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Ethics is always a hot topic of conversation in the search marketing world. Of late there have been some discussions, led by Search Engine Land, about how some search engine optimisers seek to use the Google Webmaster Guidelines (Google’s much vaunted list of dos and don’ts for search engine optimisers) to try to persuade “less knowledgeable” third parties into doing things that are not overly wise.

Here’s a genuine case forwarded to me today by a long term client:

Message 1

From: Digital Marketing Strategist at a UK SEO company
To: An Attacat Client
Subject: Ethical tour operator for XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Greetings,

I visited your website, XXXXXXXXXX and found some great information regarding responsible tourism spending quite a while reading the headlines.

I thought you might be interested to know that my client has a web site dedicated to responsible travel XXXXX and that they funded the charity ‘XXXXXXXXXX’ which helps XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX.

We were hoping that you might consider linking to us and invite you to review our site at your convenience.

If you determine that a link to our site is appropriate, please add it at you’re discretion, or might we suggest the following link and description:

URL: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Visible URL: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Link text: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Description: Ethical Travels XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

If you’d like to discuss this further, please feel free to contact us at XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Thanks!

XXXXXXXXXXXX
Digital Marketing Strategist

So far nothing untoward apart from the idiot alert of there only being limited responsible tourism info on our client’s site.

Being trained to think about link opportunities carefully our client was naturally sceptical, especially as the requested link would be to a direct competitor. But willing to keep an open mind..

Message 2

From: An Attacat Client
To: Digital Marketing Strategist at a UK SEO company
Subject: Re: Ethical tour operator for XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Dear XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX,
Thank you for your interest in our company, we would be interested in linking if you were offering a reciprocal link arrangement.
Yours
XXXXXXXXXXX

To which she got the following response:

Message 3

From: Digital Marketing Strategist at a UK SEO company
To: An Attacat Client
Subject: RE: Ethical tour operator for XXXXXXXXXXXX

Hello XXXXXX,

Thank you so much for getting back to me about the link to XXXXXXXXX, the site is fantastic. The only problem we have is that Google counts reciprocal links as link schemes, and as the Google guidelines stipulate, link schemes are a violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact on your site’s ranking in search results – http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=66356&query=reciprocal+links&topic=&type

This wasn’t always the case with reciprocal linking, but over the past few months Google have been introducing stricter laws, also reciprocal links pass no value to either site under these new regulations.

Because of this and considering the relevancy of your website, we would be willing to offer a cash sum in return for a keyword textual link. If you could let us know how much you are willing to trade the link for I will speak to the client and get permission for payment.

Many thanks
XXXXXXX

This is when our client decided to forward the e-mail exchange to me and we quickly agreed that a polite “thanks but no” was in order.

So what’s so wrong with this?

The SEO company are right to point out that reciprocal linking can be bad news, but what they didn’t point out is that in many circumstances it is absolutely fine. From the Google guideline page they linked to:

“However, some webmasters engage in link exchange schemes and build partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. This is in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact your site’s ranking in search results.

Examples of link schemes can include:

– Links intended to manipulate PageRank
- Links to web spammers or bad neighborhoods on the web
– Excessive reciprocal links or excessive link exchanging (“Link to me and I’ll link to you.”)
– Buying or selling links that pass PageRank”

Note the qualifiers: “exclusively for the sake”, “disregarding the quality”. Also the quoted example of “Excessive reciprocal links”, all of which implies that in moderation and, with good reasons for doing so, there is no problem with reciprocal links. Let’s face it we all work with partners and recommend each other in the offline world. Why not do it online?

The demonstrable lack of knowledge, in its own right, doesn’t upset me. What really got me was the alternative they offered: “a cash sum in return for a keyword textual link”

Let’s just go back to the Google guideline page again and look at the stated examples of link schemes you shouldn’t participate in. Oh yes, that’s right “Buying or Selling links that pass PageRank”, or in other words, paying “a cash sum in return for a keyword textual link”

Now this isn’t the “should you buy text links or not” debate. It’s not even the “should you risk innocent third parties by seeking to buy links” debate. What it is, is the “should you deliberately try to persuade an innocent third party into thinking that Google would prefer you to offer paid links when they clearly don’t” debate!

It’s no wonder that people see search engine optimisation as a “black art” when in reality it is anything but. It’s even more disappointing when this sort of carry-on comes from a company that appears, on the surface, to be a credible outfit. It has been featured in a highly reputable SEO buyers’ guide, has won a regional business award and makes a big point of warning potential customers away from “Black Hat SEO”. Pity.

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