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Grey hat backlinks & social proof practices — Joe Sinkwitz // Digital Heretix

Episode Overview

Despite rumors to the contrary, purchasing backlinks remains a popular grey hat tactic for increasing domain authority. In this episode, Ben and Joe dig into the art of purchasing backlinks while remaining in the fuzzy grey zone.

Topics covered include:

  • The popularity of private blog networks (PBNs) for purchasing back links and the acid test for ensuring purchased back links increase domain authority while sending relevant traffic
  • The signals SEOs can use to understand if they’re deploying an effective link buying strategy
  • Which backlinking strategies are likely to lose effectiveness over time


Episode Transcript

Ben:                 Welcome to Gray Hat Week on the Voices of Search Podcast. I’m your host Benjamin Shapiro. This week, we’re going to discuss the balance of ranking optimization and risking your domain’s reputation.

Joining us for Gray Hat SEO week is Joe Sinkwitz, who’s the principal at Digital Heretix, which is a brand reputation management agency. Joe is also the co-owner of the Advanced Search Summit and a co-founder and CEO of Intellifluence, which is a SaaS tool that helps brands discover the right influencers for their products, pitch them, and get honest reviews. He’s had a wide variety of experiences related to SEO, content optimization, and helping brands get out of trouble.

Today, Joe and I are going to talk about the Gray Hat strategies related to backlinks and generating social proof. But before we hear from Joe, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We are an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise scale businesses, monitor their online presence, and make data driven decisions. To support you, our loyal podcast listeners, we’re offering a complimentary digital diagnostic where a member of our digital strategies group will provide you with a consultation that reviews how your website, content, and SEO strategies can all be optimized. To schedule your free digital diagnostic, go to

On the show. Here’s my conversation with Joe Sinkwitz, the founder of Digital Heretix.

Joe, welcome back to Gray Hat SEO Week on the Voices of Search Podcast.

Joe:                  Happy to be here.

Ben:                 Excited to have you back on the show. Yesterday, we talked about the definition of what Gray Hat SEO is and some of the things that you’ve seen and ways that you’re helping brands monitor themselves to avoid getting in a situation where Gray Hat SEO tactics turn to black and get you in trouble.

We’re going to talk about back linking and social proof today, which is one of the first things that you mentioned as ways that brands are getting in trouble with Google, but something that we all do on some level. One of the things that you mentioned in yesterday’s conversation was on some level we’re all buying links. I’m curious to hear why you say that. Google is pretty adamant about not allowing people to buy links, but you say it’s a practice everybody does. Talk to me about what’s an appropriate linking strategy and where can you get away with buying links?

Joe:                  Sure thing. It’s an appropriate strategy to buy links simply because it’s near impossible to have a sustainable link acquisition strategy without some exchange of commercial intent. So in this particular case, you could have some PR wins, but it’s very hard to stack pure win upon win upon win upon win forever. Now I do see a lot of people that will go and it’s a hot topic right now to do PBN. So they’re doing the private link networks. The thing is those private link networks, if you could find them, they’re not private. So I actually came up with a whole strategy about how could we make PBNs a little bit better on a domain by domain basis.

So as we’ve talked before, I’m the CEO of a Intellifluence. It’s a very large influencer marketing network. As a part of that, I’d say a quarter of the influencers we have active blogs. So I started to think what would happen if someone were to create personas related to their domains and then put them in an influencer network. And so we did that. So when we didn’t use it our own, we start putting them into other people’s networks. And they started getting really good brand.

But here’s the kicker, the types of people that were offering to essentially purchase a page on a domain for keeping on from an influencer network were higher quality. They’re more likely to be a brand looking for some sort of promotion. They’re looking for some sort of assistance versus someone like me coming through and getting another link to a car insurance, Viagra type website.

So, there was a big distinction in quality, and I started thinking, “Okay, if we start running these through Kristel Kemper’s link research tools, will we see a difference in terms of the brand quality on up links? Sure enough there was a really strong correlation with the people that were coming through influencer networks to get purchased links off of the PBN site were viewed as a higher trusted link than those that were basically purchased through black hat world or warrior forum style stuff.

So we started viewing this and like, “Okay, the role that needs to shift within the industry is people should probably stop going and just doing straight PBN stop. Start approaching those same sites though, but only if they exist in a higher quality signal network.” When we do this, we’re able to mitigate some of that risk associated with whether or not you’re throwing yourself into a bad name. The link purchasing is always going to exist. But if you’re a little bit more selective about purchasing from places that are less likely to be abused for links, you’re going to come up with a better outcome.

Ben:                 It’s interesting because, I mean, I think that when you say PBN, the reaction from most SEOs are like ‘do not cross that line’ and that’s kind of a branded term now for if you buy these links, you’re going to get in trouble. And on the flip side, the dynamics behind a PBN is you’re going to pay someone to create content and link back towards your domain. And you can do that in large scales with partnerships. You can do it for public relations and you could do it with influencer marketing. So to me there’s so much nuance here in terms of what is buying a link that is only for the purpose of the link exchange, the domain authority exchange, and one that is a marketing campaign that has a broader piece of utility. How do you distinguish between what is a PBN style, I’m only buying this link because I want domain authority, and what is an influencer marketing strategy or a PR strategy? How do you and how does Google in your estimation define the difference?

Joe:                  I think one of the easiest ways to kind of back it out is to ask yourself, “If I end up getting a link on this particular page or this particular domain, is it also going to send me relevant traffic?” And if the answer is yes, then chances are it’s probably a good place to get that link. And that’s one big distinction with PBNs. Almost universally, a lot of the stuff that I see that sold on PBN networks, it tends to be lower quality. Like no one landed there because they were seeking it out. Those domains probably don’t have a whole bunch of branded queries and secondary repeat visitors coming into their links, which is a really great signal for the health and quality of the site. But it’s extremely difficult to get that information.

Now, there was that brief period of time when SpyFu had nacho analytics where you’re able to explore this information that was really awesome. But that is now gone. So we can no longer look at this.

But that’s how I would do it. Like Google could look at and say, “Okay, this domain has people come into this domain because they’re seeking you out. Versus this domain B, which has a ton of links available and they’re constricting the outflow of links only to specific pages in order to essentially sculpt that page right. But it has no discernible signals that suggest that people care about it otherwise.” Those are pretty obvious in Google’s book. Now granted, we can always see a sub sector of signals that they can see. They do own Chrome and Android, so they can see way more than we can, but we can at least get a sense of, “Is there traffic coming off of this domain?” We can take a decent look at that. If so and it’s relevant and it has really usage and real people behind it, that is probably okay.

Ben:                 So talk to me in more detail about some of the appropriate link buying strategies. You mentioned PR influencer marketing. What are some of the ways that you are seeing people be effective, and is there a way to use these to boost your domain authority without creating any risk?

Joe:                  Well, there’s always going to be some risk, right? It’s virtually impossible to say there’s no risk. If only because what’s okay today may not be okay tomorrow in Google’s eyes. They do change fairly frequently. What used to be considered cloaking in the past was now considered IP delivery in some cases, as an example.

Now I do see link acquisition with the intent or the stated intent of purchasing influence and PR. I’m sorry like press relations style PR, not patron PR. That carries a lot more weight and that’s going to be a lot lower risk profile because you’re going to have a lot of carry on effect. If you’re purchasing influence that has a link associated with it and exists a persona that has a million followers and active readers, there’s a decent chance that you’re going to start seeing additional links that pop up because it was referenced elsewhere.

When I was running a shadow campaign for a vaping company, my entire goal was to get people to make fun of the product on Reddit. So that would carry over into private Facebook groups. They got the press from Playboy and Verge and a couple other high publications simply because we are trying to use the influencers as a means to get the editors to give us links. So that type of strategy still works really well. It’s just hard to do. Now you can skip some of that and basically buy the influence and then get all the link benefit after that influence is obtained.

Ben:                 What are some of the signals that you can use to understand if you’re using an effective link buying, backlinking, building social proof strategy, and is there a tipping point to where you start to see metrics look like it is actually causing you harm?

Joe:                  Sure. So there’s a difficult heuristic at play here where you could use crap link strategies to get into the top 30 for about any phrase, like pure junk links in the top 30 for a core phrase. However, once you get in that top page itself, in order to stay there, they need to be of a significantly higher quality. So that’s one issue that you might look at. People can be misled saying, “My strategy’s working great. I’m already on page three for paid, this is going to be great.” Unfortunately, if they’re successful enough to get the page one, it probably won’t last very long. Get smacked down too quickly.

And my thesis on this, Google doesn’t care so much about things beyond page two anyways. So they’re going to let that play out. They’re a lot more constrictive once it gets that first page. How else can you tell whether or not it’s working is I go back to the repeat user signals. Do you have repeat users that come back to your site having found you in search for specific queries initially? If you can find that out, then chances are what you’re doing will be sustainable for the long term because it ends up satisfying the user. It ends up satisfying Google in the sense that they showed a page that worked enough to where they came back again. And then it satisfies you based on you purchased a link or you got an editorially or organically. That’s how I bracket it out. Is the links enough to get into page one, and once you get to page one, do you have repeat users coming in because of it?

Ben:                 So, Joe, talk to me about some of the ways that people are using social networks and places where they can create their own pages on other platforms. Is that a way that you can, (A) hack together linking strategy and (B) can you get in trouble for being active or too active or having bad behavior on other platforms?

Joe:                  I’ll never say that it’s not impossible to get in trouble, but there are some fun things you could do creating pages and other profiles. So one thing I’ve noticed a decent amount is when large domains that are under a crawl budget, they can only have so many pages crawl. They might have an issue with getting so many pages indexed. If they are aggressive specifically with Twitter and they’re getting a lot of different pages, especially new pages that are not in the index on Twitter profiles, which are themselves being heavily crawled, they can influence and increase the overall amount of pages that are getting indexed for them in Google.

There are other strategies though too, where it’s kind of an old strategy within reputation management to say, okay, there are how many different social networks out there in the wild? Probably over a thousand. What if I go and I create a profile on every single one of them and I linked… I don’t worry so much about the links whether it’s followed or not followed, but I make sure that my branded phrases are in there and I link back to my frame.

What ends up happening there is you could use these particular assets to crowd out potentially negative news that has a slight SEO benefit towards the main domain and also you could start getting aggressive with them later. You could use those little feeder sites to test out your theories on whether a signal is shifted on links or content. So that’s one thing I like to see with that.

Another thing that I’ve seen with the social proof itself is let’s say you’re selling a product and the product is in cosmetics. Well within cosmetics, you might have different users coming in from different sectors. They might come in from Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, whatever. It is beneficial as that brand to try to get into the mindset of that buyer. If you were to get a review from an influencer on YouTube and that same influencer on Pinterest and that same influencer at Instagram and you have screenshots [inaudible 00:14:23] and you hot swap out. So a random user comes to your site through Instagram. What you would want to do is how the referer recognized that came in from Instagram and show them that snapshot of the influencer on Instagram. If a user came in from YouTube, you would flip based on the referral and show the embed of a YouTube video.

All you’re doing is you’re playing to that psychological influence of, “Hey, this is just like me. I was just on YouTube. I’m seeing this YouTube video.” That plays a decent role back in the SEO side of things because it’s basically hacking social proof. And from there, you’re going to end up having a better dwell time. You’re going to end with having more time on your site from that particular user, which can also influence bounce rates.

Ben:                 Interesting. So essentially the backlinking strategies that you mentioned are, (A) you can create multiple different profiles to crowd out some of the negative things that might be sent for you. But also if you’re able to take the and replicate the user experience from some of the social networks, at least understand that somebody is coming from one experience to your site, that impacts the dwell time, which then helps you optimize your rankings.

Joe:                  Yes.

Ben:                 Okay. Last question for you today, Joe. When you think about backlinking and buying links and building social proof in general, what has changed and what do you think is something that is shifting away from a strategy that’s being implemented today that won’t be effective in the near future?

Joe:                  Well, I think one of the big shifts that we’re seeing, and we’ll probably see over the next couple of years is a way from what people might classify as a PBN today. And I think the reason that’s going to exist as it pertains to like the social proof is if you look at these sites and you start scrolling around trying to find out information about who owns the domain, who’s posting the content. A lot of them are so low level feeder, it’s written by admin. It doesn’t have an ‘about us’ page. There’s no information, there’s no job postings. There’s no persona associated with the domain. And if you were to actually find a persona and that person, can you find that person on social? Do they have a LinkedIn profile? Do they have a Twitter profile? Facebook profile? So I think that it’s going to be fairly easy for Google to make those extensions and say, “I care about the entity analysis associated with the persona as well as the assets that they write for.”

And if I cannot make these distinctions, if I cannot say like, “Hey, this asset has personas associated with it,” then that’s probably a lower quality asset. So I think that is a shift that we’re going to start seeing. So it’s going to behoove a lot of people that are on that gray area. I know that’s the whole point of this podcast. Those gray area guys, they need to get their act together and create personas, and they can infiltrate whatever influencer you have since day one. They could figure that part out. That’s going to be a strategy you have to go after.

For the buyers, we have to be more judicious and say, “Okay, again, is this site going to give me quality relevant traffic in addition to the link? And if so, does it also look like it is backed by real people, or is it just something in the ether?” If it’s something in the ether, you should probably pass.

Ben:                 I think at the end of the day, Google’s going to have a hard time distinguishing if you’re going to buy a link, if it a real person creating real content and there is a monetary exchange for you to have something that looks very much like a partnership, like an influencer marketing campaign. It’s an effective way to be able to build links and drive authority without necessarily going to something that can get you in trouble. So there’s always going to be a little bit of scrutiny when you’re buying links or when you’re having partnerships in Google’s eyes. But the more that you can make it relationships with real people delivering value to a real audience, the better off you’re going to be.

That said, that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search Podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Joe Sinkwitz, the founder of Digital Heretix. We’d love to continue this conversation with you, so if you’re interested in contacting Joe, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can contact him on Twitter. His handle is CygnusSEO. C-Y-G-N-U-S-S-E-O or you can visit his company’s website, which is

If you have general marketing questions or if you’d like to be a guest on this podcast, you can find my contact information in our show notes or you can send me a tweet @BenJShap. B-E-N-J-S-H-A-P. If you’re interested in learning more about how to use search data to boost your organic traffic, online visibility, or to gain competitive insights, head over to for your complimentary advisory session with our digital strategies team.

If you liked this podcast and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app and we’ll be back in your feed tomorrow morning to discuss keyword stuffing and content hacks.

Okay, that’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.