Authority Bloat: An SEO Industry Problem

by on November 20, 2012 | posted in SEO Theory

A few years ago, I did work for a client with seasonal burst  - and not just “sorta” seasonal burst, a seasonal-exclusive burst, that required extremely aggressive link building techniques. This client was in a space that had what I now define as a high competitive backlink crossover (CBC) that often comes with a certain vertical and/or a certain type of SEO that tends to over-populate itself in the vertical. When I was hired to do work for this client over the duration, what happened was as follows:

  • Every site in the vertical loaded up and aggressively bought and rented paid links to the point that page authority leapt 15+ points for the targeted page over a two month period
  • Every site in the vertical dropped spend upwards of $10k+ buying links in a very short duration, probably some in the $20-30k range
  • Every site in the vertical aggressively grabbed every link their competitors bought in the same point of time with no barrier to link acquisition besides cost, creating extreme authority bloat with little value creation
  • Every site in the vertical churned a significant portion of their links b/c of renting, creating a net minimal authority gain across the sites despite significant spend

While they were the only client I’ve worked with in this specific situation, I’m sure there are many others who face similar environments – environments where extreme authority bloat occurs because of a type of SEO – the “competitive analysis” expert.

This “competitive analysis” SEO often has little to offer in terms of unique backlink acquisition skills, and makes a practice of building his or her domain authority off the backs of other sites – in the way of things like paid links, directories, and guest posts. While highly effective, this “authority bloat” has a way of working itself out in a way that hurts the original site owner, especially when another SEO with any lick of competitive research ability also finds his way into the vertical, ready to ramp up the amount of competitive backlink crossover in the space.

When this occurs, this seemingly “sweet” domain authority and/or homepage authority – often in the upper 60s, 70s, and sometimes even 80s, tends to highly overrepresent itself – because any other SEO has the ability to automatically replicate these links for his or her own gain. Thus, an entire vertical becomes a practice of hypercompetive link syphoning, to the point that no real content is being created besides some nominal products, and the need to continue this process is required in order to compete in a vertical where hyper aggressive competitive research occurs.

Growth of the Secondary Market

Of course, the winner here becomes not the site owners, who must maintain extremely high budgets with high churn to maintain and keep pace with their equity, but rather the people who sell the links to them and/or require their labor (guest posts) in order to replicate. Thus, much of the value is passed to a link-selling ecosystem (heaviest in areas such as travel, finance, design) where site owners can increase their rates and lower their content creation costs as the sites trying to appeal to the search engines – a more fluid, and less static environment – fight desperately for the scraps of what they see as “high authority/PR/relevancy” that is necessary because, of course, their competitors built that link, too.

This “authority bloat” system is unique and unfortunate, because it leads to a diluted internet polluted with junk links and substandard content, and also, a system that rewards a link economy tumbling towards a path of increasingly shrinking margins for SEO. At a certain point, the market (such as in its current condition) becomes “flipped” where an intelligent affiliate/web owner would instead focus on link selling to webmasters focused on competitive research, instead of trying to recreate a website in the same system and trying to rank with significantly more risk.

You can see this condition at play in the finance industry, where a hyper-complex personal finance network called The Yakezie is designed to efficiently depart you from your SEO budget, or in the travel industry, where Paddy Moogan was quoted with an average paid link amount of $285.

Let me say that the price Moogan received is overrepresented dramatically and done with poor bargaining, but it goes to show what someone who tries to blindly inquire about paid links without any real negotiation skills (and with a potentially large budget approved by higher ups) can pay out in a system where every player is building a really tall building with terrible infastructure.

Penguin Says Hello

This environment where “authority bloat” – and the unique markets it creates – showed its complexity and ability to recede (and then evolve) quite clearly when the Penguin update inititally came around. The industry in general took a turn for the worse when sitewide links got slapped in the face by Google and many of these markets – and the sites that supported them – got significantly hit.

However, despite Google’s aims, the web is still not entirely altruistic and the link economy survives – guest posting for cash, infographic posting for cash, and blog posts for cash will always be systems at least partially supported by Google if done efficiently and without the laziness that previously occurred at scale in past years.

Authority bloat lives, and with it, an evolved and even more hungry network of “casual” bloggers ready to eat through your budgets. This reality and the conditions that pertain to it mean that you can float on the seas of authority bloat that fuels your vertical, but the efforts that it requires is simply not worth it to build any kind of sustained ranking, as too many levers must float in your favor – such as the website where your link was originally hosted maintaining it’s weight before being pillaged by other SEOs capable of basic competitive research – or your competitors being bad enough to not have an SEO who has heard of competitive research – in order for it to be a worthwhile strategy.

It is a reality that at some point, partial authority bloat will occur. “KEYWORD directory” searches will always happen, and if you do not make them, you will lose out. But know that when you submit your link report at the end of the month to your client and/or direct reports with a roster of these kinds of links – those with high potential to be acquired by your competitors in the future – you will not have gained ground – you will have only ran uphill in quicksand. For any website in a vertical with SEOs worth salt, these kinds of links don’t stay uncovered for long – and all that happens is a return to middle ground, and/or an increase in price for the directory that further fuels the inversion of profits that actually creates a net-loss for the second link acquirer.

Avoiding Authority Bloat

We, as SEOs, can and should do all we can to avoid authority bloat. It is inherently an action generated through laziness – build links by easily assimilating competitors and/or nearby verticals, to the point where one syphons the next into infinity. And as I noted earlier, the act of grabbing competitor links makes sense, and to a certain point should be done – and should be done aggressively – in a vertical where it has already took hold.

However, in other verticals, authority bloat through competitive research is simply not yet a reality, and should be avoided – if we truly have future webmaster ROI in mind. Content in these verticals actually still takes weight, and even if it doesn’t, people generate links through unique, non-replicable fashions (even if it’s still in spammy ways). When a certain type of SEO – one that excels in competitive research link acquisition - arrives in a vertical, and then another shows up, it can create a step-on-one-another effect that inflates authority until the 3rd and 4th place players, who have now lost, fire their SEOs and hire new ones until the process builds on itself and the margins have all but disappeared.

This kind of environment clearly creates massive profit loss, and even in situations where the profit flips to a new player (such as in the link selling market), it’s still not an attractive one – ugly sitewide paid links and off-topic crap in author bios.

Create Non Replicable Link Profiles – Not Powerful But Copyable Ones

Similarly, if we are said highly-talented competitive research SEO who will take any adjacent link from a somewhat-relevant competitor into a new vertical, I ask that we stop, as SEOs, and reconsider. There is artistry, talent and respect garnered for that SEO that built a link profile of 60+ DA that you export to Excel, which causes a “Shit – I can’t get any of these links” type moment. There is none of that respect for the 80+ DA generated entirely off of sitewide blogrolls. Similarly, there is none of that feeling that you can’t beat that site that there often is for the site with links you can’t copy.

I would love to initially build that DA 60 site without one link that can be peeled off by a competitor over that boring, redundant 80 DA with 90% competitive backlink crossover that is going to create reduced long-term margins for my clients. I can start that path by not opening the doors with my own competitive research skills in adjacent verticals, which feel “great” because they build so many links, but aren’t that “great” at all because they do little besides create short term gains, which reducing and evaporating SEO profits in an entire vertical (while also eating into other vertical profits as well).

It can feel easy to quickly add a link on a directory, but trust me, it feels dirty when you look back at your link report from February and competitor #1 is on every single page, and you realize that every “relevant” blog in the industry now looks like a paid link farm.

We can make the most money as SEOs (and webmasters), now and into the future, by building unique content that can’t be recreated easily. It’s sustainable, it’s more fun, and it keeps the profit in-pocket. Yes, keep stealing links from your competitors, but please, stop building links competitors can steal.

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