Analysing SEO link building strategies

My feelings on the SEO industry are no big secret. I think it’s fundamentally corrupt, damaging and in many cases a borderline scam. That’s not to say I don’t know many upstanding, talented and professional individuals who work in SEO, because I do.

As someone who runs a relatively well-trafficked and well ranked website (Freelance Advisor) I get approached by SEO people all the time wanting to use the site to promote their clients. It’s been interesting to see the change in tactics in the 2+ years I’ve been Freelance Advisor Editor, as Google has become more and more aggressive stamping out blog networks and crappy guest postings..

Since I started running Freelance Advisor I’ve been diligently filing all the SEO pitches I get into a GMail label, and I thought now was a good time to run some analysis of my email stash.

Link exchanges

These are the lowest of the low. The RyanAir of the SEO industry. Each email is exactly the same, simply asking for a link on your website in exchange for a link on theirs. Every website owner with even a bit of traffic will have seen one or two of these:

My name is Phoebe Griffiths and I was wondering if you are interested in exchange links, I’ll place your link on my sites exactly here:

ec3consulting(dot)net  PR3
accountingtracy(dot)com  PR2

If you agree please send me your site details:


Ill place your link in less than 24 hours, then I’ll send you an email with my info.


These are obviously sent out on a mailmerged template so are not particularly labour intensive. Nevertheless it’s been interesting to see them drop off as Google has started identifying and disregarding link exchanging sites. The volume of “Link exchange request” emails has changed over time like this:

Guest Posts

This is the standard for SEO link building activity at the moment. Pitch a guest article to a relevant site, and give it to them for free on the condition that they include a link to the site you’re trying to promote. As the lower-quality SEO activites (blog networks, link exchanges etc.) have become useless most SEO people have moved to Guest Posts as their primary link building activity. And this is reflected quite nicely in the volume of “Guest Post Submission” emails I’ve received:

“Buy advertising”

The other method I’ve encountered is “I’d like to purchase advertising on your site” emails. I imagine these have a much higher open rate than the previous two approaches, as everybody likes a bit of advertising income. Usually I’ll reply with our rate card, and they’ll reply saying “I actually wanted to purchase a link!”, at which point I mark as spam. This is very very against Google’s guidelines, however the SEO people I’ve spoken to about it seem to justify it by saying “What’s the difference between a paid link and a banner advert?”. Well, a lot – but each to his own I suppose.

The SEO emails posing as advertising enquiries have changed like this over the last two years:


So, if we mash those three charts together you can get a pretty clear picture of how SEO link building tactics are changing. Link exchanges are out, and guest posting and buying links (albeit in newfangled ways that SEO firms can justify to their clients) are in.

This isn’t particularly revelatory to people in, or close to, the SEO industry, but having some figures to back it up is interesting.

And to the shrieking SEO apologists who yell at me that I know nothing about their industry whenever I post something like this, remember – this is how the website owners of the world see your industry. Not as tech-savvy specialists who can help businesses connect with new customers, or whizz-bang consultants who can increase web traffic ten-fold, but as an endless stream of clumsily-written emails clogging up our inboxes.


It’s worth noting these are just the three most common techniques. Other link building strategies of note I’ve experienced are:

  • A link builder posing as a journalism student wanting “build her portfolio”. Being the kind-hearted soul I am, I gave her an article to write – image my consternation when it came back filled with links to an insurance website!
  • Purchasing banner advertising, then sending over a 300×250 javascript widget chock full of keyword anchor text
  • Hacking our OpenX ad server and hiding plain text links behind all our banner ads


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