Nate Dame's picture

Is Zemanta a Link Scheme?

Zemanta logo

Link building is a confusing world for a lot of business owners today. There's a whole bunch of crazy people telling you what you should and shouldn't do, and a whole lot more telling you to pay them to do it for you.

To (hopefully) bring some clarity, I often leave people with this simple litmus test: If your link building strategies are not encouraging real people to link to you naturally, then you're probably wasting your time and money. Most (if not all) link schemes will hurt your rankings pretty quickly these days.

It's pretty easy to sniff out link schemes. Automated systems that produce thousands of "SEO links," schemes selling 300 .edu/.gov links for $45, or pretty much anything else that sounds too good to be true are just that: too good to be true. But what about Zemanta? From an SEO standpoint, is it nothing more than a link scheme? Could links from Zemanta's network end up hurting your SEO efforts?

The Zemanta Background

For those that haven't heard, Zemanta is a platform used by many bloggers (including this one) to enrich their content. The Zemanta plugin gives you a super neat set of tools, while you write, so you can find related content on other sites to link out to. The plugin also provides easy access to free images to embed.

Way back in 2010, Rand Fishkin endorsed Zemanta as a tool to earn direct links. Ever since, savvy web publishers and SEOs have used Zemanta to earn gobs of links that seem to have made there way unscathed through the Panda and Penguin updates. I have yet to see any report of negative impact on rankings due to links earned via this platform (if I missed any, please let me know).

Cold Hard Truth: Does Zemanta Improve Rankings?

You might have been wondering whether Zemanta promotes itself as a service whose inbound links can improve rankings. They sure do, which I find a little funny. Rand mentions that they claim to have "been approved by Google's search quality folks as a white-hat service (which makes sense since all they're doing is showing advertising content to writers, who then determine if they want to link or not)." But I have a very hard time seeing Google give their blessing to a service that essentially allows you to purchase links.

Paid links? That's right, Zemanta is pay-to-play too. The more you pay, the more bloggers see your content as suggested links as they write their content. True, it is still up to bloggers to decide to add your links. But the fact of the matter remains: the links you get is in direct proportion to the cash you put down.

If these "paid" links actually contributed to the ranking and traffic decreases we saw after Penguin, I'm sure we would have heard a huge stink about it, and Zemanta probably wouldn't continue to grow like it is today. As of right now, Google does not appear to treat Zemanta links as paid links. So do they contribute to ranking improvements?

Clear Link Footprints

It's very easy to determine why bloggers use Zemanta. First of all, by default, Zemanta loves to drop their own logo on the bottom of posts (by default - you can delete it).

Enhanced by Zemanta screenshot

The code for any related posts added with Zemanta include plenty of Zemanta references (again this is by default and you could always edit by hand).

And even links added deep in blog content includes a tell-tale sign that Zemanta was used.

Zemanta in text links

Dear super-savvy-link-builder: Do you think the hundreds of PhD's over at Googleplex never caught the common characteristics of Zemanta links? Maybe even before you even heard of Zemanta?

My guess is that, long-term, Zemanta links will have little to no impact on search rankings or search traffic. This is primarily due to the distinct footprints in any Zemanta link profile. Google can easily tell what links were made via Zemanta and ignore them. This might even be happening already.

What Does Zemanta Say?

I was able to do a brief email interview with some folks at Zemanta to find out if they would directly endorse their product as an SEO link building service. They were pretty dodgey about answering that question directly and mostly talked about their focus on a tool for content marketers.

The closest they got was this quote: "We're happy with many of our clients reporting increased both referral and search traffic after marketing their content through Zemanta service." Toby Evers - SVP Morpheus Media

Hmm. Careful Toby. I don't think those Zemanta links will help your clients' SEO forever.

The good news is that you can still earn links the right way! Build relationships, develop awesome content, and be the guy everybody wants to hang out with online.

Happy hunting my friends.

Comments welcome, especially if you disagree! It would be awesome to see a detailed study of the direct impact inbound Zemanta links have on rankings. You're welcome to steal my idea and put that together ;).

Nate Dame's picture

Nate Dame is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur. His digital marketing career began in the non-profit world where he quickly realized the enormous opportunities that most companies missed online. As founder and CEO of SEOperks, he has driven revenue improvement campaigns for Fortune 500 companies and small businesses alike while training digital agencies around the world.

Nate has found that most websites can quickly drive high-value traffic by focusing on key optimization strategies. The problem is that too many SEO campaigns focus on archaic or even risky tactics that attract the wrong traffic, or no traffic at all. Nate's training helps business owners create specific, measurable SEO strategies that deliver ROI far into the future.

Nate is an avid family man and his favorite pastime is relaxing with his beautiful wife and energetic son around their home in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. You can follow Nate on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.



Jon Cooper's picture

Google approves of Zemanta. They've said (don't know whether it was Matt Cutts or not) that it's white hat, seeing that bloggers are only given suggestions and that it's under editorial review.

Jon Cooper's picture

To back up my last comment, Rand mentioned that they were approved by Google in this post (according to their team, so not 100% sure, but it's where I'm getting it from):

Nate Dame's picture

Thanks Jon. I linked to that same post in my post actually (just saying, I do my homework =) ), but I couldn't find any more evidence to that effect - including the gentleman I interviewed at Zemanta, who would neither confirm nor deny that Zemanta was in fact "approved" by Google.

Patrick Hathaway's picture

Interesting point Nate. I think Zemanta skirts on the boundaries of paid links - as the blogger still has to make the editorial decision to link, which I think is crucial in the process.

If you pay and get links directly in return, well that is a different story. But all you pay for with the Zemanta is the opportunity to get links in return. If your content stinks and no one links to it, then you still have to pay.

That said, if Google starts to notice a correlation between poor results and sites that have a lot of Zemanta links (I agree they are easy to detect) then maybe they might start doing something about it.

I would doubt however that they'd look to actively penalise sites for Zemanta links, rather simply devalue them.

Do you think the theory could go the other way? i.e. Google recognise a correlation between good results and Zemanta links and therefore give them EXTRA weight?

Nate Dame's picture

Yes good points Patrick. I very much doubt it would go the other way. If it did, we'd never know about it.

In studying the link profile for a site that I know for a fact pays Zemanta for that "exposure" to bloggers, I can tell you that 100% of the links I have seen come in are from low authority sites, and maybe 20% of them are considerably off topic. The rest of the 80% are "safe" links in relevant topics etc., so they should be perfectly safe and potentially valuable.

But it's still "pay to play". It's not allowing the pure best content to rise to the top. It's bringing the content with the deepest budgets to the top. So philosophically... Yeah it might be a stretch. But 2 years ago, the thought of Penguin was a stretch. Gotta love making a living on something with so much uncertainty ;)

Anahit's picture

1. Build quality cotnent that is first and foremost the best way you can build quality links to your website. If your cotnent adds value and unique, people will link to your site without you even asking for it.Look at your competition amd see what they're doing right/wrong. Analyze their site and find out what areas are they the weakest and not providing then come up with something that they don't have. That will create the buzz about your website and buzz on the web means links to your website2. Use linkbait when developing cotnent, think of cotnent that will actually entice people to link to you. You may have compiled a list of resources, or write a blog that is witty and funny, or videos that are laugh-out loud. Add something exciting in your website that will compel others to link to you3. Give away an ebook, tutorial or software, with the requirement that others can use it and offer it on their site as additional resource but has to link back to your site.4. Be a Google News provider. Whether you accept and publish press releases or provides cotnent that Google News accepts, having your cotnent in Google News exposes your site to blogs and websites looking for cotnent.5. Write articles. A growing number of article submission directories and sites now use the rel=nofollow tag so make it a stipulation that your article can only be used if live links are placed in your resource page6. Press releases = regularly issue press releases but target those submission sites that can get you into Google News and Yahoo News, among others. Many websites are looking for news items, and press releases are an important source,There are many other techniques. The key is to avoid those strategies that seem too spammy (e.g. going through forums and blogs and mindlessly posting your link) and concentrate on natural forms of linking.

OnePopz's picture

We've been using Zemanta for a while now, and it seems like a great way to get great, followed links and also a decen traffic exchange.

So far we've not noticed any probems and have see our site linked from a number of decent PR sites. However, one thing that seems strange is that we can't seem to find these links in any link tools such as Majestic or OpenSite Explorer.

Why would the links not be showing there?

We've been using Zemanta for over 6 months, so that should be plenty of time for links to show.

Any ideas?

Nate Dame's picture

Glad Zemanta is working for you in terms of referral traffic. Several of our clients use it successfully for that as well - the question is still, do the links provide SEO (organic traffic) value? I still say no but would love to see some data to prove me wrong.

Not sure why Majestic or OSE wouldn't see those links. Did you try confirming the linking pages are in the OSE and Majestic index?

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