How NOT to Build Links to Your Website: Courtesy of American Express

As a courtesy and value-added service, American Express is building links and doing search engine optimization for many of their small business clients. Through a division called “American Express Market 3D“, American Express (through their outsourced vendor called Orange Soda) is doing Inbound Link Building, Social Bookmarking, and General Directory Submissions. American Express clients are now reportedly receiving messages via Google Webmaster Tools that Google is detecting “unnatural links” pointing to their website, all as a result of this courtesy and “value-added service” and the poor, low-quality links that American Express is creating to their clients’ websites. While I have not seen any reports of websites being banned in the Google search results, in some cases, traffic from organic search is down as much as 50 percent as a result.

I have received a copy of an email that details some of the services provided by American Express Market 3D. In it, they explain the inbound link building, social bookmarking, and general directory submissions:

– Inbound Link Building: Targeted Blog Post Creation and Distribution (22)
– Our SEO content writers create an original blog post related to your industry and post on a proprietary network. One of the most important aspects of the written blog post is our control over the anchor text and the relevancy of the blog. This allows us to use your targeted keyword as the link back to your website which enhances your website’s credibility for the keyword in question. Please keep in mind that the blog post will be written in third-party form (your company not the subject) with the main purpose being a link back to your website.

– Inbound Link Building: Locate and Submit 10 Social Bookmark Links
– Links created from social bookmarking websites (such as delicious.com) allow users to access their favorite websites from any computer with an Internet connection. We add your website (create a link) to our highly used social bookmarking websites so that search engines can index a link to your website and members of these bookmarking websites can access your website.

– Inbound Link Building: Locate 15 General Directories and Submission
– General directories, such as dmoz.org, include various categories that make it easier for Internet users to find niches, products, or services (i.e, business, computers, health, etc.). In order for your website to be included in the directory, we will find the most relevant category for your business and submit your website (following the directory’s guidelines). Submitting to directories allows us to include your targeted keyword within the titles and descriptions, and when accepted, create a high-quality link back to your website.

While I do not have a problem with blog posts, social bookmarks, and directory submissions, there is a “right way” and “wrong way” to do it. Certainly working with prominent, well-known industry bloggers to receive mentions (or review your product or service) is a viable and recommended solution. And encouraging social bookmarks to your site’s “shareable content” and quality content is reasonable. Sure, when I have a new blog post, I tend to tweet about, add it to Google+, and to my Facebook page. I fully expect good websites to be listed in DMOZ.org, the Yahoo! Directory, and Best of the Web. But that, unfortunately, is not what we’re talking about here. After all, this is American Express putting their name on a service that they should be proud to offer their customers, right?

Not exactly. The problem lies with the entire execution of this process and service, which is so bad that even Google is getting involved here–telling these website owners that they have detected “unnatural links” to their website. Google also details, in their message, that after everything is cleaned up, the website owner must offer an explanation and request reconsideration. This is hardly the value-added service that I think American Express had in mind. The following is a copy of the message received from Google by a website owner as a direct result of participation in the American Express Market 3D program (I have purposely removed the name of the website):

Google Webmaster Tools notice of detected unnatural links to http://www.XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX.com/

Dear site owner or webmaster of http://www.XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX.com/,

We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.

We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results.

If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request.

If you have any questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support.

Sincerely,
Google Search Quality Team

I personally took the time to review all of the backlinks to the website in question, as well as all of the anchor text of the links to this website. I have seen direct evidence of the link building efforts by American Express Market 3D, and after analyzing the backlinks in detail, it is clear which anchor text that American Express Market 3D is using–and it has been very easy to identify the websites of where these backlinks have been created. Furthermore, other emails that I have received detail the exact anchor text that’s being targeted by American Express Market 3D–which is not even anchor text that appears in the title tag of the website in question. My understanding is that it is just not a keyword phrase that this website is targeting at this time.

I have also received a copy of an email report sent to the website in question from American Express Market 3D, which I’ve copied below:

Dear XXXXXXXXX,

SEO Update – Link Building

Completed Task: 1 professionally written & posted blog post

Client Website: XXXXXXXXXXXXX.com

Blog Post Title: Tips in Planning Your…..

SEO Service Category: Link Building

Benefits: By having a professional SEO writer blog about your website, we are able to control the anchor text. This allows us to use your keywords when we make links back to your site. These links help build your search engine credibility and are very beneficial to your SEO campaign.

Keep in mind that the most important part of this blog post is that it is relevant and the right keywords are used in conjunction with linksto your site.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a blog post?
A blog is a user-generated website where entries are made in journal style and displayed in a reverse chronological order. Therefore, a blog post is an entry on a blog.

What is anchor text?
Anchor text is the text that you click on to activate and follow a hyperlink to another webpage or another web site. Search engines use this text to determine the subject of your page and the targeted page. By using your keywords in the anchor text, we’re able to help the search engines rank you for the appropriate search phrase.

Have Additional Questions?

If you need additional help, please contact your Campaign Management Team with the information provided below.
Market 3D Search Marketing
1-877-492-9520
www.search.market3d.com
Market 3D Search Marketing Service executed by OrangeSoda Inc.
Contact Customer Service | View our Privacy Statement | Add Us to Your Address Book

This e-mail is a customer service message that has been sent to notify you of important information regarding your account. To learn more about e-mail security or report a suspicious e-mail, visit us at americanexpress.com/phishing.
© 2012 American Express Company. All rights reserved.

I generally do not have a problem with adding a blog post and including the link. I am, though, not a big fan of using the same exact anchor text, over and over again, on numerous low-quality blog posts. I personally don’t have a problem with what American Express Market 3D is doing–it’s just the execution and the fact that these links are such low quality they were flagged by Google–and the website’s search engine rankings are suffering as a result.

As a result of my detailed backlink research of the website in question, I was able to identify at least 50+ links to the site in question. Some of the blogs that were “professionally written blog posts” are currently banned in the Google search engine, which is not a sign of “quality”. Let’s take a look at two of the blog posts that were written. Again, this apparently a “value-added” service for American Express customers. Keep in mind that this is a random screen capture from the actual blog, not a blog post that is pointing to the website in question. The blog post in question is very similar to the one shown below, and was located on the same blog.

This is a prime example of the type of blog post that Google does NOT like, and the kind of blog posts that should NOT be pointing to your website. This is a prime example of the type of link building that you should NOT do. These links will get your website banned in the Google search engine (and most likely in Bing.com as well).

I believe that you, as a website owner you have a responsibility to monitor the links to your website–especially if you know if anyone is doing any sort of link building on your behalf. At the same time, if someone is building links to your website, you have a right to know exactly where those links are appearing (with the exact URLs) and where “submissions” or any other online marketing is being done, on your behalf. After carefully reviewing the links and URLs that were built by American Express, I am not surprised that the website in question recieved the message they received from Google–and why their website is suffering in the organic search results.

Let’s take a look at another example of a blog post that posted by American Express on as a “value added” and courtesy service for their customers:

This blog, called “Aloha Travel Vacation”, that not only contains blog posts about travel topics, but even blog posts about plumbing. What does plumbing have to do with Travel? Take a look at the plumbing blog posts. Here is one of the sentences: “These are places that need to be joined to as soon as one is aware of them to avoid a larger harm from developing.”. Huh? C’mon American Express, this the quality that you giving your customers? Does this really deserve to link over to your customers’ websites? By the way, the website in question, the one who received the message from Google about unnatural links, has a blog post on this particular blog. It appears that the blog is owned by Orange Soda, Inc., the SEO firm who apparently is executing these SEO campaign(s) on behalf of American Express Market 3D. This particular blog is one of many of the unnatural links built to the website in question. Here is the whois data for this domain:

In my extensive review of all of these links to the website in question, it is clear to me that this is not just an isolated incident. There are literally tons of other websites who have had these low-quality, unnatural links built to their websites by American Express. And they continue to be built, hurting not only the website in question, but hurting the search engine reputations of literally every customer who has allowed American Express to engage them in this program. This absolutely has to stop. Immediately. Before any websites are banned in the search engines as a result.

So, what’s the bottom line here? If you have a website, you owe it to yourself to immediately download and review all of the backlinks to your website. You can use the MajesticSEO.com Site Explorer to review your backlinks. I also recommend monitoring of your backlinks on a regular basis. And if you have received one of these site-devaluing messages from Google, don’t ignore it–take action.

For further reading on the subject of removing backlinks, you may want to read:
How to Get Rid of Unwanted Backlinks – Search Engine Watch
How to Remove Paid Links Without Hurting Your Search Engine Ranking – Bill Hartzer

Comments

  1. Mike Stewart says

    Does it surprise you that Dex Digital and other yellow pages providers also use the same methods by OrangeSoda?

  2. Uzair says

    So, in essence. If I were to out a website on Google – I just have to do what American Express did. Scary.

  3. chris faron says

    This is terrible coming from such a well known company. I found one of the banned blogs still in bing.com

  4. Mj says

    So negative SEO does happen. And just like what the last commenter said, it’s scary as hell. It makes it really harder for the website owner now that he has to monitor all of the links pointing to his site, in case someone is doing it for him. I hate to say this, but it seems that the way to outrank your competition is to build these types of links to their sites. Tsk.

  5. Vicki says

    As the owner of a local ServiceMaster franchise in Bentonville AR I have become interested in seo. To clarify, the blog posts that were considered bad were bad because they did not relate to the line of business the customer was in?

  6. says

    Vicki,
    It’s not necessarily the fact that the blog posts were bad because they did not related to the line of business the customer was in…Google has a problem with low quality, auto-generated content.

  7. Greg Fowler says

    Bill,

    Where is your +1 for your page? To plus it to my plus 1 page?

    This is a great article and thanks for exposing the nonsense by those that are purporting to be great link builders and SEO’rs. Excellent work and I would love to spread this article all over the place even after Google’s Penguin, this junky link building is going on by large companies?

  8. Cory says

    For all the businesses that are using this service I have sympathy for, because they probably had no idea OrangeSoda was going to be doing the work on the back-end.

    Aside from that, I love that such a big company is signing up so many companies for this shoddy SEO service and lowering the value of all those sites so businesses that are not following these tactics can see improvements.

    This is all outsourced work anyway, so in the end, you get what you pay for.