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Ill-Gotten Backlinks Will Send the Wrong Signals

Being a Jerk Can Create Buzz, but It’s Horrible for Your Brand

Bryson Meunier penned an op-ed over at Search Engine Land about the power of being a jerk online. Bryson suggests that Google’s algorithm—which is supposed to favor valuable, useful content—is actually skewed to reward rude behavior. In other words, Bryson says, if you want a lot of backlinks in a hurry, just be a jerk.

To be clear, Bryson isn’t suggesting this as a valid link-building strategy. Quite the opposite: he views it as a flaw inherent in Google’s method to ranking websites, one that he considers quite serious. And if his analysis of how jerkish behavior succeeds were accurate, we’d agree with him. But in a world of controversial Facebook posts, celebrity rants and political slam ads, it might surprise a lot of people to see just how much power bad behavior has online.

ethics-integrityThere’s no doubt that controversy gets attention. Many a troll has won their 15 minutes of fame simply by saying bad things loudly, and it seems that a new outrage sweeps across social media every week. But Bryson’s concern is that this burst of viral attention translates directly to PageRank and search influence from Google—and that’s where we believe he’s wrong.

The crux of Bryson’s argument is how much weight Google gives to backlinks. Each time someone freely chooses to link to your site without compensation (a “natural link”), Google takes it as a vote in favor of your site’s influence. Sites that get lots of natural backlinks are seen as valuable, because a lot of people have clearly found them worth referencing. These links have even more power when they come from reputable sources like media websites.

This is where Bryson believes that jerkish behavior dupes the system. Obviously, if you do something online that upsets a lot of people, you generate a whole lot of buzz, a whole lot of backlinks, and a whole lot of SEO power. Right?

alex-from-targetSort of. As an example, Bryson points to a recent viral trend on Twitter: teens made the #AlexFromTarget hashtag an overnight sensation thanks to a single photo of a cute teen boy working at Target. A marketing company—which had nothing to do with this hashtag—claimed credit for the viral success. That’s pretty jerkish.

The company eventually retracted its claim, but not before achieving a huge bump in its Twitter stats, and over 120 new backlinks in a single day. As Bryson points out, some of those links are from high authority domains.

So that seems to prove Bryson’s point: being a jerk (in fact, seriously violating professional ethics) snagged this business a bunch of natural links. But does that really help their SEO or result in more customers? Our bet is no. That’s for three reasons:

  1. This is short-lived: If this kind of unethical behavior is a company’s SEO gambit, they might expect a temporary bump in visibility but nothing long-term. Google has a long memory and distinguishes between sites that get 120 links a day for a few days, and those that get links with more regularity. If this jerkish company’s competitors are using actual SEO tactics, which involve creating value and enriching a site’s user experience, then those competitors will win out.
  2. Organic traffic does not always equal customers: In this case, the links are serving two main audiences: those who are gaga over a cute teen boy, and those who are outraged about a hoax. Neither of those groups is looking to hire a marketing company. In general, unless your brand is built on being annoying or controversial—like a radio talk show host—getting lots of links from people saying how annoying or controversial you are is not going to translate to sales.
  3. Google is always improving: Current algorithms may not penalize rudeness, but that’s no guarantee for the future. Google has continually dazzled marketers with its ability to take black hat tactics off the table, and any small boosts from “jerkishness” today could translate to serious penalties tomorrow.

All in all, we agree with the spirit of Bryson’s comments: It’s annoying when bad behavior gets attention for a brand, and many commentators link to bad guys without realizing they’re feeding them traffic. (We concur that it’s better not to link to someone, or to use a nofollow link, when commenting on bad behavior.)

But that’s a far cry from saying that Google’s algorithm rewards this kind of behavior. In order to monopolize on the supposed loophole, a business would have to continually infuriate people online to get ongoing buzz and backlinks—without simultaneously alienating their customer base. Very few niches can do that, and even where it is possible it could earn Google’s wrath in the next update.

An easier tactic? Create value and do it often. We can help.