How SEO Greed Can Ruin A Perfectly Good Linking Strategy

By now, you are likely aware of the Rap Genius “Tweet In Exchange For Anchor Text” link scheme, hencefore to be known as TieFating.

Barry Schwartz reported last week on John Marbach’s exposé of the popular music site, Rap Genius, which had started an “affiliate” program in order to get links pointing to their website. After it was exposed, Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam team, said, “we’re aware and looking into it.” The site was then officially penalized for link schemes.


Links can do many things, but don’t get greedy…

In a nutshell, the folks at Rap Genius offered to tweet a link with a URL to any blogger that linked to the Rap Genius site using specific keyword rich anchor text to the lyrics of very specific songs by very specific artists. In exchange for these keyword rich anchor text links, Rap Genius would then tweet out a link to the blogger’s site/post, and that would result in their site getting “massive traffic.”

I won’t rehash the details here, as you can read the original story to learn more, but the thing that struck me most was that none of it had to play out the way it played out.

What happened is a perfect example of a potentially useful linking technique being ruined by a poor — or perhaps greedy — choice of implementation requirements.  It’s obvious to any mildly experienced link builder that Rap Genius was after improved search rank based on the anchor text they required bloggers use in the links they inserted into their blog posts. Code was provided for copy/pasting. Various song titles and artists and the word “lyrics” were included in the anchor text.

It’s a open and shut case of bounty-based rank seeking by promising “massive traffic” via a tweet in exchange for a keyword rich anchor text link. On this, we should all agree. If you don’t agree, and you feel this type of linking strategy was not intended to manipulate Google, please feel free to explain why in the comments below.

It Didn’t Have To Happen

What’s so ironic about this situation (in addition to the not-aptly named Rap Genius), is that this could have been a very useful and powerful content promotion tactic had it just been implemented in a different way — and this goes not just for Rap Genius, but for any site.

The first mistake was demanding anchor text. That’s greedy and unnatural. The links they were seeking would have been just as potent and explanatory whether or not they’d contained the words [lyrics, song name, artist name] in the anchor text. Heck, the links could have even said “click here” and likely accomplished the same thing, given the other content and semantic signals present on the pages.

What do I mean? Here’s are two fictitious examples to make the point.

Now here are two questions about the above examples.

  1. Is there any doubt in either example as to what content you will get if you click the link?
  2. Is there any doubt as to which of these examples was designed to try and affect Google search rank and which one wasn’t?

Aside from the obvious intent of example 2 above, isn’t it a bit insulting to Google to believe they could not figure out what each of these links represented even in the absence of anchor text? Yes, it is. And this is also why, in 19 years and over 100,000 outreach emails, I have never asked for anchor text. It’s not a signal of relevancy, it’s a signal of manipulation.

So the key mistake in the execution of this linking campaign was demanding anchor text, rather than just letting the bloggers create the links naturally.

There was another tactical error made by promising to tweet out a link to the blog posts containing those anchor text rich links. The error? Quality control. You cannot tweet URLs without regard to the credibility and quality of the site you just tweeted about. That’s the very definition of tweet spam. If you are going to offer a tweet-for-link campaign, which in and of itself is not a violation of any search engine’s quality guidelines, you must limit the tweets to only those you find to be on topic and relevant to your followers — and oh yeah, hosted on truly excellent sites.

In other words, any content you share should be vetted, curated, and quality controlled. The deciding factor on what you tweet should never be whether or not the URL you are tweeting contains keyword rich anchor text links.

Another tactical mistake was not asking those blogs to use use nofollow. Don’t kid yourself. They knew what they were doing and hoping to accomplish. This campaign was all about search rank, driven by a promise-of-traffic tweet incentivization.

It’s Not The Tactic, It’s The Intent

This is what’s sad to me as a linking strategist from the pre-Google days. There are ways to implement bounty linking strategies that are effective for click traffic without violating Google’s Quality Guidelines. And it doesn’t matter if you believe Google has no right to be the “police” of the web. The moment you asked for keyword anchors in exchange for tweets, your intent became obvious.

I like the strategy. The execution and intent were the problems.

Don’t build links for Google — do it for traffic.

Don’t demand anchors — let them happen as the webmaster wishes.

And don’t open this up for any blogger — show some respect for your followers by only tweeting truly outstanding posts, not just posts that paste your code and and anchors.

There are some brilliant linking strategies that get bad names and press because they were chasing the wrong carrot. But that doesn’t make the strategy bad. It’s just recognizing the right carrot you need to be chasing, and executing your linking and publicity campaign accordingly.