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).
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.
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 ;).