Product Reviews for Links? Be Careful!

It’s getting harder and harder to get links these days. Google is getting really good at determining which links to a website are naturally earned and which ones are either paid endorsements or links that were obtained by offering some kind of incentive. In some cases Google will simply ignore self-made or purchased links. But, if you’ve overdone it, you may find yourself on the wrong end of either a manual unnatural links penalty or an algorithmic demotion by Google’s Penguin algorithm.

I recently came across this roundup article in which well-known SEO practitioners were asked for their favorite tactic to use when it came to obtaining links for e-commerce clients. There is some good advice in the article. But, I was surprised to see several of the experts recommend that a great way to get links was to send your product to bloggers and request a review.

What many don’t realize is that Google’s Quality Guidelines list this exact tactic under the category of “link schemes.”


The guidelines include the following as an example of a paid link:

“Sending someone a ‘free’ product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link.”

Here is an example: Let’s say that I am working for a company that specializes in kitchen décor. I could find design bloggers who are known to review products and send them some snazzy new cabinet hardware and include a note asking if they could review the product on their blog. The blogger installs the hardware, takes some pictures, and posts them on their blog, linking back to you saying, “Thanks to Company Name for this great hardware!” The SEO’s rationale is that this is not a paid link because they have simply sent a product and asked for a review. How is Google to know whether you asked simply for a review or asked for a review plus a link? Perhaps you just sent the product so that your company could get more exposure by being mentioned by an industry leader.

I have seen several businesses receive a manual unnatural links penalty for this type of activity. I don’t know this for sure, but I am thinking that at this point the Penguin algorithm probably doesn’t do a good job at picking this type of thing up algorithmically. However, Google seems to be getting better and better at algorithmically determining which links are truly natural and it would not surprise me if Penguin catches these links in the future.

Some Examples of Unnatural Product Review Links

For three years now, my main line of work has involved manually auditing links. I have audited hundreds of thousands if not millions of links. I want to share with you the story of a very early link audit that I did. This site was a large e-commerce site that had received a manual unnatural links penalty. There were a good number of really obvious unnatural links such as keyword anchored bookmark submissions and horribly spammy directory links. And then I came across someone’s private blog in which they were blogging about their daily family activities. The link to my client came from a very short blog post that said something like this:

“As you know, our son struggles with diabetes. We have had a hard time finding a manufacturer who produces insulin syringes that are easy for us to use. We are so pleased to find that My Client’s Company makes fine tipped insulin syringes. We were able to inject him with absolutely no pain! In case you are interested, they also sell glucometers at a really good price. I would highly recommend them.”

Now, for those of you who have done any work auditing links, these are really obviously unnatural links. But I have to tell you that when I first started in this line of work, I was fooled by many of the posts. I had originally marked this link as a natural mention. But then I saw another one that was similar. And then another. And then I emailed my client and said, “What’s up with these links? Where did they come from?” The client said that they had never paid for links like that and that they were definitely from people who really liked their products.

We failed that attempt at reconsideration. In fact, we failed several attempts at reconsideration. Then finally I asked the client again whether there was ANY chance that those product mentions were paid because there were no other unnatural links that I could find. (This was prior to the days where Google would give examples of unnatural links for every failed request.) It was then that he suddenly remembered that their previous SEO company had subscribed to a program years ago that paid bloggers $5 per link to mention their products. We removed as many of those links as we could and were able to remove the penalty.

That’s a really blatant example of a situation where something that looked like a product review was actually a paid link. But what about this next situation?

In this case, my client was an e-commerce store. They had some fantastic products and they regularly sent products to bloggers to use for giveaway contests. They did not ask for a link from the bloggers. In some cases in their write-up about the contest, the bloggers linked back to the e-commerce site with keyword anchored links. In other cases, they linked back with non-keyword anchors or no-followed links. This sounds legit, right? The SEO company who suggested this giveaway did not ask for a link. They did not pay for a link. They did not make it a requirement that the blogger had to link to them in order to use their product as a contest prize.

Yet, they received a manual unnatural links penalty and one of the links that was given as an example link on their first failed request was a giveaway contest post.

This Is Not New News

Matt Cutts created an entire video about paid links back in March of 2014 in which he discussed examples of paid links that didn’t actually involve a money transaction. He said that when Google makes these decisions, they pay close attention to the FTC’s guidelines on product endorsements. I’d encourage you to read these guidelines as they do give some very specific information on what actually constitutes a public endorsement of a product and whether or not this would be considered a paid endorsement.

In the video, Cutts tried to give examples of what might and might not be considered a paid endorsement. He spoke about value, saying that if you gave someone a $1 pen or a low-quality free T-Shirt and then they linked to you, that this probably isn’t something that Google would be concerned about, but if I gave you $600 for a link, that was obviously a paid link. He then spoke about some of the grey areas. For example, giving a gift card was probably just the same as giving money, but perhaps giving a free trial of perfume or buying someone a beer was not.

Cutts insinuated that sending someone a product for review that they have to return after a trial period might be OK. As soon as I heard this, I could see how people would take this sentence and say, “Ah! It’s not considered a paid link if we send someone a product for review and they have to return it, and it’s not a paid link if we offer someone a free trial of our product, so let’s send offers like this to every blogger in our niche. We’ll get so many links!” Anything that is done on a large scale with the intention of procuring links is going to look like a link scheme and is at risk for getting penalized.

In fact, Cutts went onto say that what Google is concerned about is intent. If you have a product that you are offering to bloggers for a trial period and you are hoping that after the trial period they become paying customers, or perhaps you are hoping to bring more exposure to your product, then your intent is in producing more business. If these bloggers link to you then this is probably not against the quality guidelines.

But How Would Google Know?

Whenever I have a conversation about product review links with an SEO, invariably the SEO says, “But how would Google know that this was not a natural mention? How do they know whether I slipped them money under the table or whether I sent a gift card in the mail or whether I wanted brand exposure as well as lots of links?”

After reviewing many link profiles of penalized sites I can tell you that it is quite obvious on manual review when a company has been engaging in product reviews as a link scheme. Here are some things that often stand out to me:

  • Quite often the links are keyword-anchored. If you’re trying to rank for “buy green widgets” and every product review uses the anchor text “buy green widgets,” it’s pretty obvious that that didn’t happen by chance. Still, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that only keyword anchored links are unnatural. They’re the most obvious ones, but links with other anchors if done solely to get a link can be unnatural, too.
  • The links all come from blogs that are known to do reviews and link out. If I come across a link from a website that has reviewed one of my client’s products and I’m not sure whether it’s a natural mention or a paid link, one thing I’ll do is spend some time exploring the blog. Often I’ll find a section of the blog called “Advertisements” that states clearly that the blogger will happily link to you if you send them products to review. Or what I might find is that all of the blog posts in this site contain posts that smell of paid links. If I can see these types of patterns, I am quite certain that Google can as well.
  • You have a LOT of links like this. Anything that is done on a large scale to get links is a risky tactic. While it’s not uncommon to see someone write about a product that they like and link to the website, it can look a little suspect if a very large number of bloggers suddenly started to link in this way, especially if it happened during a short timeframe. This smacks of link-building with the intention of manipulating Google.

What Do I Do If I Have Links Like This?

If you know that you have links that are pointing to you as the result of you sending product to bloggers, what should you do? This is a really tough call. If you have a small number of these links, you may be OK to keep them. But, if you have a large number of these, or if you have product review links that are keyword-anchored, it may be best to write to the bloggers and ask for a nofollow to be added to the link. Or, if you can’t get this done, then add the site to your disavow file.

There is risk in doing this because there is a good possibility that at this point these links are actually helping your rankings. But there is also a risk in keeping these. If you end up getting a manual review by a Google webspam team member then you could get slapped with a manual penalty. While these penalties can be removed, they take a lot of work to clean up and in some cases it appears that sites never seem to be able to recover.

No one can say with certainty whether the Penguin algorithm can pick up these links. My gut instinct at this point is to say that Penguin is currently more concerned with spammy links. But, we do know that Google is continually working on refining the algorithm so that the only links that count in a site’s favor are truly natural ones. If one day down the road, Penguin is able to determine that you had previously built links via sending product for bloggers to review, then this could cause your entire site to be demoted in search. While Penguin recovery is possible, it is quite difficult. You definitely don’t want to engage in any tactics that could get you stuck under the Penguin algorithm.

Why Am I Writing About This Now?

I debated on whether or not to write on this subject. It has been covered before. But, I was so shocked to see that many well respected SEOs are still suggesting blogger product review as a good way to get links. I think that we have to be really careful if we walk down this road. This reminds me of the conversations we used to have about guest posting.

It is not my intention to out anyone or to make Google aware of tactics that are being used. Rather, I am challenging you to think intelligently about your marketing techniques. It can be easy to fool yourself and say, “I am sending a product to this blogger because he/she is a recognized industry leader and I would love to have them recommend me,” when really you would not have sent the product if that particular blogger nofollowed all of their outgoing links.

As with any marketing tactic, if your main intention is to get links, it’s a tactic that needs to be closely scrutinized. You want to be really certain that you are not inviting a penalty on your site that could depress all of your rankings.

What do you think? Are there situations where sending a product to a blogger and getting a link in exchange are acceptable? Have you ever been penalized for building links in this way?

Related reading

Luxury marketing search strategy, Part 3: Content creation
SEO survey 2019 - Stats on competitor research
How to lead SEO teams and track its performance effectively: Experts tips
SEO is a team sport: How brands and agencies organize work