Backlinks are when there is a link from one website to another website, and years ago they were vital to get a website and a webpage to show up in search engines for highly competitive terms. They’re still important, but you can rank websites without backlinks. But because they are important, one popular technique for getting backlink is to pay for them. Not all brands are paying for backlinks, sometimes they do a media buy or use affiliate tracking the wrong way and it just looks like they’re doing a paid backlink strategy.
Other times the SEO is removed from the conversation and the company requires parameters to be placed on paid SEO efforts since they want to track the “effectiveness” of the money being spent. And the parameters used can help you to identify which teams or potential teams are responsible.
Common parameters include:
- UTM – Analytics tracking and used for tracking other brands the company owns or subdomain blogs
- MID, RFSN, /go/, etc… – Affiliate, PPC, or commission based
- Partner, banner, sponsor – Sponsorships, paid placements, media buys
Please note that not all of these are bad, and not all should be pulled if your brand is doing it. But they do give you insight into your competitors strategies and you can use this to beat them at their own game. I go into this below. Search engines expect you to track efforts, and crawlers (especially from tools) pick up backlinks from ad placements or media buys that are not intended to boost SEO. That’s why it shows lost, and when you go to the page you’re confused as to why or where the link would have been. Other times a company is interlinking their brands through the footer or header to track traffic going in between the websites.
If you look the Gap and their brands do this with a store ID parameter in their header and amazon does it in their footer (but without tracking parameters).
A link that occurs naturally, and with no interference from the marketing team likely will not have a parameter. The person giving the backlink grabs the link from the homepage, article, or product/service, and sources it. There could be a Facebook or Google click id on it, but most times the webmaster pulls them because they want the clean link. If parameters are used, then a marketer is likely trying to track the link and the traffic (if there is any.) This is how you can find and track their strategies.
- Put their domain into a backlink checking tool. The best is Majestic SEO and then SEMrush, ahrefs and moz. I have a preference for SEMrush because the interface is really clean, even before I started working with them (and I don’t anymore.)
- Now export the list of backlinks into a spider or crawler like Screaming Frog if you’re not good with excel, I’m not.
- Set the spider to crawl the sheet and not the websites, and then have it show you only the URLs with parameters on them.
- Remember, this is backlinks, not the main domain, so the base URLs will be changing.
- Save the URL list.
This list contains all of the currently findable paid or tracked placements. And this data can be used by your PPC, paid media, SEO and affiliate teams.
I start by scanning for really good media sites and look for patterns with irrelevant domain endings for the brand I’m researching (i.e. a company that only works in the USA but has a link farm from Poland or Russia). I also look for anything that would normally show up like a coupon website if it’s an ecommerce store, or a list of site checkers. Then I delete those.
Next I split it out by spammy, link farm (non-naturally occurring links) and quality links and save them into a separate sheet. This sheet can be used, or be ignored depending on how bad you want your Karma to be. I get into that below too.
Pro-tip: Chart the links visually to see if they are part of a PBN/link farm/link wheel, etc… This is a good way to save time when dealing with large amounts of backlinks so you can find the ones you want first. Link farms show large amounts of interlinking between the same sites (ones that looked like they had good domains too) and you can probably export that section, use a lookup formula in excel, and remove the farm from the good sheet to the spammy one.
Now that you know how to find a competitors paid backlinks, there’s a lot of things you can do with them. Some of the practices below may violate FTC and UK/EU disclosure guidelines, so talk to a licensed attorney before implementing a paid link acquisition strategy. I’m not a licensed attorney or able to give legal advice, but as a marketer my responsibility is to give you marketing strategy and options. You need to do what is right for your company or website, and what your licensed attorney feels is ok for your situation. Here’s some options for what you can do.
Approach the websites and ask for a link
The easiest thing to do is to pitch the websites that you want a link from. Make your pitch unique and original, talk to the writer or website owner about them (not about yourself or your content), and don’t ever use a canned template. Your competitors paid for the placement, but if you have something that is better, you can sometimes earn your space onto their site and not have the parameters making the link appear natural or earned.
Buy a link from the site
The next thing you can do is buy a link. It’s a bad practice and not recommended, and when you do the website owner is supposed to add an advertising disclosure to the top of the page. This is a good Q&A to read from the FTC. When you do pay for a link, Google also asks that you have them place a “sponsored” attribute on the link so Google knows it is paid for. But that is out of your control, do the best you can do.
Pro-tip: Google will eventually get smart enough to know that if there is an advertising disclosure then some of the links are paid for. It could be a paid link, an affiliate link, or a media buy. If your current SEO relies on these paid placements, once the disclosures go up you’re going to have to find a better strategy that doesn’t violate the FTC guidelines and also shows Google your links are earned, not paid for.
My rule of thumb when paying for links is that I don’t buy them for SEO. I buy them because I know the traffic on that page converts and has an audience demographic match. It isn’t for SEO purposes. My goal is to build trust and credibility with potential customers and to get in front of past and current customers again. This is why I encourage the webmaster to add sponsored or nofollow to the links and always require they use a disclosure before payment is complete.
Pitch being an affiliate or buying a link
By reaching out and offering the website an opportunity to become an affiliate there are three common outcomes.
- Nobody responds to your emails. Normally this happens with link farms, so if you post to LinkedIn you’re looking for backlinks, spammers will reach out in droves. Share the URL you want and one may know which link farm to buy in. And that’s how you create a paper trail (next tip below).
- You offer the owner to become an affiliate and let them know they can be making money from the work they already did. If they accept they may replace the paid for backlink which may or may not have a negative impact on your competitor, or they add you to the post with an affiliate link and if there’s traffic you may get some sales. It’s a nice win and you’re cutting into a competitor’s revenue.
- The owner tells you how much it costs for a link. This gives you a paper trail which you can use below to hurt your competitors. But it is bad Karma. When you respond, ask how much the competitor paid and also how much it would cost to be added to the same article and in a specific position. There’s two things here.
- You have a paper trail to show Google they are paying for backlinks.
- If there’s no disclosure and you have proof they paid for the ad space, they may be in violation of the FTC guidelines. Only a licensed attorney can verify.
Sign an exclusive deal to remove the competitor
When I find a good and healthy website that produces quality content on a regular basis, but also has these links, I remove the competitor from it. The easiest way is to sign the website as an ambassador for your company. In the agreement they agree you are the exclusive vendor in your niche, but you can allow for comparison content. But I’m not doing it for SEO, I do it to get access to their audience. Before taking this step I check that:
- The demographics match up to the client’s audience
- They have solid rankings in search
- Their social media accounts have real and active followings
- You can find them being linked to and referenced by other industry websites, niche influencers, and the media
By signing them and paying for it, I’m blocking competitors from accessing their work and building trust for my client by using a third party. Just make sure they disclose the relationship each time they reference you. Can’t stress this enough.
Report the findings to Google
Google has a system where you can report competitors that are using paid linking strategies. But this is bad Karma and I have no idea if Google even uses this tool anymore. The reason it is bad Karma is that it could be a competitor who was paying for the links to do negative SEO and so they could report them. And then that competitor comes for you next. If you’re the one reporting, you have the bad mojo flowing.
I deleted the remaining strategies because they are bad practices and I wouldn’t recommend them regardless if legal counsel clears them. There were about four more. Leaving this note here for myself mostly because I kept going back and forth on including them. This is my reminder to not do it. lol.
Knowing your competitors’ link building and media buying strategies helps you compete against them and beat them at their own game. And with brands using tracking parameters, you can easily find the sites they’re tracking the paid for links from. Thank you for reading and if you found this helpful, give a share on social media or subscribe to my newsletter below.