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Search Secrets: How a prominent SEO company is covertly purchasing backlinks for Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corporation | LL Social

October 9th, 2012 Update: Someone emailed me a link today to a blog post by iAcquire. It outlines their current process as it relates to content and SEO. Given how much attention my May post (below) initially received, I feel it is only fair to highlight iAcquires current approach to SEO.

—–

Update (1PM CST). Liz Gengl from Dun & Brandstreet Credibility Corp emailed me to explain that her company is distinct from the Fortune 1000 company D&B. To quote Credibility Corp website, “In 2010, D&B sold its credit-on-self line of business, Self Awareness Solutions (SAS), which was merged with the assets of Credibility Solutions to create Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp.”  Judy Hackett, the CMO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp emailed me with the following:

We are a privately held company.  We purchased the assets of D&B’s credit-on- self division back in August of 2010.  Part of those assets included smallbusiness.dnb.com for a defined period of time. We recently moved this site to mycredit.dnb.   To be clear D&B is a publicly held company.  We are partners with a perpetual right to use the D&B brand and to sell certain D&B products exclusively.

We are still researching this situation ourselves.  We recently moved from our smallbusiness.dnb.com to the new site at  mycredit.dnb.com.  While the company legitimately asked for links to be moved accordingly, this other activity looks as suspicious to us as it does to you if in fact it is true.  We don’t condone black hat tactics.

I am updating the story to reflect this new information on ownership.

When I sent the request for comment yesterday morning I sent it to D&B head of media relations, and through that email I was directed to other people to get a response. I used the term “Dun & Bradstreet” in my requests for comment, and until today, I was never told the companies where distinct.

Overview

I was sent an email from a representative of InternetReach.org offering to pay me to put a link on my site for their client “Dun & Bradstreet”. I was told that I could not disclose that the link was sponsored in any way. That initial email led to the discovery of a sophisticated but largely anonymous network of sites including a payment system that ultimately was connected in a variety of ways to the prominent Arizona SEO Optimization company, iAcquire. While I did speak with three individuals who indicated they worked for iAcquire, I was not able to have an on the record conversation with anyone from iAcquire’s senior management.

This paid link placement request was not unique, and at least ten other sites around the Internet have inserted what appear to be paid links going to Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. Dun & Bradstreet, while being a large corporation (Fortune 1000), is uniquely aware of SEO as it has been a significant part of their growth. Alex Staikos, the Head of Online Marketing at Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp, emailed me with a response to the specific email solicitation I received. He stated in part that, “we are researching this matter and we do not endorse the practice and had no knowledge of it”.

The general lack of knowledge extends to web publishers who are largely unaware that undisclosed paid link placement could get them penalized by Google’s search algorithm.

What follows is the complete story of how one email, led to 30 hours of research and this piece…

Link Buying Process

This entire story almost didn’t happen. I got an email that appeared to be spam saying that InternetReach.org had a client that had a marketing opportunity for this site. I actually looked at the domain it was sent from and did a search of the name, but the website was so generic that it fed my belief it was just a scam or a crude lead generation attempt. Gmail continued to allow follow-up emails from the same person to show up in my inbox.

The third one had a subject line that caught my eye: “Anyone There?”

Yes I was here, but I didn’t trust the site. I responded with:

Hi Mitchell,

Your site has no information about your company, so it looks like less than a real business. If you do have a marketing offer specific to my site, please feel free to send details.

Josh


And then I got this email:

Hi Josh,

I agree, the Internet Reach site doesn’t have a whole lot of details on it. That is something we’re working on. Anyways, thank you for getting back to me so quickly, I appreciate that. My client is Dun and Bradstreet and we would like an in-content link to our client’s site. The goal is to do this in a way that is relevant, flows smoothly, and is a resource to your readers. Here are the details:

Your page:
http://llsocial.com/2012/02/wearing-hats-small-business-owners-roll/

Page you would be linking to:
http://MyCredit.dnb.com

Anchor Text:
DUNS Number

Proposed Placement (feel free to re-word to your liking, but we prefer the link appear mid-sentence)

NEW SECTION in this article

Funding and Finance: Many small business owners (without enough start up capital) would be well suited to find the right funding for their business. Having the right cash flow and venture capital is crucial to a business’ success. Setting up a DUNS Number to keep track of the financial history and business credit rating is a good idea. This will allow future investors to make better decisions and will also help when it comes to business-to-business deals.

We’ll Compensate You:
$30/month

Other general guidelines:
·Link must be placed on the designated page only (no site-wide or category-wide placements)
·Link must not be marked as Paid in the visible content or source code (Common designations include: Partner, Links, Paid Links, Ads or Sponsored Links)
·Only the anchor text may be a hyperlink

Please let me know if you have any questions or if there’s anything else you need. We work with a number of reputable clients in various verticals and will continue to offer you additional opportunities once we’ve established a partnership. Thanks again! I look forward to working with you.

Best Regards,

Mitch

The client was Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp who lists their linage as going back 175 years, and one who based their entire business around the credibility (it’s actually in their corporate name).  And I was being pitched on the idea that if I provided some text and a specific keyword link to the one of the Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. sites I would get $30 a month. The email seemed clear that I couldn’t disclose this link was paid, but I gave the agent a chance to clarify.

Hi Mitchell,

How do you provide payment and is it setup to do it automatically each month?

Also, can I put “Sponsored” at the beginning the paragraph if I don’t have it anywhere near the link, or does the paragrahph/link need to be placed with no disclosure?

Thanks

The response was explicit. Mitchell didn’t want any type of disclosure. This was a clear violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Hi Josh,

Good to hear from you. The link can’t have any disclosures, we want it to appear natural. Also, we pay through our Digital Pros portal. All you do is set up a profile and enter your paypal email address. Then we will pay you automatically (same day each month and no need to invoice). This makes it really easy for everyone, no one has to think about it– you just get paid. I’ll send you the Digital Pros invite. If everything sounds good, go ahead and follow the instructions for Digital Pros and update your page with the link.

Talk to you soon,
Mitch

The Connections

InternetReach.org, DigitalPros.org and iAcquire

It seemed strange to me that a website that anyone could put together in a day with a template would be getting clients as prominent as Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp, so I did a little research.

What I found was that DigitalPros.org of which InternetReach.org is a part, might be different companies on paper with different addresses (mail drops) and phone numbers, but they are clearly linked with iAcquire, a prominent enterprise Search Engine Optimization (SEO) company.

I have consolidated and referenced the connections between these sites in this image (click on the image to see in full size).

This image is fully sourced and you can find all the urls and screen captures for each point here.

There are at least four connections in this image that point to InternetReach.org as having a close connection to iAcquire.

On Monday (May 21st) I talked to four different people at the 602-953-8506 phone number (the original number I had been provided in the email solicitation). Three of these individuals identified themselves as working for iAcquire (the original representative Mitchell, Josh, and Mitchell’s manager David), and one said that he worked for Digital Pros which he indicated is a subsidiary of iAcquire.

David (I believe Harbison), who describe himself as a manager, indicated that while iAcquire does do paid link placement,  ”you wouldn’t want to write that type of story because that isn’t how they want iAcquire portrayed.” He said that a story like that, “would give everyone the wrong kind of attention”. He went on to say that “link purchasing is a very small portion of what we do.”

I received a follow up call from the same number from Andy Goldberg who identified himself as a Content Manager for DigitalPros.org.

When I asked about the connection between Digital Pros and iAcquire, Andy informed me that, “Digital Pros is a subsidiary of iAcquire.” He also said that, “Digital Pros is the primary publishing platform of iAcquire.”  I asked him who he would report to at iAcquire, and he said, “I don’t report to anyone at iAquire because I am under the Digital Pros organization.”

From the beginning I explained to him that I was writing a piece on paid links being purchased on behalf of large companies, specifically Dun & Bradstreet. He told me that, “These paid links are a very, very small part of the broader updates we provide to publishing clients.” He indicated the content they created for publishers is primarily blog posts, coupons, video and other digital content. He stated, “Our purpose is to deal directly with publishers to provide a variety of content to help them enhance what they do”.

I asked Andy several times why they continue to purchase non-disclosed links for clients given all the risk associated with them. Aside from him telling me over-and-over that this was a “very, very small” part of what they do, he said that the best answer would be if he had one of his writers craft a document that explained the process.

I told him that I would be publishing on Tuesday in the AM, and he said he would try to get it over to me ahead of that. I didn’t receive any documents before publishing.

I attempted to talk to someone at iAcquire to get a comment on the record by calling the primary corporate number. I did reach senior individual at iAcquire who told me they would likely call back in the afternoon of Monday, May 21st with comment for the record, but I didn’t receive a call or email despite following up with with two calls.

The Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp Links

While it is highly unlikely that I would be the only person solicited to place a paid link on my site on behalf of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp, I wanted to confirm that this was the case.

My research involved analyzing backlinks to the page I was solicited to link to http://MyCredit.dnb.com, and then comparing pages that linked to Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp to past versions of the same page using the Internet Archive.

I discovered ten pages on unique sites that seem to be hosting undisclosed paid links. What I found over and over again was that a new sentence had been added to each page in question with a link to Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp inserted in the sentence. In some cases no other changes were observable on the page. In most other cases the only other change was standard advertising (usually Google ads) being added or in a few cases there had been a site redesign. When you see page after page with the same pattern, it is difficult to think these are anything but paid links.

You can find a complete description of my research methods along with urls and screen captures of the pages in question here.

The Implications

Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp

This isn’t the first time that a large corporation has been found to have links being purchased or created on their behalf to manipulate search rankings. In 2011, The New York Times did a piece on J.C. Penney getting unlikely high rankings in Google for a variety of words. J.C. Penney denied that they were aware of any manipulation, and Google ended up penalizing them for 90 days.

Update 1:36PM: Note the strikedout text in this section is no longer relevant as it is discussion D&B which is distinct from Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp.

Dun & Bradstreet is unique among larger corporations in that they are very familiar with SEO. In fact SEO is a large part of their company’s growth. Sara Mathew has risen to the CEO position at D&B since she was quoted in this 2008 Search Engine Journal piece:

The President and COO of Dun & Bradstreet, Sara Mathew, cited Hoover’s as a model acquisition during her Q4 2007 earnings call. The reason she’s bullish on the AllBusiness.com buyout has more to do with search marketing than almost any other factor.

Hoover’s has proven to be a model acquisition for us and we will apply these lessons to ensure similar positive results from AllBusiness.com, which we acquired last month. As a reminder, AllBusiness is an online media and e-commerce company that operates one of the premier business sites on the Web. It leverages a proprietary publishing platform and a broad range of content to help users run their small businesses better.

And it brings a number of exciting new capabilities to D&B, including expertise and search engine optimization as well as search engine marketing. With the combined power of AllBusiness, Hoover’s and First Research, we are confident in our ability to continue to drive strong double-digit revenue growth from our Internet segment in 2008.

Bolding added 

Alexander Staikos, Head of Online Marketing at Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp, emailed me in regard to specific solicitation I received. He stated that:

We are researching this matter and we do not endorse the practice and had no knowledge of it.  We use multiple marketing agencies and do not disclose our partnerships and marketing plans publicly.  However, if our research proves that this is a practice used by any of our providers, we will address it accordingly with them to promote compliance.

To get a broad perspective on the SEO industry, I asked Bill Hartzer a SEO consultant and practitioner, whether large companies might not know that their SEO agencies are purchasing links on their behalf (note that I didn’t provide Bill with the details of this particular case). He responded that:

If you outsource any of your work or hire someone to do work for you, you’re ultimately responsible for all of the work that they do, even link building. There are tools that allow you to keep track of all of the links to your website, even on a daily basis. If you are working with an SEO firm who does not disclose the links that they’re building on your behalf, then they’re most likely up to no good.I would find another SEO firm to do the work for you.

iAcquire

iAcquire is an increasingly prominent company in the SEO Enterprise space. Like most SEO companies, they don’t list their clients, but they now have offices in Arizona and New York, have 50+ employees, had much of their team at the recent industry leading SMX SEO conference, and are prominent participants in the SEO community.

Senior members of the iAcquire team have written publicly about how one should avoid “black hat techniques”.

Tom Rusling, the General Manager at iAquire, wrote a response in the comments of his own blog post last month stating:

Jennifer: We definitively do NOT support the idea of link networks! I would infer that having easy access to control the anchor text on many of your backlinks means that these are links placed through automated networks. If that’s the case, de-optimizing the anchor text is probably not the solution. If the milk goes sour, you don’t put it back in the fridge and hope it will taste better tomorrow, right? This is the moment to redefine your approach to link building and do it right way, the hard way, the natural way. Connect with real, ranking, relevant, independent sites. One at a time. Be the tortoise, not the hare. And in these new efforts, definitely focus on buiding authority and trust throughout your site, not just pushing hard on a few select pages and terms. Hit me up on twitter if you want to discuss!

Michael King, the Director of Inbound Marketing at iAcquire, wrote a popular post at SEOMOZ this month that included warnings about black hat techniques:

For many, link building is a numbers game and it quickly becomes clear why those people would rather put their resources into black hat tactics. Those marketers are too impatient to properly build links because link building is a process wherein you are convincing people who don’t know you to take a real world action that benefits you. To do that at scale requires a budget, great understanding of people, a large outreach team and a commitment to creating content that people will actually be compelled to link to or embed into their sites. In other words, you either have to make friends or make news.

and

WATCH OUT FOR BLACK HATS!

Black Hats are those whose tactics violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines or Terms of Service. Typically these people are engaging in manipulative link activity and optimize their backlink profile heavily for a handful of unbranded anchors. Use Link Detective to see what types of link tactics your competitors are using bout don’t get your site penalized or banned!

For those who closely follow the history of link buying, the idea that iAcquire could at least at one point be purchasing links for clients is not entirely surprising. At the end of 2010, Conductor, long known for purchasing links for clients, sold their link building operation to another company that was not named. That company was iAcquire. [sources 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8]

Whether DigitalPros.org is a subsidiary of iAcquire, more closely linked, or simply an independent contractor is not 100% clear. Even without knowing the exact relationship, it is evident that completely eliminating the practice of buying undisclosed paid links seems to be difficult for this network of SEO sites and companies.

Web Publishers

I had phone discussions with three of the people who placed paid links on their sites to Dun & Bradstreet. These individuals requested not to be named specifically. In no cases did the agency who solicited the links ever disclose that this might be a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. The general sentiment from those who I spoke to who placed the links was that it was a form of advertising, and advertising that is worthwhile is difficult to get these days. When I asked about putting disclosure of the paid link, one individual said they had considered it, but that because non-disclosure was a requirement, they didn’t have a choice. In another case I was told that the paid link solicitation was presented to a non-profit board, and there was approval to add the link to their site. From my perspective it is difficult to hold small web publishers responsible for these links. They aren’t educated by the agency on the risks in terms of Google penalties, and paid links are one of the few revenue sources available for publishers.

SEO Industry

Purchasing links without disclosure is done because it has been shown to effective in gaming Google and other search engine results. The SEO industry tends to view purchasing links in a variety of different ways. Some view them as a necessary evil, but “just don’t get caught”. Others view them as a complete violation on industry practices. There is no simple fix to eliminate  link purchasing. When they are done by a companies with years of experience and hyper awareness of every Google algorithm change, they can be extremely difficult to spot. Corporations and even small businesses can provide a budget for SEO, but not know, or choose to disregard that they are actually having links purchased on their behalf.

Andrew Shotland of Local SEO Guide provided me with general insight into what some SEO companies and clients may be thinking (note that Andy was also not informed of the specific details of this situation):

There are plenty of scenarios where an unethical SEO company is doing things that the client doesn’t know about, but there are also many cases were a client, even if it is a larger corporation, would know about these tactics and either approve of them or look the other way. If I am the manager of search at a big brand and I don’t understand the risk associated with these tactics, I would start polishing up my resume, because sooner or later Google is going to cream you.  That said, it’s hard to argue with the short-term results when these tactics do work.It all comes down to what kind of risk profile you have.

Those who are skilled at purchasing links will continue to be difficult to catch unless their practices are made public.


Added 5/23: Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land did an excellent post related to this story. It provides industry context , his commentary and two statements from iAcquire.

Added 5/29: Search Engine Land has indicated that iAcquire is abandoning paid links.

114 Responses to Search Secrets: How a prominent SEO company is covertly purchasing backlinks for Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corporation

  1. avatar Yousaf says:

    I think we know this is going to be big news in the SEO industry. Interesting research by the way, looks like a large operation.

  2. Greetings Josh, what an investigation! We all know *some* companies do this everyday – some get caught, some don’t…

  3. avatar Greg s says:

    News Flash, buying links or sponsoring link posts happens all the time with major corporations. It’s not the end of the world. If you really want to “expose” bad seo, why not write about spam networks and other largely black hat SEO tactics?

    I do agree that telling the webmaster not to disclose the link seems slightly on the shady side of things, and that the duplicate posts are pretty lazy, but this is hardly anything new, newsworthy, or even that bad.

  4. avatar Roshan says:

    this has been going for years as I know. Agencies do that with good compensation to related sites. They require that their content needs to be same style as the content around it to make it appear normal content. Then again, paid links are not supported well by Google so it becomes just a shady business. Then again, aren’t other forms of banner ads for example doing link purchasing in a way?

  5. avatar Theo says:

    No doubt about it. If you so easily identify suspected paid links it stands to reason the gargantuan brain power at Google will not miss this either.

    The algorithm show must go on then, I’m wondering what will be next after Panda 1, 2, 3 and Dolphin. Maybe we should get ready for “Killer Whale”?

  6. avatar aaron wall says:

    This post is a perfect example of why the polarizing stuff is ultimately self defeating. The guy claiming to be an “inbound marketer” who warns people off of black hat links is working for one of the largest link buyers & one that leaves easy to discover footprints. Makes no sense – at all!

    • avatar ELM says:

      I guess the question is, “Is paid link building really that bad?”
      Google has deemed it bad, but in some cases it can be a new good quality sites only hope of getting noticed.
      Yes, I agree it should be a disclosed sponsorship, but then can we trust that it still receives the same value.

  7. avatar Sal Hakim says:

    I think another thing to consider for big brands that have participated in these types of black hat linking schemes is what their strategy should be after they discover they have been doing manipulative forms of linking. How does Google treat sites that have a “track record” of shady linking.

  8. avatar Dan Peskin says:

    Great research Josh. This just shows that no matter how much effort you put into covering up a paid linking campaign (creating separate domains, mailing addresses, contacts), you will eventually get caught. It’s really only a matter of time until you make one minor mistake like this or Google penalizes you. Obviously we don’t know whether the client had approved this practice, but I still can’t imagine doing this type of thing for a client’s site – the ramifications and potential financial losses could be devastating for both the agency and client.

  9. avatar Barry Adams says:

    *sigh* I thought we’d all agree that outing people who violate Google’s arbitrary and rather inane guidelines – commonly referred to by clueless nitwits as ‘black hats’ – was a pretty silly and ultimately self-defeating thing to do?

    Seriously, guys. Not cool. I’ll be laughing loud when Facebook throws a tantrum and kills off most of the custom pages you built for your clients because you overstepped one of their arbitrary lines in the sand, or whatever other online bad karma might befall you.

    • avatar Nick Roshon says:

      x2. I can understand outing in certain egregious cases, but here I don’t see anything new or insightful being shared – link buying is an unfortunate but all too common occurrence in SEO.

      If you think this is the first time a Fortune 1000 company has bought a link, Google “Overstock Google Penalty” or “JC Penny Google Penalty” or “Forbes Google Penalty” or etc, etc.

      • avatar Charlie says:

        There is something new, here.

        This isn’t the same old Company X is buying links to rank well.

        This is different because…

        iAcquire appears to be deceiving their clients by not disclosing risk.

        iAcquire appears to be encouraging publishers to put themself at risk by selling non-disclosed paid links.

        iAcquire hired Mike King to speak/blog/push Inbound Marketing to build the iAcquire name/brand, while back home they appear to be getting their results through doing the opposite. They’re paying a public mouthpiece to preach against what they themselves are doing.

        The issue here isn’t link buying – it’s putting clients/publishers at risk, while being hypocrites and trying to hide their true practices.

        • avatar Stellar says:

          And you think that the client is being honest when they say they didn’t know links were being purchased? C’mon.

        • avatar Beth Parker says:

          You really believe D&B CC didn’t know that links were being purchased? If that’s true, they didn’t do their homework. If you go to the solutions page of the iAcquire website (http://www.iacquire.com/solutions.php) and click the black box in the slider that says, “View the FULL iAcquire process,” it takes you to a pdf file that includes the following as step 4:

          “A team of more than 35 internet researchers and search professionals scrub and interpret data to identify web properties for link placement. iAcquire’s pre-execution steps ensure quality placement and links that drive results.”

          Hmmm… they are identifying properties for LINK placement, not content placement. Did they think these links would be given for free, out of the kindness of the webmaster’s heart?

          Big companies buy links. Period. They do it because it works and because to them, it is just marketing, not some evil plot to destroy the Internet. They pay for ads on TV and in magazines, why not the Internet too? They pay for mentions and placements of their products on TV and on the radio, so why not on the Internet too? What, you thought that DJ paid for the weight loss program he’s constantly promoting and is telling you about it just because he thinks it will help you?

          Big companies use third parties to buy their links so that if they get caught, they can say, “I didn’t know,” and Google will forgive them. But they know they are buying links.

  10. avatar Clayburn says:

    The reward usually outweighs the risk. At least it seems they were doing it right not to be caught by a machine. They just didn’t put much thought toward human investigators.

  11. Congratulations… you have outed another company for buying links.

    The reason this won’t be as “big news in the SEO industry” as you claim is that this isn’t really that bad compared to some of the other techniques that companies have been outed for.

    Good article though and I commend the effort you put in…

    • avatar Matthew Egan says:

      Aaaand yet it has completely dominated SEO news since it was published and iAcquire has been completely DEINDEXED from Google because of it.

      Nope, no news here. Move along.

  12. avatar Tony says:

    @DannySullivan Thanks for re-tweeting this garbage story and wasting my time.
    Groundbreaking News in SEO…People Engage in Paid Links…NOT. Same story with a new face. Thanks for peddling “Groundbreaking Nothingness”. Hmmm I wonder how many backlinks you hope to gain with this re-packaged fresh content from 2001? “Those who are skilled at purchasing links will continue to be difficult to catch unless their practices are made public.” < WEAK!

  13. avatar Nick LeRoy says:

    all I take away from this post is that the author is likely competing in the same niche and is a whiner. Get over yourself and stop outing people. Do what it takes to rank.

    • avatar Josh Davis says:

      Nick. I don’t work in the SEO space in any manner.

      • avatar Clayburn says:

        You have a blog. You want visitors. You work in SEO whether you admit/realize it or not. Plus your Twitter profile says:
        Interactive marketing practitioner

        (Though I’m not agreeing with the previous guy’s claim of you being a Dun & Whoever competitor.)

        • avatar Josh Davis says:

          I guess in the meta sense then anyone who has an active blog could be in SEO. I focus on social media, but I understand your point.

          • avatar Stellar says:

            You’re gaming Google in the same way Dude, just on a smaller scale.

            For example: http://www.documentaryfilms.net/index.php/interesting-social-media-blog-and-ideas-for-future-of-this-site/

            Love the anchor text on the two links in that post. I’m sure you weren’t considering the search engines at all when you crafted it, right?

            The fact is, Google set the rules, not with their “Guidelines”, but with the kind of behavior they rewarded. For more than a decade, the top search positions for anything that makes money has been dominated by those that either pay for links, or those that spam them.

            And personally, I don’t see purposefully creating controversial link bait (that probably hurts other organizations) as being more “above board” than buying links. It’s still manipulation, just a little more sophisticated.

  14. avatar Danny Smith says:

    Seriously another outing of paid links? This is a sad world we live in. Maybe you should be outed for “tattle tale” link building. I have no respect for people that out others. It’s like you have nothing else better to do.

    The real sad thing is there are plenty other SEO Companies that are doing this, they just do it better. Or less obvious.

    • avatar ELM says:

      Anyway you slice it, if I am link building for a paying client, or placing paid links for a paying client — the client is paying for links. Unless a company has a full time marketing team dedicated to link building, it is almost impossible to say that links arent being “paid” for. That is why we have perfected the barter system! :)

  15. avatar Jim McKent says:

    You mean Mike King and the seomoz guys aren’t the white hat thought leaders they spend all their time promoting themselves as?

    Why did this post take so long to come out. Big Kudos for revealing the skunks josh!

    • avatar John says:

      Hey Jim –
      I think this comment is totally uncalled for. To start off, Mike started at iAcquire about a month and a half ago (beginning of April) and right now is internally focused on moving iAcquire from outbound marketing to inbound marketing. He has been going through training and just finished traveling for almost a month straight, speaking at conferences and meeting the whole team in Arizona. He had nothing to do with this, and it is unfair for his name to be attached to this story simply because he is a recognizable face in the industry. Mike takes great pride in what he does and is completely above the board. I write this as his peer in the industry and his friend.

      Also, this situation has absolutely zero connection to SEOmoz. SEOmoz does software, not consulting. And if the connection is being drawn because Mike is an SEOmoz associate, that connection should not exist because Mike had no involvement in this situation.

      Rand Fishkin is as whitehat and above-the-board as he comes across and genuinely beats the whitehat drum because he believes that it is the best longterm strategy.

      Calling them “skunks” is absolutely out of line when you don’t even know them and have not seen their work. You’d be hard pressed to find two more hard working and honest people than Mike King and Rand Fishkin.

      • avatar Michael Kovis says:

        +1 John. Well said sir.

        • Businesses make mistakes and I’m sure Mike was brought in to help this company get on track. Should have saved your energy and did research on something that matters.

          • avatar Matthew Egan says:

            Mistakes are an error, not an error in judgement. iAcquire didn’t make an error, they had an error in judgement.

            The bottom line is they would not be changing their behavior were it not for this data coming out, and that to me is very telling.

            They knew exactly what they were doing, and that isn’t a mistake, that’s intent.

      • avatar Steve says:

        Agree with John 100%. Mike works at iAcquire – he didn’t start the damn company and he might not have even had anything to do with any of the tactics listed above. Blaming him is ludicrous.

        I’ve worked in a job where one member of staff went off and (accidentally) carried out some grey/black-hat work. Doesn’t mean we were all black-hats…!

      • avatar Jim McKent says:

        Despite how you read my comment, I was calling link sellers skunks. I never even mentioned Rand Fishkin.

        Seomoz does promote themselves as white hat, so I asked a legit question if they tie themselves to a black hat.

        Entertaining response though… tells me a lot about the love bubble in this industry.

        • avatar John says:

          Sorry Jim, I must not have been clear about your comment. If you were asking if “whitehats” such as Mike and Rand are as clean as they come across, the answer is yes.

          I see now how you were saying that the link sellers are skunks.

          Also, no love bubble. Just loyalty. When someone’s name is unfairly dragged through the mud, they deserve to be defended. And since you referenced SEOmoz, and Rand is the CEO of SEOmoz, I think I was within my rights to bring his name into it.

          Cheers man.

      • avatar Aman says:

        Agree with John’s comments.

        Mike is a great guy and after personally meeting him and listening to his thoughts on SEO and seeing him present and reading all his material I can say that he is one genuine guy who is out there to promote ethical seo practices such as inbound marketing and that’s the only way moving forward.

        • avatar Thomas says:

          Oh please, Mike King, and “expert” in the SEO space didn’t know that iAcquire was in the business of selling links before he joined.

      • avatar Matthew Egan says:

        I’m sorry John but if Mike King was innocent here where is the blog? Where is the apology? Where is the “We Failed” post?

        Your boss, amazing talent that he is, wrote almost exactly the same post today about canceling SearchLove West that Mike King should have come out with by now.

        What is Mike King doing?

        Tweeting about what kind of shoes he should buy! What an amazing content marketer he is, that they aren’t even responding to this mess.

        I can promise you that Image Freedom will not be spending another dollar on attending a conference, workshop, or event, where Mike King is signed in as a speaker.

        He sold out to iAcquire, and there is nothing that he can teach anyone that I employ that I would want them executing on.

        I’m going to vote with my wallet on this one and call you on your defense of the guy. I get that Tom is his friend, you might be his friend, whatever.

        He screwed up by selling out. Period.

  16. Great Link Bait, and based on your link profile you have done a pretty good job of these in the past.

    I think what is most disturbing about this post is that they didn’t offer to buy your website outright in order to get a link from you. As we all know, THAT is the way to acquire solid back links!

  17. avatar Ben Pfeiffer says:

    Seriously, how is this article helpful for anyone involved except just to piss people off? Large companies like this have been buying links for close to a decade. It’s not exactly news.

    • avatar Charlie says:

      People are paying a lot of money to go to conferences to see people speak – including Mike King, who works for iAcquire.

      If iAcquire is only pretending to be whitehat to get attention while being secretly blackhat, I think people should know before they by a conference ticket to (in part) see their rep speak.

      • avatar Ben Pfeiffer says:

        Paid link companies have been at search conferences for a long time. In the early days most avoided run-ins with Google reps and operated quietly at conferences. Now, not so much. Paid links are big business and not going away anytime soon.
        As for the reps. I doubt any of them want to walk around with “blackhat” printed on their foreheads. It’s not good for business.

        • avatar Charlie says:

          So that makes it ok to lie?

          We should let any blackhat link seller pretend like they’re a whitehat company and speak at conferences like SMX, Mozcon, LinkLove, etc while posing as something they’re not?

          We should sit back and be ok with the fact that a rep from a company is speaking out against the EXACT practices that their company uses?

          We should just let that kind of hypocrisy not only slide, but pay to hear it?

    • avatar Bill Hartzer says:

      I agree, Ben, it’s not news that companies have been buying links.

      But what is news and what has to be brought out (and what is clear in this blog post) is that the company (D&B) apparently has no idea what is being done (buying links). They’re outsourcing part of their marketing efforts and they have no idea what’s going on.

      The “news” twist here is that more companies have to step up to the plate and be held accountable for all of their marketing efforts, even if they outsource. We’ve seen that with American Express last week buying links and now again with D&B.

  18. avatar James says:

    SEO itself is an attempt to artificially improve your rank. The whole industry is a complete lie.

    However it all comes down to SEO or Manipulation (sorry, I mean marketing)

    “If you create great content people will link it and tell their friends.”

    Which really boils down to “Luck 2.0″. Or manipulation.

    Guess which one SEO companies make money on.

    Search Engines are broken, and have been since day 1. To enjoy their ultimate humiliation go search “Payday Loans” in google.co.uk. What’s #1? The 11 day old site put there by comment spam. What’s #2? The same owner has multiple sites on a 301 rotation (at a frequency of 1-6 weeks) changing branding/domains and so on. They’re usually #1 but seem to have been overcome by the well conceived comment spam. And then we move onto 2 unrelated pages at #5 and #6. Even if this lasts for 3-5 days that company at #1 can make 10,000GBP +.

    And all this is brought to you by the disfunctional and broken search engine known as Google.

    And you guys spend your time “outing” people for buying links.

    Probably time you outed the search engines.

  19. avatar Kevin says:

    You put far too much time into something that doesn’t matter at all. Why not spend that time getting better at SEO yourself instead of outing one of thousands of companies that engage in paid links? Honestly, who gives a shit? I’m being blunt because these type of posts are total wastes of time, not only of your own but anyone who gets linked to it by anyone “reputable” in the SEO industry.

    • avatar Matthew Egan says:

      You obviously didn’t read his post, they contacted him, he didn’t set out to do anything, all he did was get an e-mail.

      The guy isn’t even an SEO.

      Is our MTV generation so irresponsible that you can’t even read the post from the guy before challenging his intelligence and time like this?

      How do you think this makes you look?

  20. Excellent article and great job getting so many details. We all know paid links are out there – but I just recently tweeted a similar scenario out to Danny Sullivan and Rand Fishkin asking their opinion.

    I know of a LOT of so-called “mommy bloggers” who are selling ad space through companies like PassionFruit and putting direct links on their sites for payment (and of course they aren’t using no follow rules). They don’t realize it is a complete violation of Google’s TOS. (From their perspective, they are just trying to generate revenue from their personal sites and this is a good way for easy money).

  21. Well, it looks like you finally got one of the same emails the rest of us have been getting for years and years. Hmm.

    Too bad this isn’t news, as Tony pointed out so well, lol.

  22. avatar ShoesMan says:

    Big reputable companies are buying links? Yawn. Seriously, I would not have spent time to write this post.

    If you announced that websites had stopped buying fake contextual links, THAT would be news.

  23. avatar LC says:

    How about the Negative SEO Companies that are hired to blast competitor websites of their clients with links to get them banned from Google on purpose. That’s the real tragedy in SEO.

  24. avatar Ray says:

    Damn! I wish I could write a blog post like this! And the hate from SEO “gurus” is fan freakin’ tastic.

  25. Firstly, I’m with JohnD on the association with SEOmoz thing – there’s no relationship there that I’m aware of, so it’s pretty weak to attempt to associate them with this kind of crap in any way. Same with Mike – he’s done nothing wrong, and I’m sure behind the scenes he’s working with iAcquire to help them turn around their tactics.

    As a paid link agency, I guess if you’re going to do something *so* above the radar (naming the client in the first outreach email?!) then you’re bound to get burned, eventually.

    As far as the sleuthing goes – no issue with that, there heaps of good reasons to set, and check for criteria that may mean an unsafe linking policy. If you have a lot of time on your hands and want to craft some outey-seo-link-bait, with a nice flow chart drawn in snagit, well, you nailed that part. This post adds no value in my world.

    • avatar Charlie says:

      I’d say it adds value.

      It shows us that iAcquire is the type of company who would hire an “inbound marketer” and try to gain attention as being something they’re not. They’re billing themselves as whitehat, and claiming they do “outreach” while behind the scenes they’re just buying links.

      That’s pretty critical information for anyone considering working with them. I’d say that’s value.

      • I’m sure it might, but *so* many large agencies present paid linking as a valid tactic – their entire business model is based on it. I can’t imagine the scale of work required to make such a fundamental change to a core SEO product. These types of business have huge marketing budgets and sell themselves in a world that is *so* far removed from our tiny corner of the universe, where the difference between bad and good practice is perfectly clear. If you’re a “paid link” agency (which we are not) then I’m certain you’ll have accrued the budget and the PR power to deal with these small distractions…

        • avatar Matthew Egan says:

          Honestly Richard, just a few days later, can you honestly say this is still only a small distraction?

          I’m surprised at you. This post is hugely valuable and gives real examples to people who have only heard the theory spoken.

          It’s spun off into nearly 100 follow up articles by websites of all sizes.

      • avatar James says:

        The simple fact of the matter is if you pay for anyone to do the task of SEO you are cheating. Why? Because it is your intention to usurp the natural link propagation of your site and content.

        Oh and to compound the lie let’s look at the real word:
        You pay to be listed in a directory – oh that’s fine.

        You pay to have a newspaper put your article on their site – oh that’s fine.

        You pay to distribute Press Releases – oh that’s fine.

        But no, it’s a terrible thing to have an article placed on a blog.

        Huh?

  26. avatar Mike Stewart says:

    It is one thing to peddle a paid link… It is the smart thing to peddle a great piece of content and a real natural strategy. Some folks take the easy road ad Google will ultimately bite em in the ass.

    Continue the drama. awesome job throwing folks under the bus!

    :grab popcorn:

  27. avatar Joel says:

    To implicate Mike in this is utter nonsense. Talk about dragging someone’s reputation under the bus for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

  28. avatar Rick says:

    For those so “outraged” over someone being outed: if this article educates one legitimate website owner enough to understand the implications and risks of outsourcing their marketing efforts it was well worth it.

    How many of you have recommended that a webmaster scrap a site recently because of outsourced spam backlinks too difficult to remove? I know the number is rather large.

    Someone has to write this stuff so the average webmaster can make an informed opinion on how to spend their marketing dollars. Sweeping it under the rug no longer works folks and only promotes negative stereotypes of the SEO industry.

    To be forewarned is to be forearmed.

  29. avatar drool says:

    SNORE. Leave it to Google to slap wrists and keep you piehole shut Mr. “I don’t work in SEO”.

  30. avatar Nathan says:

    interesting, after all this you still linked to

    http://mycredit.dnb.com.

    …and they didn’t have to even pay you.

  31. avatar Josh says:

    Interesting comments about SEO being a lie. With so much mud in the water on SEO it’s easy to lump it all together in one big bucket of slime, however real SEO isn’t slimey at all. Real SEO is about making sure your site is visible to search bots, crawlable with an easy to understand information architecture, and making sure that search engines index the site.

    Then there’s the promotion. Post-penguin, you can’t do these highly targeted anchor text SEO campaigns. You must integrate all your promotions and balance your site’s traffic sources.

    If you rely too much on one source, something can come along and wipe out your site.

    SEO needs to be integrated with UX and inbound marketing, creating content that people are searching for, as well as creating content that they didn’t know they wanted to search for.

    In a nutshell, real SEO is about crawlability, indexing, and promotion.

    • avatar Josh Davis says:

      Looks like a well written piece to me. Not sure how I am owned by it, but I think it is reasonable to learn from one’s mistakes and to admit that they exist.

    • Hardly. This guy is outing himself in a very safe way. The issue is companies being outed for going against Google’s TOS, not outing oneself for bad marketing as the author in your link is doing.

  32. avatar Josh Davis says:

    There seems to be four types of comments on my story. I can’t address each comment, but I will try to address the general issues.

    1. For those who appreciated the article and the detail of it.

    I say thanks. If I can say one thing about this piece I tried to make it as accurate as possible.

    2. That I have too much time on my hands.

    When I started to write the piece I never thought I would spend this much time on it. I didn’t even know if there was something worth writing. It turned out their were lots of different parts. Once I get started on something I want to do it accurately. That meant trying to give the complete picture including taking the time to call all the parties involved to get comment. It takes time.

    3. That my motivation is misplaced including back links, traffic, etc.

    My motivation was multifaceted. I like research. I thought this was news worthy. I didn’t know if corporations and web publishers where aware of the risks that go with unpaid links. It turned out that most did not. The SEO community certainly knows about it as evident by the “yawn” comments.

    If no one ever writes about paid links, then how are web publishers, small business and large corporations supposed to make informed decisions on how they create content and do SEO? Undisclosed paid links will go on forever. And based on the comments here, it seems some people are just fine with that being the case.

    4. That I am a rat.

    I don’t go to parties looking juicy details for stories to write. I don’t out interesting news I hear in conversations or is said in confidence. I was sent three emails, with the last one being titled, “Are You There?”. Obviously they wanted a response, and my response was to tell the rep that their site didn’t even look like a real business. That is when they choose to pitch me on placing an unsolicited paid link and name a large company as a client? This wasn’t a friend or even a business acquaintance. It was a crude lead generation attempt that didn’t even consider that I like to write about what I consider news on this blog.

  33. avatar Anonymous says:

    My company was using iAcquire when I came on board and all I can say is that they’re real name should be “Scam Acquire”.

    All they did was buy shit blogroll links on shit sites then turnaround and sell them to us at a ridiculous cost.

    When I tried to get out of the contract, their senior management were the worst people to deal with. My entire budget was consumed by iAcquire through no choice of my own.

    Oh and when we finally stopped paying them, all our links disappeared. Imagine that…

  34. I’ve known and worked with Mike King on a variety of seo consulting and site build projects and never once did he ever advocate for or practice anything that could be remotely considered “black hat” SEO.

    Frankly I think IAcquire bringing Mike on signifies their commitment to doing things the right way, regardless of any of the tactics they may have used in the past. To drag someone’s name through the mud that’s added a lot of value to the practice of SEO for the sake of gaining some notoriety and traffic is bush league.

    • avatar Josh Davis says:

      There have been a number of endorsements of Mike Kings work and character in the comments. I approved all of them without a second thought. I never indicated Mike was aware of these issues. How was I to know since no one would comment.

      Since the whole article was about undisclosed link placement that violate Google Webmaster guidelines, it made sense to include Mike’s comments about the SAME TOPIC that was less than TWO WEEKS OLD.

      This is not to say he knew about the links, but rather to show the standard of the industry and what the leading voice of iAcquire had to say.

      Obviously I have learned through the comments, ad hominem attacks on Twitter, emailed threats, and general reaction from the SEO communnity, that is what is said in public about the industry does not necessarily mean what is done in private.

      Many in the SEO industry seems to want to stay in a cartel like space where no outside scrutiny of their practices will be allowed. I wonder if you feel the same about the practices of auto mechanics, roofers, lawyers or any other profession where it helps to know about who you are doing business with less you get a result you didn’t expect. Do you want your spouse, sibling or friend to get in a situation they didn’t expect because they didn’t know about what they were getting into?

      • Josh,

        My comment was not an attack on the substance of your post, which has merit and is a valid critique on a practice that ethical SEOs avoid. Rather it’s an expression of my disappointment of Mike being painted in a negative light when I and many others in the industry can unequivocally say the substance of his character is beyond reproach.

        Again, I think the post is well done and it’s an issue that needs to be talked about. But going back to the comparison you make to the practices of service businesses; one bad mechanic doesn’t mean it’s a horrible garage. And by making the connection to Mike’s recent post about avoiding black hat tactics it implies guilt by association. I don’t think that’s a fair conclusion to draw, especially considering he’s been with the company for less than a quarter. Change takes time.

        • avatar Josh Davis says:

          Valid points Devin. It was an error on my part to reply directly to your comment. My comment was more general. The mechanic analogy might not be 100% on point on my part. But not surprisingly, representatives of a company often get quoted when talking about said company. Especially when the comments are recent and speak to the subject at hand. I am glad that people spoke up for someone they respected.

      • avatar Jarvis says:

        Not a horribly written post, and had some interesting pieces to it, but you are also outing the company that iAcquire was getting links for.

        Is there anything with getting paid links? NO there isn’t as long as you know the risks.

        Should each SEO company let clients know the risks? Yes of course. They should allow for the client to choose what they want.

        Is Google the law? No they aren’t. In fact, they break many of their own so called rules and play the fence for their financial gain.

        Do you have any business deciding what is and isn’t right in the SEO industry and then outing people? No you don’t. Especially when this isn’t your field of expertise.

        Once the law says that paid links are wrong then you can call people out for illegal activity, but it’s not illegal. Stick to your expertise.

  35. avatar C says:

    @Josh Davis , tell me this, what if someone doesn’t care about Google and their TOS? Then what? I like how you make it seem that paid links are somehow illegal or criminal, when in fact they are just violations of a random, 3rd party company’s TOS (Google’s), who themselves make a profit by scraping your site and its content for free and listing it in their SERP directory. Plus, if you want a paid link they’ll happily give it to you themselves right at the top of the SERPs, and highlighted in a hue of yellow so faint that it’s barely visible on old CRT and cheap laptop monitors (that most common folks use).

    While I’m not hating on Google or their business model (it’s brilliant), I always get a laugh out of it when people take them too seriously.. Sure they’re the 800lb Gorilla, right, and you have to play by their rules, BUT everybody likes to bends the rules a little (including them) and it’s all fair play. After all, what *is* a paid link anyway? How could you prove it? The Iaquire email sent to you said nothing about Google or paid links passing PageRank, so maybe they were just wanting your readers to click the link in-content and were nice and didn’t want to waste your load speed by adding extra code on your page like “nofollow” and Javascript :)

    Google can’t really penalize sites for buying links, because they can’t prove intent let alone the fact that payment was exchanged, and even if they could it would just end up hurting relevance and user experience if they kept pruning sites from their index. Guess what, if someone was searching for “XYZ sweater JCpenny” (substitue “JCpenny” for an a better money keyword/brand), and if this site was penalized for buying links and didn’t show up in the search, that searcher might bounce and go to Bing if they really wanted to find that item and they couldn’t in Google. Not cool for Goog, and they might not come back for weeks, if ever. Or they might click the Adwords, but I digress :)

    As long as everyone is bending the rules, including big brands, Google will have a really tough time. Which is obviously why they make public examples of companies like JCPenny, Build My Rank, (send bulk letters to site owners in GWT of “unnatural links”) and even sacrifice their Chrome browser rankings for a few months. Because, this is their only defense. Intimidation.

    I’m not saying I am okay with webspam or black hat, but if you own a site, it is your site and you can do whatever you please with regards to monetization and content. You can also reach out to any partners and agree on any type of advertising you please as long as it benefits both parties. If it happens to help, or hurt, your revenue stream from Google, than it is what it is. It’s all a calculated risk, and opportunities and threats exist just like with any business model. It’s up to you on how to proceed.

    Godspeed,
    C

    • avatar Josh Davis says:

      C,

      What you say makes a lot of sense. Google is not God. Perhaps the standards they have laid out are irrelevant. Their standards to seem to frequently cross over with FCC regulations, but I don’t know that the FCC has ever gone after an individual blog for non-disclosure of a product, let alone a link. So perhaps that isn’t relevant (also why I didn’t mention it in the piece).

      Since most search traffic still continues to come from Google, I do think that when entering a relationship with a SEO company, it makes sense to know how they operate. 70% of the feedback from SEO community (at least those who post comments and sent tweets) is that paid back links are acceptable, but no one should know who is using them.

      When you talk about the publishers having to way the risk of posting links, do you just assume they understand what those risk are, or do you think the link purchaser has an obligation to inform them of the risks?

      Thanks for the very informative comment.

      • avatar C says:

        Josh, thanks so much for the prompt response and the topics you brought up.

        Your mention of FCC regulations threw me for an unexpected loop, and I honestly have no answer to that (e.g., to disclose the existence of paid links on a site, while technically legally required by FCC, may or may not trigger a form of outgoing link devaluation by Google, so yes, they could overlap certainly.

        I guess a great answer to the current climate of SEO/links would be what Eric Ward (authority on the white-ish hat link building) mentioned in a post today on searchenginewatch:

        “…[When building links] the key is in recognizing where a link could exist without asking for it, and then helping it get there by asking for it.” ( http://searchenginewatch.com/article/2178868/Five-Questions-A-Good-Link-Builder-Should-Be-Able-To-Answer )

        Quite a concept, isn’t it? :) Makes things quite difficult if you’re a nationally recognized brand let’s say, where the webmaster would be happy to mention and link to your company, but simply forgot. And what if payment is made simply for the effort required to insert the link and to host it monthly, then is it really a paid link? Tough…

        Now finally, to not dodge your question, I think that if an SEO company is truly top-notch, then the client shouldn’t have to worry about any specific methods they use to achieve the business goals for which they were hired. In my eyes, the mark of a great SEO/SEO firm is one who’s clients will rank happily ever after once the majority of on-page and off-page work has been done. That’s it. They won’t ever have to worry about any future algorithm updates hitting them because they’ll just keep ranking better as the lesser sites are weeded out. They won’t have to worry about ever losing links, they’ll simply keep getting more (natural links) because they’re ranking high and they have a good site and more people will find them and link to them. They won’t have to worry about constantly tweaking onpage keywords and ad layouts, because the SEO firm is optimizing for the users first, and the engines second. The best SEO firms are also marketing firms, and thus can do all of the above and client has nothing to worry about. Pretty simple, no?

        Now if you really want to grill me, I’ll pre-empt your question and just say it right here and right now about how exactly I feel about paid links: They are one of the few great “fake it ’till you make it” strategies in SEO (among the likes of infographics, sweepstakes/contests, radical PR etc.). That it… If you have a great website and brand, paid links done right are the most cost effective way to help you get a running start. After that, they should never be relied on or used for other purposes. And they won’t even need to be because natural links, word of mouth and open and free communication and marketing efforts will take care of the rest of the off-page SEO and you’ll be off to the races and have other, more important things to worry about :) Reputation management, social communication, good ole’ fashioned marketing anyone? :)

    • avatar Tech84 says:

      True, big companies should not be really relying on Google anymore, even a lot of big time bloggers has stopped trying to appease Big G and just go with what they think is good for them. Like this old post from shoemoney I read ages ago.

      http://www.shoemoney.com/2008/09/30/the-screw-google-mentality

  36. avatar Bill Hartzer says:

    Guys, just for clarification, it’s the FTC’s rules about disclosure (re: advertising) and NOT the FCC. It’s the Federal Trade Commission. Here is more info directly from the FTC:

    http://business.ftc.gov/documents/bus71-ftcs-revised-endorsement-guideswhat-people-are-asking

  37. avatar JP says:

    Paid links can be done in a number of ways, but good job calling out the company that saying one thing yet practices another.

    However whats more amazing is that people still do hidden text and get away with it, which always felt like a few steps before paid links at least. Example: Expedia.com/flights for instance has a hidden h1 “SEO tag” and tons of hidden text underneath it in its coding. And yes it ranks well for a lot of these pages.

  38. avatar Oliver says:

    What the writer of this article does not realize is that he thinks like if google were God. And like if not following their guidelines were a sin. Google has created a game with rules, and you want to act as the sheriff for enforcing these rules. But what you do not comprehend is that google is nor God neither the law.

    Doing what you do only contribute to make them more dominant. Pathetic.

  39. avatar DT says:

    I’ve sold links to iAcquire in the past – receiving several thousand over the last few years. They seem to like the financial sites.

    Anyway, they only started this DigitalPros thing within the last month. They’ve been hounding me to transfer over with invites. So if this Mike King fella only started during that time, how could he not know about this brand new product/service.

    Here’s part of the email I got from publishers@iacquire.com in late April.

    Our partnership is about to get a whole lot better – and here’s why. We’re making it easier to connect and access all of your information in one place.

    In the next couple of days, you will receive an email invitation with a login to your DigitalPros.org account, our newly formed and dedicated division for Content Partners (that’s you!) with a focus on making your experience with us more complete.

    All existing content and link partnerships we have in place today will continue through DigitalPros.org.

    By accessing your DigitalPros.org account, you can update and manage your information, and you’ll be the first to know of new OFFERS and PROMOTIONS, with exclusive access to high value content including one-of-a-kind articles, tools, infographics, etc.

    We’ll also include features that will allow you to easily announce to our team additional websites you have for partnership considerations, and we’ve bulked up our Technical Support Team to help answer any inquiries.

    Signed:
    Partnership Development
    iAcquire.com

  40. avatar Floyd says:

    Man,,, you just made yourself a target just like dan thies… oh well…

  41. avatar Tech84 says:

    Unfortunately, this is the bread and butter of almost all companies that in one or more ways offer SEO services. You have done a great deal of an investigation and I say good job as you also gave them a chance to basically explain (or in this case: deny) their side of the story.

  42. avatar Stellar says:

    Seriously? A story on how an SEO company bought links?

    I suppose the curious amount of links to this site with the anchor text “kansas social media blog” are totally natural, right?

    • avatar Josh Davis says:

      Looks to be ONE link on a blog roll from a family member. Since is site wide, I guess some tools might show it multiple times.

      • avatar Stellar says:

        More than 1 referring domain for the anchor text Josh…that family member must run a few blogs. And, it’s still anchor text placement with obvious intent. You can argue semantics if you like.

        Oh, and FYI, you might not have been as shocked that iAcquire was selling links if you dug a little deeper. Look at their pages in the internet archive. Check the employee’s work histories in LinkedIn.

        It shouldn’t take you long to figure out that iAcquire used to be SOLELY about selling links. You might also find that they used to own the #1 link buying/selling platform. And, you’ll find that they own another one now….perhaps the most famous agency-focused link selling and buying platform.

        You missed big on your detective work :)

        Also, the idea that the client was unaware that iAcquire would purchase links on their behalf is totally laughable.

        • avatar Josh Davis says:

          Good points all around.

          I may have submitted to a number of social sites and directories in 2009-2010. Certainly that isn’t natural wording. None of them seem to show up in Google & Bing, so perhaps those pages are no longer indexed. As a starting blogger, I naively thought those links might help.

          I can’t speak to all the points you mentioned on researching. I tried to make it as accurate as possible, but I certainly didn’t cover every possible discovery angle.

          When you say it is laughable that a client could signup with an agency w/o knowing what they do, you have to admit that an agency can change both what they do and how they present themselves over time. Not saying you are wrong, but there certainly has to be some exceptions.

  43. I love the comments of “this isn’t new” so you shouldn’t write about it.

    It’s not a space I’m familiar with so it was news to me. Good work, Josh.

  44. avatar Ryan Clark says:

    The lesson learned from all this is that companies who are buying links should absolutely disclose this to their clients. We have SO many burned companies coming to us after they went with a company like this and ended up with nothing but junk that’s against Google’s TOS.

    We all buy links, there are just smart ways to go about it that isn’t spam and just plain business.

  45. avatar Naomi says:

    Great detective work. I’m still not totally convinced that this is a full on black-hat SEO company though. Just from what I saw, they seem to be on top of things.

    I like the part where you opened up their backlinks and included snapshots. But you’re right, they do look totally natural. They look more like hyperlinked resources than paid links. Plus, shouldn’t D&B be on the first page of SERP’s if you search “D&B?”

    In my opinion, you did a good job exposing a prominent SEO company that knows what they’re doing and does link building a more holistic way than what you’re normally seeing with Black-hats. Nonetheless, Google seems to hate anyone that does link building, good or bad.

  46. avatar Nicky says:

    Oh!I did not know Pope is catholic!

  47. This is unfortunately what works. Companies who do not engage in some types of borderline link building are not going to deliver results for their clients. Period. Dont believe anybody in the trenches is operating completely above board. Operating only as Google wants would essentially defraud your clients. If your livelihood depends on returning results… you break the rules. Period. Remember… these are Google’s rules… stop equating them to some type of morality… Google is just a business like Dnb… As long as your not flooding the serps with lousy content… you are ok in my book… besides has anyone noted the resources they were putting into buying that link… us based real project managers… phonecalls… Dnb was probably billed 500.00 per month for that single link. Jeesh… seems hard hat to me.

  48. One more thought… Dnb seems to have been trying to rank for an industry term that they coined. Shouldnt their need to buy links ibe an indictment of how busted search is?… they were probably loosong ground to an onslaught of affiliate sites in the credit report space.

  49. avatar Chikara says:

    It’s hard to believe people still don’t know this going on. That said, do you really believe every shady marketing deal is clearly identified? This is hardly unique to SEO or link building.

  50. avatar T says:

    I run a small niche blog and get contacted everyday by SEO firms and “bloggers” asking to post an article on our site that is relevant to our site and our audience. We tell the requester that we have a small service charge to post the article, 90% agree with our fee. I can monetize my site, provide good relevant content and the blogger gets a good link, so what is so wrong with that?

  51. avatar Ludovic says:

    Everything has value, including a link. So if you do not pay for it, it has a value and a price all the same. Take reciprocal links: then the price is equal for both links (of course this is quantifiable). Take a guest blog post. Then the price is the price of the article you wrote (of course this is quantifiable). All links have a price, and if you got a free link, you got lucky, like the guy who got a free lunch.

    There are no (or few) natural links in this world as google has changed the linking landscape since 1999. They do not allow paid links because they think it is ‘too unnatural’, but 99% links you make are unnatural anyway.

    Oh, and you thought you had discovered the wheel?

  52. avatar Craig says:

    Nice self promoting post, I bet you got all giggly inside when Matt Cutts tweeted at you. You could have wrote the same thing about 90% of SEO companies (who make real money), Enterprise or not.

    Did you notice one of the sources you referenced for the Conductor/Iacquire name change also takes part in horrid link building?

    • avatar Josh Davis says:

      I appreciate when anyone takes the time to read something and thinks it is well researched. Journalists by and large thought it was well done. 70% or more of SEO community hated it. While I am aware of who Matt Cutts is, I don’t spend much time thinking about search, so it was not a big deal, but was notable.

      On the issue of sources. Since most people didn’t write publicly about the sale of that part of Conductor, I linked to 8 different sources to substantiate it. According to you 90% of the SEO companies do undisclosed link buying, so if we accept what you are saying, it certainly makes sense some who I linked to could be doing the same thing.

  53. avatar Mark says:

    You people are all morons. Google tells the world paid links are bad, evil — against their “holy” policies.

    Well WHAT THE HELL IS ADWORDS?

    Paid links. And on the display network, it’s buying links for your clients on 3rd party websites.

    What is AdSense?

    Getting paid to put links on your website.

    There’s no difference, and anyone who says it’s different is a total fool. Google is not your friend, and turning on each other is a foolish course. Google’s just trying to run us all out of the market so they can be the only distributor of paid links.

    • Well, Mark, the morons would probably explain to you that when they’re debating paid links, they’re talking about paid links that pass credit in a way to boost rankings in Google. That’s what Google has policies against.

      AdSense are paid links that do not pass credit. That’s a big difference. And anyone who carries paid link ads that block credit has no problems with Google’s guidelines.

  54. avatar melissa says:

    I am very disappointed in the many comments on here, it just seems to be that there are many hypocrites in the SEO world and it is really very sad. I am sure every single person who has commented negatively about this unfortunate story has paid for a link at least once maybe even twice, so to see this company get the wrath from those is just not right. “Clients of this company” – let’s get real how did you THINK you were getting these links??? Someone else already said it…out of the goodness of the webmaster’s hearts?? *sigh*

    my $.02

  55. Good research Josh. Really awful to see Mike King linked with this BS. He’s not to blame for this, as couple of people of stated the dude just started there in April. He’ll definitely have his hands full with PR and revising their practices.

  56. avatar Nakul Goyal says:

    Great well written…well researchedpost…well documented post. Will Reynolds also wrote an article somewhat relating to this…why google makes liars of all SEO’s. Google it. Loved the indepth detailed post. Cant believe i read this long on my phone.

  57. avatar Jon says:

    You should have added a link with a nofollow. That wasn’t in their “other general guidelines”. They couldn’t claim that it was for advertising if they then complained…

  58. there are some times where outing is appropriate given the extreme circumstances, but i don’t think this was one of those times.

    the only thing i agree with is it was actually a fortune 1000 comp. and not the struggling small guy…

  59. avatar Kyle L. says:

    People actually building links day in and day out understand how hard it is to NOT buy links. The majority of bloggers in many verticals don’t want to post content on their sites no matter how relevant or great it is without the content provider/promoter/creator paying them. Mommy bloggers are some of the worst offenders as blogging has become their “job” and they want to be compensated for doing their “job.” It’s a shame that it’s so hard for a company to produce great content and get it picked up on blogs without paying them first. This obviously depends on the industry/niche, and for some it is much less the case than others.

    Also, most clients have a certain risk tolerance for this sort of thing. I’m sure there are “SEO” companies buying links for clients that don’t tell them, but for the most part, clients are definitely told where there money is going and sign off on it. Like a few commentors mentioned, in some verticals/industries/niches, it’s near impossible to compete (currently and for the past 5 years) if you’re not aggressively building links. It’s almost impossible to aggressively build quality links without purchasing in these verticals.

    Companies that buy links feed the beast (blogs) and now the beast seems to be so large it’s really getting out of hand. The bloggers just want MORE and MORE money to post content. And for every extra 1k Unique Visitors they get per month, they seem to think that paying them $1,000 to post a great piece of content on their site is how is “should” be. I’m calling BS on both sides of the coin.

  60. This story was a bit of a shock to me. Not this particular article, but the whole media frenzy in the SEO industry. I have had the privilege of seeing some of the behind the scenes stuff that iAcquire does and I know that Joe has worked hard to really develop creative (non paid) link building strategies. In fact, that was the only stuff we discussed (non paid link building.) He is a smart guy, and I have no doubt he & his team will recover.

    With regard to this post, it seems a bit biased against iAcquire. It’s written as an investigative piece, but the glaring bias was when it came to the web publishers interviewed. It makes it seem ok to out the big guys and not the seeming “little guys” – the publishers. A lot of these seemingly innocent bloggers are making lots of money and know exactly the difference between disclosing and no disclosing paid links – it’s the difference in getting paid or not – and that’s why when they wonder if they should add the disclosure they don’t. They sell out to the dollar. Gaining a true understanding of the link building world, should have led to that revelation. I assume the next step would be to say that these “small web publishers” don’t know they are supposed to be paying taxes on that money?

  61. avatar Andre says:

    Awesome reporting. I support this.

    One thing though is you link to the very website you were being paid to link to except your (a) not being paid for it now and more importantly (b) this post will carry more rank than the one they want to buy a link on.

  62. avatar Dave says:

    Good on you for investigating and reporting this. It’s sad to see that people are pissed off at you for reporting this, but to hell with them. Haters gonna hate, especially the hypocrites.

  63. Thanks for writing this article, Josh. It is much better to have all this kind of manipulation out in the open.

    All the cronies of this company that have been criticising you should be next on Google’s list for a potential banning.

    Keep fighting the good fight!

  64. avatar bgb says:

    Hi Josh,
    I’m surprised you haven’t corrected the link in your post after my earlier comment. It still goes to http://llsocial.com/2012/05/search-secrets-prominent-seo-company-covertly-purchasing-backlinks-for-fortune-1000/#!/samharbison/status/201112744160796672 because you made it a relative link by accident which is a 404 page instead of http://twitter.com/#!/samharbison/status/201112744160796672. Perhaps you have been too busy replying to comments which is understandable but with all the attention about this post you should really fix any 404 errors to avoid confusion.