An Outreach Experiment for Paid Links in the Travel Industry

Update: Given the various comments this piece has generated, I just wanted to reiterate that the point of this article isn’t to criticise travel bloggers or SEOs. If you own a blog, it is your choice to charge for links if you want. If you’re an SEO, you can buy links if you want. The type of outreach conducted in this experiment is not what I’d normally do and is not what I’d recommend other SEOs do, but it was necessary in this case. I accept it may have altered the outcome of the experiment slightly but not significantly.

One of the common problems I come across when doing outreach is bloggers replying but asking to be paid for the link. Β It seems to be a common problem for others too judging by the number of times that other SEOs have asked me how to overcome this problem. Β The fact is, it is a hard problem to overcome, only once can I recall turning a paid link into a free one from my own experience. Β To be honest, most of the time I’ll just make a note of the domain selling links and move on.

I decided to run an experiment and get some hard numbers on this. This is by no means definitive or a full representation of the travel industry, I’m one person doing this test, hence the relatively low numbers, but since very few people publish this kind of stuff, I still wanted to share.

The numbers are probably not as bad as I expected, but are things only going to get worse?

Also let me say this (I wish I didn’t have to make it this clear): I am NOT outing anyone here. I am not publishing the list of who I contacted, who replied and who were prepared to sell links. If you happen to work in this industry and are in the business of buying / selling links, that is your choice. I very much doubt this post will change anything for you.

Bottom line outcomes:

  • Of 122 emails sent, I got 53 replies
  • Of those 53 replies 26 would only link to me if I paid for it
  • Of the 53 replies, 10 immediately said yes to a guest post
  • The remainder, 17 wanted more information, neither saying yes or asking for money
  • 9 people quoted prices in their reply, the average cost of a link was $285

The experiment itself:

  • To keep things fair, the same email was sent to each website but was personalised to that website in several ways
  • I was offering a guest post but didn’t mention which company I was representing
  • I didn’t mention that I wanted a link in return
  • I didn’t offer money
  • I only contacted travel websites
  • I used a persona, not my own name for obvious reasons

A few thoughts occurred when I looked at these numbers:

  • Have SEOs brought this upon ourselves?
  • What would Googles opinion be on this? What’s the advice for SEOs?
  • Is the problem only going to get worse?
  • Is this normal and the same across other industries?

I’m not drawing conclusions based on this rather small experiment, but here are some of my own thoughts.

Is this our fault?

Judging by the wording used in the replies (see the section on advertising below) it is clear than these bloggers are quite savvy when it comes to SEO and they know the value of a link. Is this a result of constant outreach emails from SEOs? Have we sent so many that they have realised that they can make money from this? To be honest, I don’t blame them! Blogs can be a nice source of income and as they are a hobby for most people, who wouldn’t want an extra few dollars a month?

It’s supply and demand. These bloggers have seen a demand for something and decided to charge for what they have.

It is tempting

I can see why SEOs would say yes when offered the chance of an easy link, it can sometimes be hard to just get a reply from a blogger so when they do reply, it can be tempting to just accept it and pay up. It is still clearly against Google guidelines and as mentioned previously, I just make a note of these and move on if I’m outreaching for a client, many wouldn’t though.

They didn’t want to sell me advertising

Advertising online has always been normal, you pay for exposure on another website and get traffic to your own. But it was clear from the replies I got that I was not being quoted advertising rates, many mentioned “links” “SEO” “backlinks” “anchor text” which is not what I’d expect if the blogger was just trying to sell me a banner ad. They knew what I wanted and the value of it.

How hard is it for Google to do this?

I’m one person doing this test and I can easily repeat it, scale and gather data for 1000s of travel blogs. What could Google do?

I know that Google have always verged on the side of caution and have always wanted to build scalable, algorithmic solutions to web spam and paid links rather than manual work. But this has changed in the last year, Google are getting aggressive and have shown they will take manual action when needed (or pushed).

I wonder what would happen to the link graph if Google did this for say 100,000 blogs and turned off the PageRank for all websites that sold links.

How much is a link worth?

The average quoted price was $285. The highest quoted price was $700! Is this worth it? I can certainly think of better ways to spend $700 on a client’s SEO campaign that would probably get them more links without buying them.

50 thoughts on “An Outreach Experiment for Paid Links in the Travel Industry”

  1. From a blogger’s perspective, I want you to buy advertising on my site. Ask for a link, and I’ll turn you down. Ask me to sneak a link into something I’m writing, and I’ll get very angry. Buy an advert at the bottom of the post and I don’t really care what format it’s in. I’d prefer a banner, sure, but a “This post has been kindly funded by” sponsorship with a 75 word blurb telling people – not Google – what you do is fine too. And a link to the company name is fair enough.

    The problem I have is exactly the sort of approach you made – vague, untailored approaches from people who don’t say what company they’re representing, offering (almost certainly) bad free content.

    I’m not interested in any guest post you can give me – if it was any good, you would have published it on your own site and got links organically from it being good and worth sharing/ linking to.

    I want money. You want people to visit your client’s site. There’s surely a middle way in this outside the devious economy of slipping in undisclosed paid links and publishing any old crap in return for money.

    1. I want money. You want people to visit your client’s site.

      Yeah, but we want also visits from search engines, which means we wants links, but since Google created which-hunt atmosphere around linkbuilding we need to act as if we don’t want to pay You for the link hence we can’t tell You “I want to buy a link on Your website”.

    2. “I’m not interested in any guest post you can give me….”

      Good SEOs will also have huge amounts of data and experience on posts that do well, far more than the average travel blogger.

        1. A guest post is basically a free advert.

          So You want to tell us that You’ve never been offered great content (not advert) in exchange for a link? You are either unlucky or Your blog might be not as good as You think.

          If the post is genuinely great and worth reading, put it up on your client’s site and I’ll happily link to it for free.

          With optimized anchor text? I highly doubt it. Also we’ll still have to inform You somehow about this great piece of content You can link to (however we shouldn’t mention straightforward that we want You to link to it, because, judging from Your previous comments, You will refuse to do so and offer an advert instead).

          1. If I see it (generally due to building up a consistent body of good work or it being brought to my attention by someone I respect/ both) and it’s relevant, then I’ll link to it where appropriate. As for your optimised anchor text, that’s the sort of thing that Google’s rightly trying to get rid of.

          2. They try to rid of it so hard, that it works like a charm for spammers (and legit websites if we are at it – check GoDaddy). Sorry but I don’t buy fairy tales from Google.

    3. Hi David,

      Thanks for the comment, I appreciate getting a blogger’s perspective on this.

      Just to say, I’m not usually in the habit of making an approach that doesn’t say who I represent. I actually use my own name when doing outreach so that bloggers can Google me if they wish – a name like mine isn’t hard to find πŸ™‚

      I get those approaches to this blog and I delete them straight away.

      I would push back on the assumption that all guest post content is crap. If an SEO is representing a brand and that brand will be associated with the content, then good SEOs would not write crap. Brands do not want to be associated with bad content written on their behalf.

      Having said that, not all SEOs have high editorial standards and don’t care about the content, they just want the link. That is what they need to compete, it’s reality unfortunately.

      On the same unfortunate note, some travel bloggers don’t have high editorial controls either so they will accept what SEOs give them.

      Thanks again for the comment.


      1. I’d agree with that. Low standards seem to be the norm on both sides of the fence. My blog’s small fry, so most of the approaches I get are of the borderline spam variety. I’m sure SEOs are pimping out some decent quality content somewhere, but it’s still basically advertorial. And advertorial that isn’t marked as advertorial is crossing an ethical line that a lot of people don’t seem to have a problem about crossing.

        Personally, I won’t publish any advertorial. If people want to sponsor what I am writing/ publishing anyway, then great – that’s a model I’d like to work towards. But that’s a personal decision.

        But at the moment, the whole system seems to be about sneaking behind Google’s back. If Google is clamping down on paid links, then great. That’s a good thing for the web. It might be a bad thing for companies (and their SEO agencies) intent on gaming Google rather than investing in quality products and genuinely engaging content on their own site. But boo hoo – no-one ever said SEO agencies have a right to exist in this eco-system anyway.

        The guest posting model has a year or two left in it. It will die, because it’s against the quality, original content model of the web that Google’s algorithm is continually being tweaked to provide (in theory, at least).

        Bloggers are charging for links (in whatever form – though guest posts is what SEOs are currently trying to push as it’s cheaper) because they’re valuable. They’re valuable because paid links are a dicey business. It’s the same reason why alcohol is more expensive in countries where it’s prohibited or why taxi drivers will charge a lot more to go into high crime estates.

        And while SEO agencies (not all – but a lot) continue to focus on pushing the dodgy stuff rather than making the stuff not dodgy, then offers of free content are likely to be treated with suspicion at best.

          1. I was going to say I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about. Then I looked and saw it. Hadn’t noticed it before – seems like a dodgy plugin, which has now been deactivated. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

          2. I really appreciate your thoughts on this. As a freelance writer and editor I often get comments on my guest posts that effectively say “What? A Guest Post? That’s widely shared? And well-researched? WHAT TH-!”

            It’s a real shame that people have this reaction, because THIS SHOULD BE THE NORM.

            Every guest post writing guideline out there says “create content that’s BETTER than what’s on your own site.” I’ll never understand people who think they’ll get real value from a valueless post. It makes me a bit cross to be honest.

            I put a lot of myself into my posts, usually writing on behalf of clients who don’t have the ability or will to set up an onsite blog.

  2. Hi Paddy

    I work a lot in the travel niche and noticed this a lot over the past year, especially on higher quality travel blogs. A lot of travel bloggers also copy each others rate cards, so you get lots of sites now wanting “$300” to publish a guest post. They don’t see the value of great guest posts as they believe their readers only want their content. Egos.


    1. Hi Gareth,

      Yes there was a bit of commonality in the rates quoted but not enough to really draw conclusions. It did hint at a lot of sharing of rates cards, plus many of them genuinely participate in communities so this topic will often be raised.

      Thanks for the comment.


    2. most travel blogs are personal stories of individuals. its not ego, its having your own voice in your own damn website.

  3. I think the SEO world has done this to ourselves. The links, sadly, are only one aspect of a bigger problem. The real problem is the issue of undisclosed advertising and that, in many countries, is illegal.

    1. Very good point and one I didn’t address. It would be interesting to see how many of these blogs would disclose the payment, I may see if I can go back over them and see if they have public disclosure pages.

      1. Out of interest – on a related note; was this an actual client engagement ?

        My thoughts are around you not mentioning the client you were representing. You can run this test purely to see how many blogs accept guest posts or how many blogs accept guest posts/content on behalf of a company.

        I wrestle with the wisdom of/of not being crystal clear that Company Y is paying to do this; not just for disclosure, but success rates, whether it matters, whether we’re building a new rod for our back if we “smuggle” links or positive mentions, whether recognisable brand names matter to bloggers, etc.

        1. No it wasn’t an actual client engagement, it was purely a test.

          I agree with you about not mentioning the client and the implications of this. It did cross my mind but I wasn’t in a position to do anything about this unfortunately. I wasn’t prepared to do this kind of outreach for a client, neither was I will to go to the trouble of creating a whole brand to represent just for a test πŸ™‚

          From my own experience, approaching on behalf of well-known brands hasn’t made massive impacts across the board. Yes it does grab peoples attention sometimes, but if I do outreach for a “non-brand” I don’t seem to suffer too much for it.

      1. SEOs created the link economy when they started to buy and trade links. Google added value to links.

        You didn’t see early SEOs moaning that Google created a “text economy” back when hidden text was listed as spam for the first time in the guidelines.

        You didn’t see early SEOs moaning the first time Google explicitly said guestbook links were no good. It didn’t happen because the SEO community hadn’t invested in guestbook manipulation/buying/trading systems in the way they later did with paid links.

        1. Don’t blame the player, etc.

          Google created the rules. They wrote the algorithm. They placed too much value on link-based signals and rewarded link spam. It’s cause and effect.

          1. That’s like blaming Porsche when someone steals a 911. (If Porsche didn’t make such vaulable cars and reward sellers of used Porsches, people wouldn’t be tempted to steal Porsches–so any theft of a Porsche must be Porsche’s fault.)

    2. Anytime there’s a good strategy, there’s only a few months to year time span where you can use it. After that, people in the SEO industry will inevitably abuse it. I don’t blame anyone, but the end result means there are no quick wins in this game.

  4. As you said, I don’t blame them. If I had people ready to pay for these I’m sure I’d consider taking it. As would all of us.

  5. I think its a mixture of SEOs doing it to themselves but also Bloggers and webmasters getting more savvy. They know SEOs need links and they know they can turn them into a commodity.

  6. Hey Paddy,

    Thanks for putting these numbers together and letting everyone know that outreaching is not an easy task. I have had a very similar experiences outreaching for a finance client of mine.

    Let me tell you, I only had a 5% success rate. Out of the 200 websites/blogs that we outreached to, pretty much 50% did not reply and 45% of them expected to be paid. A couple of them even tried to upsell me with other websites that they owned and kept emailing, bugging me to post on their site. Offering me bulk discounts, etc.

    IMHO, I think bloggers are just getting savvier, understand SEO value and want to make a quick buck. Part of me also think that we have brought this on ourselves. I reckon it would be matter of time before the big G will start cracking down on Guest Posting.

    Thanks for a great post.

  7. Completely agree. I write you from Spain and here happens exactly the same. Our figures are so similar to yours. There are just a few travel blog that are open to an exchange or participate as a guest blog. ItΒ΄s a very hard work!!

  8. Personally I think that had you tailored your outreach email to contain content ideas, links to fantastic works you had produced in the past and used your real identity that 49% figure would have been reduced. (Obviously you didn’t do this for the reasons you mentioned!)

    Even with this factored in, you will always get Webmasters that want payment, the way round this is to produce fantastic, shareable content on your own site and seed it out to the sites that may be interested in it. There will still be people that aren’t interested but it does often open unpaid options in sites that previously wanted payment.

    Interesting experiment and well worth sharing! πŸ™‚

  9. Personally I think that had you tailored your outreach email to contain content ideas, links to fantastic works you had produced in the past and used your real identity that 49% figure would have been reduced. (Obviously you didn’t do this for the reasons you mentioned!)

    Even with this factored in, you will always get Webmasters that want payment, the way round this is to produce fantastic, shareable content on your own site and seed it out to the sites that may be interested in it. There will still be people that aren’t interested but it does often open unpaid options in sites that previously wanted payment.

    Interesting experiment and well worth sharing! πŸ™‚

  10. Great post! My question is did any of these blogs specifically say they did sponsored posts for a fee or did you completely steer clear of these? I know in my niche many websites blatantly sell “sponsored posts” and emphasize the value for SEO.

  11. Great post and experiment. I’m sure every niche is different and I’d guess that travel is leaning heavily towards having more sites ask for payment because of how competitive and aggressive the niche is.

    As far as why this is happening, the answer is easy and you’ve seen it in the other comments here. Its that Google places the value on a link, inherently, by awarding higher rankings to sites with relevant, contextual, links. SEOs perpetuate and accelerate the market, but Google sets it. We are just playing their game.

    I imagine that you charge for your guest blogging and outreach services? Well then, whether or not the publisher is paid for the link, SOMEONE is getting paid for the link. Ahh, its the age old realization that NO link that is consciously sought after is unpaid.

    Yours truly,
    Devil’s Advocate πŸ™‚

    1. True, however paying an agency to link build on your behalf i.e. paying for their services, not for the links is NOT against Google guidelines. πŸ™‚

  12. How I wish we could go back to the days when webmasters freely linked to other sites. It seemed almost every site had a “links” or resources page with links to their favorite sites, even their competitors.

    I still don’t like guest blog posting as a strategy. Or any sort of active link requesting. The ROI is becoming poor. I like to focus on creating good content, building relationships, and passively mentioning a site/article to others in the same industry. If they link to it, fine, if not, that’s fine too.

    People want too much immediate gratification, but the best strategy is not to push people into linking to you, but to provide them value. Sooner or later, they’ll link to you, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised because you never asked for it.

  13. Nice case study…i think it would also be relevant to mention what was the average authority of those blogs. Info such as: alexa ranking (aproximated), root page rank, average social shares…specially for the ones that asked cash for a guest post.

  14. What you have to understand is that this kind of ‘outreach’ is wasting my time. SEO companies are attempting to advertise your clients on my website for free. Why would a business owner do that? People who run content centered websites understand that a single article/blog post has little value on its own. SEO companies act like they’re doing us a favor givings us all this free blog content.

    I get HUNDREDS of guest posts requests from SEO companies a week for the network of websites I own. 99% of the articles that people attempt to get us to publish are pure poorly written drivel that have NOTHING to do with our websites. I have to charge money to maintain quality and weed out the agencies using third world writers writing irrelevant content.

    What makes it worse is the automation that companies use. I see the same exact emails over and over, they often get my name wrong or my website wrong, the don’t make it clear who they’re working for. The worst are people who claim to be freelance writers claiming to be building their portfolio and then I let them submit a post and its filled with their clients links they didn’t disclose. The lying is the worst of all.

    My business is not a charity seeking to boost the SEO ranking of other companies. So, of course I charge other companies to acces the platform that I’ve built.

    That said, Distilled is pretty much the only SEO agency that I’ll publish free guest posts from just because they make the effort to build a relationship with me and suggest good articles and write good content.

    1. Hi Jonathan,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I totally understand your position and I’m in agreement with you in terms of not liking the mass produced, automated emails that are sent out to bloggers. I don’t think this kind of outreach is good for the future of the web or the relationship between SEOs or bloggers.

      Having said that, it does make the job of genuine SEOs a lot harder and puts them in a tough position when a blogger asks for cash. I’m not sure what the middle ground is.

      And as a Distilled employee, I’m glad that our efforts in building relationships rather than email spam pay off πŸ™‚

  15. Requests for link exchanges, offers of guest posts, requests to buy “sponsored posts”….They all represent unwanted clutter in my inbox. The nature of the requests may change change, but the solicitations go on. And on. And on.

  16. Interesting stuff Paddy. I’ve just started in the Travel industry and pretty much 100% of replies have come back saying if its a commercial link then they wanted paying. The posts we write are not your normal rubbish just to get a link. We write well informed, interesting posts but this does not seem to factor in. My worry going forward is how much can you rely on your own site content for links – really!

  17. I wouldn’t pay jack for a link, especially for $285. Here’s why. I can BUY a link for $400 from the Better Business Bureau which buys credibility. I can also use $285 and join a big Chamber of Commerce and network with real people. Oh, and you still get the link from the Chamber of Commerce.

    I would rather build a mutual relationship with another blogger. Many times someone hits me up with a guest blog post and I look at the quality of the site and it’s subpar, so no need to link there.

  18. Although it is becoming harder to get backlinks in general, getting quality backlinks is widely becoming the norm which is good as people and SEO’s focus on quality not quantity due to Google demanding more of that recently. All in all great post

  19. Hi Paddy,

    Great post. I think Paid links although against Google’s T’c and C’s is here to stay, links have value and it’s really supply and demand it’s just how the market has evolved. My assumption is that your research proves my theory. The smart bloggers will be quite covert about price onsite but offsite communication it’s like you’ve been bombarded with 1000 different options (GP, banners etc)!!!

    The Travel Industry is by in a far the greediest bloggers and hard work to deal with at the best of times. I’ve come across all sorts of community networks or what I call Cartels who racketeer prices to ensure their members get the highest price possible. Personally if Google are fair dinkum about stopping paid links they’d get a team of ex-link builders to contact bloggers and if they are overt in their reply report them for selling links!

  20. Great experiment, Paddy. The quotations are remarkable. With the advent of extensive social media – which is actually becoming a way of life for almost everybody – indeed, it is not highly appropriate to buy links for SEO campaign anymore. With effectively courteous outreach and a little bit of creativity, natural link building efforts are readily achievable.

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