Sponsorships & Donations have been a popular link building strategy for years and seem to have continued effectiveness despite Google’s recent crackdowns on link manipulation. This type of link building technique is definitely black hat, which we usually advise against due to the risks of a penalty down the road. However, in this article I’m going to make the case for why you should consider using this tactic as part of your link building strategy.
What are Sponsorship Links?
This is where a business sponsors or donates to a local non profit such as a school, charity, local sporting team etc. or other entity such as an industry event, and in return they get a link from their website. The link is usually placed on a ‘sponsors’ page and is accompanied by the business’s logo. Sponsorships are usually money but can also be a donation of products or services. They might be a once off or an ongoing payment each year. The level of donation required in order to get the link will differ from organisation to organisation.
Why are they Black Hat?
If a SEO strategy or tactic is ‘Black Hat’ it means it violates the search engine guidelines in some way and potentially leaves the business using that technique open to the possibility of getting a penalty from the search engine if their use of the technique is discovered. Giving something of value such as money or products in exchange for a link is a clear violation of Google’s link manipulation guidelines, here’s an excerpt from their examples;
Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link
The Case for Sponsorship Links
Despite the tough words from Google in their guidelines and my warnings above, I still think there’s a good case for including these types of links in your SEO strategy. My argument for this is threefold;
- Due to the nature of these links and the types of organisations giving them it would be difficult for Google to dish out harsh penalties for those using them
- These links still appear to be effective for ranking websites
- Link building for small businesses where resources are very limited is tough task which is made even more tough when their competitors can go ahead and buy links using this technique without any consequences
Low Penalty Risk
There’s two reasons why I think there’s a low risk of penalty even if you are discovered to be benefiting from sponsorship links;
- Sponsorships and donations have been around long before Google and the internet existed so its difficult to judge the intent of those getting these types of links. Are they trying to inflate their Google rankings or just trying to give money to a good cause?
- In other instances of link buying, Google has penalised both the buyer and seller but its hard to imagine them doing either when we’re talking about businesses giving money to a good cause that they believe in. I can imagine it would be a bit of a PR disaster for Google if they were to start penalising charity and school websites and their all important donors
Given these two points I think a penalty is highly unlikely except in extreme cases where the intent to manipulate is obvious. What is more likely is that the links will simply be given no value within the ranking algorithm. However, as I outline below, these types of links still seem to deliver great rankings despite the fact that they should be pretty easy for Google to spot.
Of course we can’t know for sure (due to algorithm secrecy) but it appears that these types of links still have the ability to boost a website’s search engine rankings. The websites that give these links often score quite highly on the various link measurement metrics we have (PageRank, mozRank, Trust Flow etc.).
Link Building Difficulty
Our clients are primarily small businesses so we know how difficult it is to build white hat links at low budget levels. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if they were on a level playing field with their competitors but that’s simply not the case. Whether their competitors know it or not, their sponsorships and donations are earning them valuable links that are greatly increasing their search engine rankings and traffic. When you consider the difficulty of building white hat links, this kind of built in advantage puts the average small business in a challenging position.
In this article I’ve focused purely on sponsorships and donations as a link building technique and ignored the other benefits of making these kinds of contributions. Obviously donating to a worthy cause that matches your and your business’s culture can have great benefits in good will and just making you feel good about helping out those less fortunate than you. If you need something extra to convince you then these added benefits might be enough.
If you want to get these added benefits without the possibility of a penalty (which I think is very low, see argument above) then you can always ask that any links you receive should be ‘no followed.’
Sponsorship and donations links are rampant in so many of the local industries we’ve analysed. If you own or work for a small business who’s trying to use a white hat strategy but are struggling to compete with websites that are able to buy these powerful links so effortlessly and without consequence, then the old adage “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” might be worth considering.
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