Scholarship and grant link building is a tactic that stems from an old myth that .edu and .gov backlinks are more valuable than others. This idea formed because an earned link from these sites is harder to get as you have to be an accredited school or government agency to buy these TLDs (top level domains). Because only a limited group of people can buy them, the websites must have some form of quality control.
On top of the quality control, these organizations tend to have fact checking, publish research papers using data only they have access to, and they get sourced by other authoritative websites. The sourcing, fact checking, content created by licensed practitioners helps them achieve higher scores in SEO tools like domain authority. Not to mention if they have sports teams they get media mentions and backlinks regularly.
Important reminder: Domain Authority, AS, toxicity scores, etc… are metrics third party tools make up. Search engines do not use these.
It’s easy to see why they would be the targets of link builders. But don’t count .edu and .gov links out. Most get ignored, but if there is a research paper and your data is a sourced from the paper, they’re giving you credibility and sending relevant traffic to your content based on merit. If your data is directly related to your products or services, in theory this link should likely count as a vote for your site.
Make sure to provide resources for coursework that are unique, studies that are thought provoking, and content that is helpful (provides a unique solution) to “earn” quality links. And make sure same author or professor does not have an unnatural outbound linking pattern. If they link out to multiple sites and those sites are not contextually relevant, you’re part of an unnatural link scheme and these links will be ignored or work against you.
Unnatural links from .edu and .gov sites include paying a student to link to your from their blog, incentivizing teachers or professors, and scholarships. I’m highlighting scholarships here because they are a waste of money SEO wise.
Since 2018 John Muller has been saying Google ignores most .edu links, my guess is he is referring to scholarships and paying students to write a post with your website in it. And this is something I do believe the Google team on when they say it. You may see an initial lift in traffic and exposure from scholarship links, but the fall will be greater when the lift wears off. And in some cases, scholarship backlinks have been flagged in search console as unnatural link building and lead to a penalty. Jim Boykin shared it when they were doing a client SEO audit in this post on Search Engine Journal.
Scholarship links are nothing new, but there has been a resurgence in this technique. It is a strategy that worked years ago, and Wil Reynolds made it famous at Affiliate Summit. But I think even there he said it no longer worked, but I don’t remember for certain. At this point in time, don’t do scholarships and grants for SEO, do them because you want to benefit a person, company, or community.
If you are currently using these gimmicks for SEO, it may work; until it doesn’t. Then you’ll be hiring someone like me for clean up and recovery projects. Save yourself the hassle and money, do things the right way now. And if you’re not convinced that scholarship and grant link building are bad, here’s five reasons we discourage our clients from doing this. The third one is something I mention to audit clients when they claim it isn’t for SEO purposes.
They’re Trackable and Mappable
It is easy to run a crawler through .edu sites and extract external links. Look for the word “scholarship” or something similar for the anchor text, or within the H tags, URL keywords, and content in the paragraph. Now you have a list. You can also pull a backlinks report and sort by .edu from Majestic, SEMrush, Ahrefs, Moz, etc… Then double sort by anchor text.
Now think about the amount of crawling and indexing Google does every day. This has been on Google’s radar likely before 2018, they have mapped it out, and as they have said, they ignore these links. It is something easy for them to automate, and their database is likely larger than anything we could create, including PBNs, link wheels, and link farms.
Scholarships Aren’t Topically Relevant
When I’m doing SEO audits I find links from schools that have nothing to do with the products and services on the site. You’ll have a consumer goods site with backlinks from a school that teaches trades or medicine. There’s nothing relevant here.
Sometimes the link comes from a keyword rich anchor because the scholarship name is “blue t-shirt scholarship” (making that up) as the company named the scholarship for keyword rich backlinks to boost their site for that keyword or phrase. This is obvious to search engines and will work against you. We disavow these during cleanups, and we sometimes recommend deleting the scholarship pages altogether.
How Are You Amplifying the Winners?
If the scholarship is to do good in the world and not for SEO, how are you amplifying it? If your company is doing good in the world, share it.
- All executives share the winner on their social media.
- Provide training like an incubator and give the winner access to the team members that work in the field.
- Keep a running list of the successes from the winners, and have them share their ups and downs to help motivate future winners.
If you’re not pushing the scholarship winners out to the world and guiding them to success, you did a scholarship or a grant for backlinks. Make your scholarship and grant program an opportunity that has humanitarian value and good will. It should be something your proud of if it was not done for links.
Google Knows This Trick
I sourced above that Google knows about this tactic, and they’ve known for years. Scholarship links are not creative, new, or innovative. Scholarship links are the exact opposite.
Penalties and Devaluations
Even if the links are ignored, too many gimmick SEO tactics lead to penalties or devaluations. You may initially see hockey stick growth or success, but that leads to greed. When companies get greedy, common sense leaves the room and more gimmick marketing takes hold. The search engines will catch you and you will lose your traffic. You will lose an entire channel, and when you do you’ll need to hope you’ve invested into others while you recover SEO.
Important reminder: Penalty recovery is not getting the traffic back, it’s being able to rank again. It can take years, it is expensive, and it is not fun. You sit there while an SEO agency undoes all of the “work” you paid someone for. You realize all the mistakes you were talked into, and it is a hard pill to swallow.
If your SEO agency or in house team member is talking about scholarships for backlinks, do it for goodwill to a person or entrepreneur and not for SEO. If you do proceed, get ready for problems that are both expensive and time consuming to fix. And you may never get the traffic and sales back, even when you are considered “recovered”. If you have been penalized or have lost traffic and ran a scholarship program for backlinks, contact me. I’d love to look and see if it was the cause or part of the reason you lost your rankings.