Ethical SEO: 5 Ideas for Responsible Link Building in 2020

Link building is still the #1 method of improving your SEO and it probably still will be for at least the next few years, but is it ethical?

10 years ago link building was a bit of a dark art. Now, there is some light. In some ways, we’ve come full circle with our SEO tactics because the old-school traditional marketing methods can now be applied within an SEO framework. This also means that the playing field is much more level than it was 10 years ago.

Despite this however there are still some iffy “dark art” tactics. Somehwat frustraintgly, some of these tactics can work. So it’s a mixed bag, but let me explain…


The internet quality paradox

Google is becoming more intelligent with it’s analysis of links, reviews, quality content, penalties for misguided tactics, image searches, voice searches and video searches. As well as that it is also strengthening it’s quality control on the web in westernised countries. And, while this is good, it is somewhat tainted as it could be argued that it pretty much has a monopoly on the web and can dictate matters – this is a topic for another day! For now, let’s just say Google is trying to help the quality of the web and it’s search results.

However, on the other side we have a web that’s snowballing with hate. At the BBC’s annual Richard Dimbleby lecture, inventor of the web, Tim Berners Lee spoke about the state of the internet, saying:

“The web does not have to stay the way it is now. It can be changed, it should be changed, it needs to be changed”.

The web is becoming a place dictated by clickbait, false information, trolls and exploitative reviews – take a look at how the authors at Vice created a fake restaurant in a shed in someone’s garden and got it to be the #1 restaurant in London on Trip Advisor.


Is SEO ethical?

With that paradox in mind, is SEO really ethical? Is marketing itself even ethical?

As marketers and digital marketers it’s our job to uncover the areas of a product or service that may be buried beneath the surface and shout about them at the top of a tower.

But often things are blarted out that aren’t worth shouting about, like “our customer service is excellent” when you have a 2 star average rating. Marketers sometimes have to “exaggerate truths” (and yes, that’s basically marketing speak for “we have to lie a bit”).

Hate the players or hate the game?

I went to BrightonSEO in the summer of 2019 and there was one presentation that really stuck with me. It had some excellent actionable tips with great examples and proven results. It was about spotting tabloid-like trends in the news and jumping on opportunities for the purpose of press coverage and links. Jumping on opportunities is nothing new in marketing. In it’s basic form it’s like making the most of the rush of Black Friday or Christmas.

But part of this presentation gave an example which took things to the extreme. It mentioned how there was an increase in online tabloid stories covering topics over choking incidents including a child choking to death. At no hesitation the presentation concluded how this was a great opportunity to produce some link-worthy content for one of their clients. The content was a guide based on what to do if a child was to start choking. Of course, in many ways this is useful information for an audience. But if the intent is to gain links, then I’d argue that the information is always going be secondary to the PR-ability or marketable nature of the content.

Similarly, this is a bit like when you see an aging footballer who was once a world-beater sign for a lower-tier club – Is the intent that the new signing will help the team win matches or is it that the owners will make a large profit off the sales of shirt? Either way, I think I’d draw the line before creating a piece of content out of dying children for the purpose of links.

On the other side, there are some content pieces where jumping on opportunities can be a lot less harmless. Dominoes recently created a campaign based on the rise in young people using the phrase “FOMO” (or in otehr words, “fear of missing out”). They changed the phrase to “JOMO” or the ‘joy of missing out’, which basically means, instead of going out with friends, you stay in and eat pizza. On a surface level this appears a lot let harmless. (OK it’s not an angel – fast food isn’t exactly helping people to stay healthy).

Like I say, the presentation at BrightonSEO actually had some excellent ideas and while I disagree with some of what they said, for me it’s more a case of “don’t hate the player, hate the game”.


Ethical ways to build links in 2020

In 2020 I think we can do much better ethically in SEO and get better results. I’m a firm believer that if you want to be #1 in Google you should have earn’t that spot legitimately and fairly. I also think that SEO doesn’t need to work in silo. These ideas below have other benefits to a business like good PR, networking or brand awareness. With that here are 5 ways to ethically build links:


#1 Sponsoring a charity

Finding a charity that you can support has so many benefits. But from an SEO point of view it’s also incredibly powerful. Firstly, gaining a link from the chosen charity’s site will be very beneficial partly because they tend to have a very powerful domain authority.

Secondly, the multiple PR coverage you can generate for the initial launch as well as fundraising events throughout the year can also help to create links from credible publications.

But you can also utilise your charity partner as an invaluable USP. Tom’s Shoes do this with their brilliant one-for-one policy. And, this USP will only help your conversion rates if you proactively mention it on your website.


– Multiple PR opportunities
– Linkbait
– Links
– User-experience
– Good reviews
– Drive social mentions


#2 Sponsoring a local sports team

Getting involved with a local sports team has many benefits. Often there are different sponsorship levels at differing costs but the cheapest could be just sponsoring their website which can gain you a great local link back. However opting for a higher level of sponsorship like being a shirt sponsor or banners at the ground (as well as a link on the website) can have further benefits such as engaging conversations and outreach on social media.

Again, the domain authority of a sports team’s websites tends to be quite strong too and very good for local SEO in particular.

Extra tip: Just be aware of NoFollow links that can sometimes happen on a sports team’s website.


– Links
– PR
– Content
– Social responsibility
– Team bonding
– Drive social mentions
– Local awareness


#3 Sponsoring a local event

Similarly with sports teams there are often many events that require sponsorship with which you can gain a backlink from. Awards nights in particular often have many sponsors required for all the individual awards. As well as that, these award sites often have a high domain authority score as they naturally pick up links.

Extra tip: With awards often comes a lot of PR coverage across many didn’t publications. Use a mention tracking tool (like Google alerts) to track mentions of the award you may have sponsored and then chase up with those sites to see if they can link back from your brand name.


– Links
– Automatic PR coverage
– Social responsibility
– Drive social mentions
– Networking


#4 Running your own network event

As well as sponsoring an event, you can also run your own event. This has multiple link opportunities, as there are often many local business networking websites that want to hear about local events. Those sites for starters usually provide you with a valuable DoFollow link.

Not only that, there are also multiple content opportunities which can help you build links once the event is finished. You could ask participants for a soundbite on a question to create a roundup article and then reach out to those participants and their websites.


– Links
– PR
– Multiple content opportunities
– Drive social mentions
– Networking


#5 PR

Creating and distributing a press release is still a great way to build backlinks. Sure, some of those links from publictions will be NoFollow, but thre will still be some very valuable DoFollow links around.

For your PR to have the best results your story needs to have a hook. Some hooks will be stronger than others. But if you start by gathering a list of publications and then grouping them into whether they are industry specialist, industry general, local or even national. You can then tailor your press release to that group. Often the industry specialist publications are the easiest to go for as they are the most relevant to your business. For example, if you were looking after a business that builds conservatries, there will be specialist online publications within that industry (I’ll hazard a guess at one being clled “Conservatories World!”). These publications are often crying out for news, so while you still need a hook your news doesn’t necessarily have to be groundbreaking.


– Links
– Networking and finding key contacts
– Drive social mentions


So, what does the future of ethical SEO look like?

As marketers our job is to highlight the strengths of a business, but often these days the lines between “highlighting” and simply “making up” strengths can be a bit blurry. When there is limited regulation people will do all they can to ensure they are succeeding as much as possible. While it’s true that this can be a case of “don’t hate the player hate the game”, that attitude is also the same as saying “not my problem”, and I think that’s not healthy.

The good news is that consumers are becoming much more aware of fake reviews and fake articles, as well as being driven not only by cost or quality but also the ethical nature of the product or service in question. The rise of the vegan industry in recent years highlights this. In other words, it might not necessarily be a choice of whether to produce ethical marketing or not, it could simply become just what you have to do.

If you have any questions about this post or need some help with your digital marketing & SEO, you can get in touch with me here.

rel=sponsored rel=ugc updates

What does Google’s new rel=sponsored and rel=ugc link attributes mean for SEO & websites?

On 10th September 2019 Google announced two new link attributes alongside the already widely used (for 15 years now!) rel=”nofollow” in new ways to identify the nature of links.

This is another way to tackle the SEO link spam and to help Google further understand the intention of different backlinks to improve their search results.

It also follows in the same vein as steps taken by Facebook and Instagram to label content that is sponsored or gifted. And, of course not forgetting that YouTube has a similar policy too.

This is quite a big update and one that could have fairly significant knock on ramifications for SEO. But oddly, it’s perhaps one that you don’t need to do too much about now.

So what does this all mean and what should you be doing now?

When and where should I be using rel=sponsored or rel=ugc?

Well, here’s what Google Webmasters original post states:

rel=”sponsored”: Use the sponsored attribute to identify links on your site that were created as part of advertisements, sponsorships or other compensation agreements.

rel=”ugc”: UGC stands for User Generated Content, and the ugc attribute value is recommended for links within user generated content, such as comments and forum posts.

rel=”nofollow”: Use this attribute for cases where you want to link to a page but don’t want to imply any type of endorsement, including passing along ranking credit to another page.

So for the rel=”sponsored” you could use this in future for any sponsored, advertorial or paid-for content. Many webmasters have been using the rel=”nofollow” for advertorial links thus far. This leads on to the next question…

Does this mean I have to go and change all my links?

No. Google say that you don’t need to change your existing links, but just start using the new method when convenient. They go on to state the following: “Any link that is clearly an ad or sponsored should use “sponsored” or “nofollow,” as described above. Using “sponsored” is preferred, but “nofollow” is acceptable.”

Do I have to change my nofollow links in comments to rel=ugc?

Again, you shouldn’t need to start rushing to change your code and getting your developer to make changes. Many have commented that this is going to be a struggle to implement and get “ordinary” users to implement these attributes.

However one good piece of news for WordPress users and Yoast users in particular is that an update looks to be on the horizon.

Do nofollow, sponsored and ugc attributes carry SEO juice?

So there’s a bit of a change here, particularly with nofollow. Nofollow links have previously carried no link juice (i.e. no SEO impact on your keyword rankings).

A side note: This was debatable amongst SEO professionals – did nofollow links maybe carry a little weighting? Well, a mixture of dofollow and nofollow links are typically a sign of a “healthier” backlink profile (as it shows you’re not just trying to chase dofollow links and manipulate too hard).

So what’s changed? Here’s what Google said…

When nofollow was introduced, Google would not count any link marked this way as a signal to use within our search algorithms. This has now changed. All the link attributes — sponsored, UGC and nofollow — are treated as hints about which links to consider or exclude within Search.

So it appears that Google has said that nofollow links will be used as a “hint”. This is a weird paradox of both a big and small change. It’s dramatic in that this is the first change in 15 years to the nofollow rule. SEO wizard Barry Schwartz puts it well:

All external links on Wikipedia are nofollowed, if those links start counting, and you have a lot of links from Wikipedia, you might see your rankings improve.

But what value those nofollow links have and what changes they make remains to be seen. I’d hazard a guess that short term, there won’t be any change, but slowly over time they start to take a stronger influence.

Final thoughts

The technical stuff:

Google is constantly clamping down on spam as well as getting more and more sophisticated in interpreting link profiles. Having said that, some (more risky) SEO professionals have still been one step ahead in terms of playing the SEO game, in that they may use blackhat (or iffy) tactics to manipulate the SERPs.

These methods of manipulation are frowned upon by Google – well they’re not just frowned upon – they violate their policy guidelines. And while there have been known cases of websites being hit with penalties or dramatic losses in rankings, in the SEO community there will still be stories of some sites who manage to perform with somewhat shady tactics.

And that word “shady” is open to interpretation too. Some tactics are clearly spam, others may well be grey areas of manipulation. My view is that if Google one day phoned me up and asked to explain a backlink, then if I could explain it, it’s OK, if I couldn’t, then it’s not OK. But to be honest the days when I would need to ask myself that question are long gone. The methods you should be using have to be genuine and this from Google is another move that dents the efforts of typical SEO spammers.

The bigger picture:

SEO is changing – While there is the technical on-site side of SEO (think page titles, site structure, heading markups etc), the off-site tactics are arguably becoming less algorithms and metrics, and instead more classic marketing just done in an online space.

And in my opinion, that should always be the goal. Even speaking as an SEO professional myself, I don’t believe businesses should be at the mercy of those who know how to blindside or fool an algorithm. There are plenty of small businesses out there who do great jobs but get little recognition in the search engines. But I’m not saying that’s unfair, they still need to have invested time and effort in marketing their business better like others might have done.

But coupling those businesses with Search Engine/Marketing professionals and Google’s everchanging clamp down on spam, will be a great recipe. Sure, there are more traditional (or “nerdy”, as I call them) methods like broken link building which lean on the classic SEO expertise side and can be very effective and will probably be effective for years to come. But there are also methods like sponsoring charities or local events and in return having a presence on their websites – and this is traditional marketing done with an SEO backdrop in mind.

Overall to me this is another sign of Google becoming increasingly intelligent. And while it’s still a robot, I see it as one who’s starting to think more like a human. Humans still have faults and weaknesses (ones that might be exploited by some), but It’s gradually growing into some kind of superhuman.

If you have any questions about this post or need some help with your digital marketing & SEO, you can get in touch with me here.

SEO Hacks for Accountants

Top SEO hacks for accounting firms

Within the accounting industry there is fierce competition. There are lots of firms that at a glance seem to offer the same range of services. You could almost lift the copy from one website and place it onto another and not see any change. The usual USP’s such as price won’t be explicit. And, therefore getting ahead through clever digital marketing is vital.

Getting ahead doesn’t necessarily require a big budget either. While those larger firms, may have larger pots to spend on PPC advertising, they may find it difficult to quickly make their moves in digital spaces due to sign-off processes. In contrast, boutique practice’s are much more agile and open to new experimental ideas but can lack the budget.

This makes it quite a level playing field where search engine optimisation (SEO) is concerned. And getting ahead in SEO can give you huge gains for brand awareness and more importantly new business. And with that, here are some of the key SEO tactics for accounting firms:

Marrying good Web Design with structured Search Engine Optimisation

The website design of your accountancy practice should ideally provide a balance of impressive, sleek design and branding as well as a lot of informative copy.

It can be a difficult balancing act: having lots of information can often clash with the sleek design. And, there is a tendency to “keep things simple” and have minimal amounts of copy. But this can be very risky.

From an SEO perspective “keeping things simple” and using only a few words per page can hold back the chance of a page ranking. This is even more an important point for smaller firms who will tend to have a lower domain score and less impressive backlink profile compared to bigger firms. This means that getting words on the page is an important foundation of your page and site ranking.

Generally speaking adding at least 400 words per page will generally help that page to rank for particular keywords. The impressive design of the site and its user experience will help that user to enquire once they are on the site, but those words on the page will help them get there in the first place.

Aim for the fastest experience on all devices

Fast site speed is becoming increasingly important particularly with Google’s latest update on both site speed and separate mobile rankings. Building a site that’s slow will only halt your progress in climbing the rankings. Using Google’s Page Speed Insights tool will give you a good starting point to understand your page speed. But bear in mind this tool only looks at one page and not your entire site, where your speed could be different.

Turn location pages into homepages

Whether you have a couple of offices or a couple of hundred, making sure there is a page for each location on your site is invaluable. These pages can get found for local search terms in google like “Accountants in [location]”. Because of that you shouldn’t just treat your location page as a place for people just to get contact details. Sure, that’s OK if the user has already browsed through your site and is looking for a telephone number, but these users could be coming from a Google search to your site for the very first time – just having some basic contact details isn’t going to be the warmest of welcomes. Therefore it’s good practice to treat these location pages like a homepage. Here are a few tips on how to get the best out of these pages:

  • Start with a heading that contains both the word, “accountants” and your location.
  • Include contact details such as address and telephone number above the fold.
  • Then further down the page include details like:
    • What services you provide at this location
    • Case studies
    • Latest blog posts
    • Contact form
    • Local images
    • Local telephone number

One of the trickiest parts of creating these location pages is ensuring you still have unique content. It’s no good copying and pasting the text only to insert location [here]. Here’s what you can include to make your content unique

  • How long have you been in the area
  • Any local press coverage in that area
  • Directions to your location

Also, make sure you have a Google My Business listing for each of your offices and link back to your new location page.

Sponsor local events

To help get the most out of you local SEO even more, one of the best ways to get ahead is sponsoring local events. While some of these events might seem small-game compared to the rest of your marketing activity, they’re actually great at boosting your local SEO. Things like local music festivals, food festivals, schools and colleges are great ways to get a link back from a local site, even if it’s just an image link on their website. Of course, there’s also the added benefit of getting your brand seen by the local community.

Turn your news posts into evergreen content

Evergreen content posts are typically those with a longer shelf life as they take a look at the topic on a wider, but also detailed scale.

While reporting on a new piece of legislation and sending an email out to your clients is OK, the chances are they may have been already come across this news anyway. As well as that, your post isn’t going to be very unique compared to every other publication reporting on that new piece of legislation.

One way to change that is to produce an article that takes a reflective look at recent news once the dust has settled. For example rather than reporting on a new piece of legislation, you could instead provide an outlook of what might this mean over the next six months. E.g. “15 ways in which [new legislation] will affect businesses going forward”.

Doing this will not only give you an extra few days to produce that article for your audience, but also provide you with much more unique and carefully crafted content with a longer shelf life. And it’s this longer shelf-life that now makes your content evergreen and let’s it continue to potentially gain new visitors from search engines.

You don’t just have to look at recent news though. You can also provide answers to common questions that don’t necessarily go out of date. Questions like, “what is the difference between a merger and acquisition?” or “what does corporation tax entail?”. The answers to these might not change within a few months and therefore it can pick up new visitors months after it was published.

Sometimes these topics don’t need to be so common – finding a niche area that no one else has provided information on is one of the best ways to get numbers to your well produced article. A quick Google of your potential topic (or question) will reveal how widely covered it is. The good thing with these questions is that they are aimed at generating new site visitors (and therefore potentially new clients) through getting found in Google.

Producing well-written un-rushed evergreen content is the way to go. As a guideline you’ll need at least around 800 words to make it be seen as a quality article, both in the eyes of Google and users. You might think that’s a tough task, but it’s far better to produce three high quality articles a month than thirty poor ones.

If you have any questions about this post or need some help with your digital marketing, you can get in touch with me here.