How To Identify Your Competitors' Paid & Sponsored Links – Brighton SEO
This is a transcript of my talk from the Brighton SEO conference on the 25th March 2021 on how to analyse the compliance of competitors' inbound link building activities with GOOG Webmaster Guidelines with a view to identifying / reporting your competitors' paid / sponsored links quickly and easily. The information can potentially be used to diminish your competitors' online visibility by legal 'negative SEO' techniques.
I’ve edited it slightly as some of the talk refers to slides which you can’t see in the transcription here: here’s the video of the talk with slides:
A bit of background information first : so as you are probably well aware sites that rank well on Google often buy or sponsor links to their sites as the number and quality of links to a site is widely considered to be one of Google's three major ranking factors . Many studies would suggest that is a major factor [see Google employee’s comment here: https://searchengineland.com/now-know-googles-top-three-search-ranking-factors-245882 ] .
Back in 2012 Google introduced the "Penguin update" which was mainly aimed at targeting web spam including paid and sponsored links. Since then Google has been taking various types of actions on websites which it deems to be engaging in unnatural linking activity. This is includes unnatural link penalties, the removal of which requires a disavow of the links in question and a reconsideration request .
Google starts that states that buying or selling links that pass PageRank can dilute the quality of search results and that participating in "link schemes" violates the Google Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact a site's ranking in search results.
So what's a ”link scheme”? It's arguable that link schemes are most definitely what would be considered “black hat SEO”: Google defines a link scheme in part as any links intended to manipulate Google PageRank or a site's rankings and that includes any behaviour which manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.
As you may be well aware it's relatively easy to acquire backlinks for cash and these link schemes have crossed the line into also criminal activity: hackers are breaking into websites and adding links for SEO purposes: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/craigsilverman/hackers-website-links-backlinks-seo-spam .
Based on my experience, since 2012 Google isn't very good at detecting all these paid and sponsored links: often only detecting the egregious linked networks with widespread "money keywords" anchor text abuse (possibly with multiple websites on the same IP address) - the stuff that's "easy" algorithmically to detect.
So why identify your competitors sponsored or paid links? There's a few reasons why you might want to do it! It's a normal part of competitor analysis and you might want to use that information to copy their link building strategy which will potentially have its risks. Another reason why you might want to do it is to do some unpaid work for Google by reporting these links, or to undermine your your competitors .
Time for a quick sanity check: if you're buying or selling links for your client or your own site it's worthwhile being aware that reporting your competitors paid and sponsored links may cause your clients backlink profile to be scrutinized by Google as well. Thus you need to have your own house in order before doing this type of activity I would argue so I suppose it's worthwhile me explaining how I see all this type of activity fitting into a holistic SEO strategy. Google SEO is in my experience sometimes working to create multiple incremental and marginal improvements, and the basis of this is understanding the Google Webmaster Guidelines.
If you're dealing with a search market dominated by Google then the Google Webmaster Guidelines are arguably the “law of the land”. In theory if you break Google Webmaster Guidelines Google can de-index you in theory kick you off the land so it's worthwhile being aware of these rules and guidelines in detail. This same knowledge can help you scrutinise and potentially undermine the competition. From my point of view to say I've done everything I can do to boost my clients organic visibility on Google I think I also need to do everything I can to undermine the competition within the law as well - that's just how I view it.
It's worthwhile highlighting that you can buy or sponsor links in a Google compliant way . Google advises that you can prevent PageRank from passing in several ways such as indicating the link is sponsored by adding a qualifying attribute to the "a tag" or redirecting the links to an intermediate page that's blocked from search engines with the robots.txt file. As you should be aware, ads and sponsorships are perfectly legitimate part of traditional marketing so you can you can still do that today but Google requests that you are compliant with their guidelines on paid and sponsored links .
So how to identify some of your competitors paid or sponsored links? I say some because the data you'll be using will be from a backlink checker and thus it only includes the links indexed by the backlink checker . Some people are as we talked about earlier using all sorts of tactics legal and illegal to buy and sponsor back things and some of them are blocking some or all of the backlink checkers from indexing those links so that the links will only be visible to Google when it crawls the web so be aware of that.
Often where people are buying links from what I can see they're just blogs .Basically they're a paid post on a blog and these posts sometimes have somewhat all of the following characteristics: sometimes they just look out of place like a post on digital marketing tips on a wedding's blog (which doesn't make sense doesn't fit in stands out like a sore thumb!) Sometimes the blog posts don't have an author name or a byline or anything like that and sometimes in the interest of (partial) disclosure the article may be labelled as a “guest post” or “paid promotion” or similar.
A clue that a blog is actively doing paid and sponsored link type-activity they sometimes advertise it by you know having the call to action in their menu (e.g. “Partner With Us!” so it's pretty clear that they do that type of thing) . Another clue is often on a site that's selling links that have money keywords in the anchor text so rather than just the bare URL they might have “best SEO consultants london” or something like that . Yet another thing which looks a bit weird is they'll selectively “nofollow” certain external links on the page for no apparent reason and leave one or two as dofollow and that again stands out like a sore thumb!
So the steps to follow are:
Get your backlink checker and review and export a list of your competitors backlinks
it's worthwhile also checking the pages are still live with the tool like httpstatus.io
then you can sort the list by "nofollow" tag and or anchor text if the export allows or you can check the “nofollow” manually with a plugin in your browser like https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/nofollow/dfogidghaigoomjdeacndafapdijmiid?hl=en .
And then the final check: (it can be quite laborious depending on how many links you're checking but) once you've got the list of “suspect” pages you then review the pages in question with a tool like linkrr.com which allows you to open back links in bulk and then revise your list as appropriate manually.
Google asks if you believe a site is engaged in buying or selling links that pass PageRank to tell them about it...
Here's the “too long didn't read or listen” summary: as well as the Google, Bing and Yahoo guidelines there are other rules and laws and guidelines to be aware of which your competitors may not be compliant with . There's the ICANN guidelines (ICANN is the body in charge of the namespaces and numerical spaces of the internet), the UK Advertising Standards Authority, the UK Competition & Markets Authority, Linkedin all with their own guidelines & rules etc ...
So to summarize the basis of Google SEO is understanding the Google Webmaster Guidelines: the same knowledge will help you scrutinise and potentially undermine the competition should you choose to do so. Google encourages us to report violations of its guidelines.