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.
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:
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.
And then I got this email:
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:
Page you would be linking to:
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:
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.
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.
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?
The response was explicit. Mitchell didn’t want any type of disclosure. This was a clear violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
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,
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.