In 2011, I was approached by a shady online marketing firm that offered to pay me to quietly insert links to their clients' websites in Gawker posts. We imagined that exposing the practice might end it. Not at all! It's happened again.
To briefly reiterate the problematic aspects of the practice: these firms are hired by clients to enhance their Google results and overall SEO. The firms then offer to, essentially, bribe writers at various websites to place links to their clients in editorial content, because Google looks kindly on such links when calculating search rankings. The writers get paid; the links go in quietly; the cash is slipped into Paypal accounts; the news organizations are never informed. It's stealth marketing, and it's designed to deceive both the employer and the reader. It's an unethical scam.
On November 8, I received this unsolicited email:
I would like to compliment you on your great articles that you write! I was wondering if you would be interested in a cooperation. We have many clients that would be interested in having their brand and link mentioned in the article and would be willing to pay a nice price for it ( no promotional articles of any kind just informational ). If this is something that would interest you, then let us know.
Rock's firm, Backlinks.us, touts itself as "an ever expanding SEO company that has been doing search engine optimization for private clients for over 4 years," and offers packages ranging from $119 a month for the "Beginner" link package to well over $1,000 a month for the "Ultimate" SEO enhancement. I replied, "Who are your clients and what is the arrangement?"
thank you very much for a quick response. The arrangement would be that we give you a keyword and URL and then you write an article that is relevant to that keyword and embed the link inside the article with the keyword we give you. Like I said, we are not looking for promotional posts, but for high quality informative posts that have a link back to our specified site. You can also link out to sites like Wikipedia and similar to make the article the best it can be. Would that be of interest to you and if so how much would you charge per such an article?
Kind regards, Rock.
I replied, "Who are the clients we would be linking to?"
We have quite a few, but for example, one link would be this: [Link] and the keyword would be: garcinia cambogia. But we can check each client with you if you wish and you can say yes or no to them.. We have that same arrangement with a few other big sites and with them being in control of what get's posted and what not, they feel more comfortable with it. In any case, we would never send you any illegal, porn or anything that you are not comfortable with.. let me know.
"I think I'd have to run it by my boss," I replied. "Can you send me some examples of how it looks on the other big sites you refer to?"
We are looking to establish relationships with authors directly. Sure, run it by your boss, but he will most probably said you can't do it because the company will want a piece of the pie. That is why we are looking for direct relationships to authors. : In any case, let us know if you decide to want to work with us. We would be happy to have you in our team and you would probably also happy with earnings some more money each month by doing what you are doing.
I asked again for some examples of where it had been done. Rock sent me this link to a contributor's post on AllVoices.com. I asked for more, and he sent me three: This post on Yahoo's "Voices" network by Karine Heyden, a "professional writer/blogger with many happy clients"; this post on Blogcritics.org by "world traveled analyst" Henry Buell; and this news story on Examiner.com by "book marketing specialist" Tamica Bonner. (See update at the bottom of this post for more on this.)
I asked Rock if there were any examples on larger sites.
Hey Hamilton - thanks for responding. Yes, we are doing this on HuffingtonPost, ChicagoTribune, UTSanDiego and other such big news sites so the Gawker wouldn't be any different... The compensation would be $50-$80 per post that you write. How does that sound?
Still, I wavered. He followed up with this:
Here are 2 HuffingtonPost.com posts that were made for us. The first one is: [Link], here the keyword of our client is freelance writer (which links to our clients site) and the second one is this one: [Link] here the keyword that is linked to our client's site is UppSite.
In both examples you can see that the posts are non promotional but actually very informative to the readers of the website and the links to our clients fit very well into the context of the article. This is what we are looking for and not for spammy promotional articles with a ton of links back to our clients. We know that such spammy article could also harm your position with the website and we don't want that at all. We are looking for long term relationships with excellent writers. We want you be happy and us to be happy..
As for the payment - you are right for smaller sites we pay a bit less $30-$60 and larger a bit more $50-$80. How much per post would be good for you?
(I couldn't help but notice that the market value of my bribes had declined by more than half since 2011. Damn.) I tried to drag even more examples out of Rock, but he had hit a wall.
well I don't know what to show you any more.. I have shown you examples on sites bigger than the Gawker and those work great with us. As for the payment, to see that we are serious, we can send you the payment for the first post before you even post it. After that we will send you your payment in the next 24 hours after you send us our live link. We pay through Paypal.com. No contract needed unless you want one. So let me know if you want to proceed and give me your Paypal address so that we send you the payment and if not, also tell me so that we can continue with our search for someone to work with on the Gawker.
Considering the fact that most of the examples that Rock sent to me are links inserted in stories that are contributed to sites with extremely low editorial standards, this does not constitute the greatest scandal in journalism history. But everyone should be aware of the fact that the shady and undercover practice of inserting paid links into purportedly "editorial" copy appears to be rampant. Readers (and employers) beware.
You'll never bribe anyone good for $80, Rock.
Update: The morning after we published this post, Rock sent me this follow up email:
we have seen you article in the Gawker, but we would like to just point out that we don't have any clients and the posts in Huffpost were not commissioned by us. We don't know any of the writers we mentioned, we just wanted to look as if we have influence. We just took the first few good articles that we have seen that had an outbound link.. So I would like you to delete those links as those authors have nothing to do with this and we don't them do be associated with something that they are not guilty of.
We made a mistake and got caught, so we will take full responsibility, but those writers did nothing wrong.
The most amusing line in Rock's email was, of course, "we would like to just point out that we don't have any clients." Really? They don't have any clients? That would seem to argue against the fact of their existence—and yet they exist. I asked Rock for more information, given his firm's clear incentive to lie about this point. Who did work for him, if not the writers he claimed? This, for the record, was his response:
Do you really think that we would tell you who works for us after your post? We didn't even give you our actual writers when you were pretending to be interested in working for us. We value the privacy of our clients and never give out any posts that were actually made for any of our clients.. And we did the same with sending samples to you, we just picked a few of the most known news websites and found some random posts with links inside to show you. It really isn't that hard. Also we never asked you to write promotional articles ( and we see many of those kind on reputable news sites don't we ) or to dictate what to write and not. What incentive would we have to conceal writers that are exposed already and whose posts have been deleted? For Allvoices for example, anyone can make an account and make a post.. The post we gave you is not even indexed in Google, so what good would it be to any of our clients or us?
As for if you want to update your post or not, that is your choice, I am just telling you how it is. Have a great day!
Oh, they do have clients.
[Image by Jim Cooke]