ago. An agency they were working with at the time had been doing a lot of widget links. These links had become so commonplace in their strategy that they actually not only made up about 40% of the overall links but a lot of them had the brand-name spelt incorrectly (which was then copy-pasted when requesting future links). I suppose at least the anchor text wasn’t all brand terms (technically)
I guess one that sticks out in my mind was a link to a client’s competitor, I think it was in the SaaS industry if I remember correctly. They had a bunch of links that were the result of some kind of link exchange program. Nothing too bad except for one which I looked at which kept crashing my browser for some reason, after a few attempts it finally loaded. It was a reciprocal links page with over 25,000 links on one page! I couldn’t even scroll through them as Chrome kept freezing on me.
I’ve redacted the names of the innocent.
About 11 months ago I had a friend refer me to a small business in Leeds as they had been royally Penguinized. The previous SEO company who were also their web designers had been buying links for their site.
Now this SEO firm weren’t buying the links themselves, no they had outsourced it to a firm in the US, and they in turn had passed it on to a person who specialised in SEO for “special interest” sites.
So what his tactic?
To buy or trade links with other “special interest” webmasters.
So in a HUGE Blogroll surrounded by links to British BBWs, DvDa, Canadian GILFs and Berlin Escorts was a link to this family run builders merchants in West Yorkshire.
But this wasn’t one link it was hundreds. I went through blog after blog with blogrolls full of hundreds of links to porn sites with just a solitary little link to my client in the middle of it – sat there all prim & proper like a eunuch at an orgy.
Competitor analysis throws up all kinds of stuff and at times you just have to stand back and take a minute to fully appreciate how bad a job people can do at building links, and I’m talking about SEO professionals here. I don’t think there’s a particular link which stands out to me as the ultimate “bad link” but back when I worked a lot with small ecommerce sites there were plenty of campaigns which were… less than optimal shall we say? It was often the case that these guys had been paying for an off the shelf link building campaign in good faith, 50 links per month for £200 or similar, sometimes they’d been shelling out for years!
The things that stand out from a couple of particularly horrific campaigns:
- Links being built to multiple versions of the homepage: domain.com, domain.com/index, www.domain.com, etc. etc.
- Links being built from completely off topic websites. Before all the changes in the last 12 months or so and G knocking out many of the link networks this happened A LOT, in fact many of the of the shelf campaigns were run almost 100% this way. It worked at the time but now these sites are suffering heavily.
- Links to pages which didn’t exist. I found on one particular campaign that there’d obviously been a typo in the details being used to run a link building campaign and about 25% of the links were going directly to pages which 404’d… ouch!
I think that the worst one was a link in a blog comment that included the text ‘Please, don’t delete this link, it’s urgent. Need to make report ASAP’.
This is really funny, because 1) Do we really care? 2) I wonder who was to receive this ‘report’ built of such links, most posted at once in blog comments or probably forums… And this is fun that people care about such sophisticated things like link profiles and reports while doing trash link building. I think this comment has become a meme for all the people I shared this case with. Such a desperate call for solidarity, yet with a hint of hopelessness.
Perhaps not the worst-worst links ever seen by my eyes, but definitely valuable for a shoutout!
I am browsing the Bing forums for a client, to gain more insights on how Bing works and everything, and I came across pages filled with posts like this…
I don’t think I need to say more
When conducting an audit while winning work from a local rival, I found some astonishing examples of spammy link building work, which worryingly had only been implemented within the past few months.
Their previous agency had inserted a link (complete with matching anchor text for their “money” keyword) on a number of irrelevant websites, which themselves featured a mass of links nicely placed within an iFrame on the page.
The topics of these pages were 100% unrelated the topic of the client’s website, they really couldn’t have been more irrelevant if they had tried, they included pages listing “Indian IT companies”, “Indian Animal Resources” and my favourite picks of the bunch which I’ll describe as a performance enhancing “Pharmaceutical” product page!
Looking through these links made me feel quite nostalgic, it reminded me of how link building was when I got into SEO back in 2005.
Not too long ago the company I work for underwent a third round of financial investment. Our company worked with journalists and PR companies to ensure the news was picked up internationally and by the end of the week we had secured a large number of very authoritative links from some great locations. However one internationally known publication that had previously linked to us (on a separate occasion) decided that readers would be better suited following a link to their own internal search results for our name, even though the story was very specifically about us. More than anything it was just a really bad user experience as their internal search results only had 2 news stories on us and one of those was the article with the link – generally when you see a brand name hyperlinked you generally expect to be able to visit that website. Were they hoarding PageRank or was it a genuine mistake? I wasn’t sure but I hope they change their policy moving forward.
So, I currently carry out some in-house work for a financial services company. We’ve got a number of competitors in the UK and I was carrying out some research on them to identify potential content partners and low-hanging fruit.
All the usual suspects are there – paid site-wide links, blogrolls, advertorials to make Interflora cringe and so on. One competitor, however, really stood out with some of their guest blogging efforts.
Guest blogging lends itself well to this industry, as a number of market commentators can breakdown the intricacies of the sector into digestible pieces. You get a few examples of guest blogs being quite promotional and also those that look artificially placed, but our competitor takes the biscuit. Or rather, they fall fowl…
The competitor in question has decided not to place their content on relevant blogs with relevant audiences. They’ve even foregone writing content related to their site. No, this savvy competitor has simply bought exact-match anchor text links in the middle of blog posts about free range turkeys.
That’s free range turkeys.
We’re talking about an industry that has sky rocketed since the global financial crisis and markets where up to $4 trillion is traded every day. And they have a link in the middle of the blog post about free range turkeys.
It’s safe to say, when Google sees that, I think they’re stuffed.
When I was working for Healthspan and did quite a bit of competitor analysis, I was looking at one of our main competitors (a well-known brand) and found that they had an enormous amount of backlinks to their site. Now at the time, they weren’t running a blog either which for me, made it pretty suspicious that they would have so many for certain words… especially outside of brand terms. I did some more digging and found that they were on a host of non-UK (mainly Philippines or Malaysian websites)… I am sure if I did the same analysis today they would all be gone, but if you have back links to your site in this day and age, it doesn’t take more than someone with half a brain to work out whether its paid or non-paid.
Another tactic that stands out like a sore thumb are advertorials. Now we all know where that has got Interflora of recent, but the fact that they were so openly touted from publishing houses makes for a pretty poor relationship from the start. If you are going down this route, then be sure to write a piece of content that’s actually relevant to the host site/area and that doesn’t scream “…I am PAID for…”!
I am not suggesting that you ditch paid links (that’s your call) but be a little bit careful about it and make sure that the host site has some kind of relationship to the business you own or are selling – or sooner or later Mr Cutts will be coming for you!
I’ve seen a lot of bad links – most of them just poorly done or transparently spammy, rather than bad in an interesting way. One of the worst links I’ve seen was actually more the product of the link builder not really getting SEO than malicious intent. I did some consulting for a company that provided business software. The person whom they’d contracted to build links had gotten the memo that guest blog posting was a good way to build links, and that targeting popular keywords was important, but hadn’t really put much thought into it beyond that. He was simply going out and getting guest blog post opportunities on whichever blog he could, regardless of whether it was related to the product. Then he would choose high-volume keywords based solely on that – high volume. The keywords he was targeting with these posts had nothing to do with, well, anything. Certainly not with the product, and not really with each other, either. Around Halloween he ended up posting on a sports blog targeting a popular keyword at the time: “Dog the Bounty Hunter costume.” Needless to say, the links from that post drove zero traffic. To this day, I think “Dog the Bounty Hunter costume” when I see links in a blog post that have nothing to do with the content of the post.
[Note from Steve: some of the B3 guys wanted to do a joint entry, rather than separate ones]
So these links come from myself [@ejbarnes89], @typeaccord, @michaelauty and @andrewradburn – collectively known as Branded3′s Data Insights Team. Here’s some of the kind of links we found whilst doing some backlink audits:
- Rubber Fetish site (natural link to a client who sold rubber boots)
- Group Sex Forum (natural link to a travel client – some people were planning some kind of group sex trip…)
- Utter spam sites with no common theme and every post is paid, the whole sidebar is spammy
- Sites with the sparkly gifs all over the place that were made in the 90s
- Just found one where in the middle of the word “carpets” they linked from “pets” to a pet-store! Unbelievable!
We see loads of genuine businesses (usually local) that have really spammy “links” pages – full of anchor text links to sites that aren’t always even in the same kind of niche. Obviously someone came to them and said “we’ll pay you money” and they thought “Why not” – it’s just, astounding.
I’d say the worst link I’ve ever seen was a completely white hat link. The reason it was horrible wasn’t because of the type of link, but how it got there. The owner of an agency had a really big client that he was afraid to lose. He decided to switch out one of their links on their homepage to a link of a page he created. This way he’d get extra traffic to his page and was able to show that it was getting traffic. However, in reality the client wasn’t gaining any extra traffic at all, it was just going somewhere different.
[NSFW alert (sort of...)]
If you ever find yourself bored of life, and just need that little push towards Ending It All, why not try a nice big link removal job? You’ll be tearing your eyes out in no time.
I was there, when I saw it. Right on the brink. As I ploughed through my thirty thousandth link, with the thumb of my left hand gouging deep into the socket of my right eye, it was right there.
I paused, then held a tea towel up to my face to quell the bleeding. After all the syndicated articles, spam comments, worthless directories and Spunshit, this link stood out like a sore eye. I hadn’t come across many paid links that were still live, so whenever I did I was always a little intrigued.
And this was the best of the bunch – a much prized edu link. This rare breed is of course considered the crème de la crème – a link builders dream. Every SEO knows that Google favours such links above all others, due to the indisputable trust our fabled Universities carry. These prestigious learning institutes employ only the finest minds, passing on their learnings to the most upstanding and honourable members of civilization. Their Deans sign off every outgoing link from their websites, such as to maintain the rigour that has stood them firm for generations. Such as the links found below, nestled surreptitiously in the footer of a webpage, for none other than the California Institute of Technology Chess Club (Founded Oct 2002):
Note: No offence intended to any suicide victims.
I do a lot of link audits at work, so I get to see a lot of high quality editorially awarded links. All the quality tends to blend together in my memory, so I can only remember unusual anchors, domains or positioning:
- The worst anchors I’ve seen were high volume child porn based pointing to a website selling clothing. Hundreds of explicit anchors were each linking to the site from hundreds/thousands of pretty awful pages. I think this was more a test than an attack (a variant on spraying a site with Viagra or Poker terms).
- My favourite anchor text was for a website selling football kits going to a product page with the anchor “3D dinosaur cock”. The link was placed outside the html tags on a single page. I still can’t understand who built it, or why. It’s still not ranking for the term.
- The most uncomfortable legitimate links were from a website specialising in user generated Sonic the Hedgehog pornography and roleplay. The linked to website was fairly unrelated, but the users were giving hearty recommendations for their service.
- The most beautiful kind of spam is where the comments are followed, not vetted, and not paginated causing the page to struggle to load under the weight of 13,789 opinions and breaking the styling completely.
- Discovered today. A link on more than one of those penalised newspaper domains, sitewide ( over 45,000 linking pages each), cloaked away in the source code (under the heading “sponsored”) and using the anchor “Used Cars”.
The Evil Dropcatch & EMD Pivot
Other than the usual link mistakes that make you wince, be it incorrect syntax or typos I’ve witnessed some vile links in high places because I’ve operated in the PPC (Pills, Paydayloans, Casinos) link neighbourhoods.
The most recent sleuthy tactic that made me draw a sharp breath recently was the case of the dropcaught .org that a decade ago had naturally amassed thousands of DA 90+ links.
Because the third sector has a tendency to spawn volunteer unofficial sites, that are broad partnerships, they often attain a semi-official status when there is a major cause that hits the mainstream. And when I say mainstream I’m talking about global pop icons, like Bono and Sting and Gaga pushing the cause. Thereafter they snowball links from high places, irrespective of their legitimacy to the official status of the lead organisation.
Then over time, the movement either fizzles out, achieves it’s objective, and sometimes the politicisation of the movement ends the grand project amid sour feelings within the movement. The sites run down, the volunteers move on and the bandwagon goes elsewhere.
However, historical links to the site are rarely if ever removed, particularly from high DA domains with archive pages and huge sites. Along cruises a PPC type, scoops the domain at the 10 year expiry, renames their entire business to the EMD and produces content very similar to the .org original keyword universe.
Thankfully, this desperate measure it’s neither common or as effective as you may assume, because the more their site grows, the more the link profile appears to be highly unusual as all inbound links are homepage only.
The worst link I’ve ever seen? I’m not sure. In the recent months I have been cleaning up “unnatural links” most of the time and it was awful! I’ve seen so much crap that I had to erase most of it from my memory to stay sane. One particular case was so bizarre though I have to share it with you. At first it seemed it was just a small bad link but the more I looked the worse it became.
In the beginning I overlooked it. I looked for sites with thousands, hundreds or at least dozens of links leading to my client. Then I looked for high PageRank links etc. and this link from a worthless site was neither really important nor one of the most offending ones.
It was on a page called sponsors.php and dealing with sponsors despite not being a paid link. It wasn’t paid for to manipulate PageRank that is. It didn’t use the “nofollow” attribute though. It was simply a page stating that several big brands and my client were “sponsoring” a sweepstakes. So I added it to my long list of questionable links that Google can view as unnatural.
We had to deal with that unnatural links penalty repeatedly so I needed to keep on looking after the first disavows and reinclusion requests didn’t work out. So I looked again, checking every single backlink on that link profile.
Then I’ve found another two sponsors.php links on another two sites. They looked similar to the first one. I thought it was some poor content drone who copy and pasted this elsewhere. Still I started looking for more sponsors.php sites including the company name of my client by searching Google for the [brand] allinurl:sponsors.php and what did I find?
A 12 or more of very similar pages or various low quality sites from different domains. I searched even more using Majestic SEO and finally found approx. 30 pages on 30 domains with these sponsor-links.
Also that’s not even the end of the story. The links have been included on 30 sites automatically but two of them customized them too so our change to nofollow didn’t work everywhere. One of the links was even hidden and only reachable through a tiny “more” link. So we had everything a quality rater would want to ban us for in one single link, a link farm, automation, paid links, hidden links, you name it.
A colleague of mine found them even faster just by checking for links from the same IP.
That’s what a I learned here, do not assume that people aren’t that stupid. Al-ways look for the utterly obvious stuff too. Otherwise you might overlook 30 automated “sponsor” links on the same IP.
When I started learning SEO it was as a customer support representative for a real estate hosting company around 2006 and a customer called in to complain that he suddenly had no traffic to his site. Digging into his site, I saw his respectable amount of organic traffic had indeed suddenly stopped, so looking around the site I came upon a page he had linked off the homepage with white text on a white background.
I was amazed at the size of the link farm I had just discovered. The page had over 3 to 4k anchor text outbound links to what seemed to be every directory on the internet and hundreds and hundreds of Realtors. He had apparently used that page to stuff all of the reciprocal links so he could get entered into every single directory and also had contacted hundreds of other real estate agents and convinced them to exchange reciprocal links. Just the sheer scale and time he must have applied to get that done still amazes me. Of course, he got pretty angry and didn’t believe me when I suggested that he had triggered a penalty from Google for unnatural linking because he said something like “How else am I supposed to get links?!” before asking for my supervisor who told him the same thing.
The term “payday loans” has been one of the most talked about keywords within the past few years. In the past, most SEOs will have noticed several innocent looking websites, which has no relations to payday loans whatsoever, suddenly ranking number one on Google for that keyword because of some shady looking work. “Payday loans” is up there with several other notorious keywords such as those within the industry of adult and a certain performance-enhancing drug (I’m going to try and be discreet so that this page will not rank for those keywords.
But that doesn’t stop the payday sites from joining in the fun. I have spotted a seemingly professional service provider, which has a special payday loan links page. This page is not only hidden from the main navigation bar and homepage, but it links to dozens of other similar websites whilst also encouraging everybody to exchange links by either contacting the site or copy and embed the HTML which is readily available to paste.
And they say link exchange is dead…
A few months ago I was training new starters on outreach, and I always cited the same example as the worst links I’ve ever seen… you’d probably expect to see Pinay blogs linking out to bingo sites and payday loan companies, but towards the end of 2011 almost every parent blogger in the Philippines started looking for rifle scopes. They all found “rifle scopes” on the exact same site, but couldn’t manage 150 words on the subject… or even a picture of their new rifle scope. No comments… no shares… despite the fact that around 50 people were all looking for the same thing at the same time… and found it on the same site!
A really terrible link that we were (sort of) responsible for – we designed a football infographic for a betting company… and a rival company stripped the links to our client out of the embed code, and linked the (poorly written) description to their own “casino bonuses”…
I’ve seen hundreds of crap links in my time and built a fair few myself, but it’s difficult to choose the very worst one. Coming from a professional buying background, ‘buying links’ matched my skill set. The aim was to try and get maximum link equity for the lowest price possible. My example is more of a practice, the practice of blindly acquiring competitors’ links whatever the cost, financially or SEO wise.
During 2009 I worked in the ‘sunglasses’ niche for a global brand. I noticed all the major competitors were buying blogrolls on a highly trusted PR7 unrelated site. The price was US$500/mth and half the blogroll was made up of sunglasses brands, placing links because their competitors had them. A link seller’s dream.
My client wanted to buy the link due to a crazed ego. I emphasised that you could get much more value from the US$6,000/yr, but the ego was strong. In the end I convinced them to let me do a link test on the site. Once I showed them the link was giving very little value, I won my argument. I’ve just checked the site today and a few sunglasses brands are still on the blogroll. Here’s a screenshot:
The 2009 archived page is hilarious though, if only Steve would let me link to it
So… what’s the worst link you’ve seen? What’s your favourite story from the SEOs above? Please let me know in the comments!