This week’s Ask an SEO question comes from Kanusan in the U.K. who asks:
“In order to gain backlinks to your site, could you just offer people a reward (e.g., a discount) if they share it on social media such as Facebook or Twitter?”
Several years ago, a friend from high school contacted me out of the blue.
He was the director of marketing for a pretty large consumer goods company that sold mostly online.
His company was in trouble.
They had lost virtually all of their organic listings.
They depended upon those listings.
If they weren’t able to get them back up, and soon, they would be forced to institute some pretty significant layoffs.
As I dug in, I found a pretty significant manual penalty in their Webmaster Console.
To make a long story short, they had sent out an offer to all of their customers, offer a discount if the customer provided a link to the company on a blog or other personal website.
We found out later that one of their customers was a Google search engineer.
That story, unlike many others like it, ended happily.
We were able to reach out to contacts at Google and get the manual penalty removed rather quickly.
The company went on to be even more successful – and they never violated Google’s link buying policy again.
Google’s Link Buying Policy: Sometimes Clear as Mud
Over the years, there has been significant debate on what Google actually considers a “bought” link.
Bottom line – any good or service that is exchanged for a link is considered a bought link and is against Google’s rules for link buying.
Any link that is bought could result in a penalty to your website.
But there are definitely gray areas.
For example, if you are offering a scholarship and a university links to you, is that a paid link?
What about a list of charitable donors on a site that includes a link?
For years, SEO pros have speculated about what Google thinks about certain tactics.
SEO pros have justified their link building tactics, and mostly been told by Google – if anything at all is exchanged for a link, it’s against the rules.
Google recognizes that in some cases, it is appropriate to exchange money or other goods for links.
In the not-so-distant past, the only way to do this without breaking the rules was to instruct Google not to follow a link where such an exchange took place.
Using the “nofollow” attribute became common for those linking out to sites where something of value was exchanged for the link.
The problem was, by definition, links that were marked with nofollow provided no organic benefit.
Of course, many people in the SEO community would say Google does look at nofollowed links.
But Google’s official word was that nofollowed links were not included in any link authority algorithm.
A little while ago, Google expanded its link mark-up beyond nofollow.
Google introduced two new mark-ups: sponsored and user-generated content.
You can read more about these mark-ups from Google Seach Central’s documentation.
It is unknown how these new mark-ups are used in the algorithm, but anecdotal evidence suggests that they are being used.
So the answer to the original question is yes, you can offer a discount or other item of value to obtain a link.
But if the link you obtain doesn’t specify that it is sponsored, you may get your site in hot water.
For most of us, the risk is not worth the benefit.