Could you offer people a reward or discounts for getting backlinks?

This week Ask an SEO The question comes from Kanusan in the UK who asks:

“In order to get backlinks to your site, could you just offer people a reward (e.g. a discount) if they share it on social media such as Facebook or Twitter?”

Several years ago, a friend from high school contacted me out of the blue.

He was a marketing director for a fairly large consumer goods company that sold primarily online.

His business was in trouble.

They had lost virtually all of their organic listings.

They depended on these lists.

If they weren’t able to get them back on their feet, and soon, they would be forced to institute some pretty big layoffs.

Digging around, I found a fairly large manual penalty in their Webmaster Console.

Long story short, they had sent out an offer to all of their customers, offering a discount if the customer provided a link to the business on a blog or other personal website.

We later found out that one of their clients was a Google search engineer.

This story, unlike many others like it, ended happily.

We were able to contact contacts at Google and get the manual penalty removed fairly quickly.

The company was even more successful and never violated Google’s link buying policy again.

Google’s Link Buying Policy: Sometimes Clear as Mud

Over the years, there has been significant debate over what Google actually considers a “bought” link.

Ultimately, any good or service exchanged for a link is considered a purchased link and is against Google’s link buying policies.

Any purchased link may result in a penalty for your website.

But there are definitely gray areas.

For example, if you offer a scholarship and a link to a university, is it a paid link?

What about a list of charitable donors on a site that includes a link?

For years, SEO professionals have speculated about what Google thinks of certain tactics.

SEO pros justified their link building tactics, and Google basically told them that if anything is traded for a link, it’s against the rules.

Link Ratings

Google recognizes that in some cases it is appropriate to exchange money or other goods for links.

In the not so distant past, the only way to do this without breaking the rules was to ask Google not to follow a link where such an exchange was taking place.

The use of the “nofollow” attribute has become common for those connecting to sites where something of value has been exchanged for the link.

The problem was, by definition, links tagged with nofollow provided no organic benefit.

Of course, many in the SEO community would say that Google looks at unfollowed links.

But the official word from Google was that unfollowed links were not included in any link authority algorithm.

Some time ago, Google extended its link markup beyond nofollow.

Google introduced two new markups: sponsored content and user-generated content.

You can find out more about these markups from Google Seach Central Documentation.

It is unknown how these new mark-ups are used in the algorithm, but anecdotal evidence suggests that they are used.

So the answer to the original question is yes, you can offer a discount or something of value to get a link.

But if the link you get doesn’t state that it’s sponsored, you risk putting your site in hot water.

For most of us, the risk is not worth the benefit.

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