SEO Tramp Stamp: Not Quality Link Building


SEO Tramp StampThere comes a time in every link builder’s career when a technique comes to mind that just seems too good to be true. It may seem so damn simple you can hardly keep it contained.

If it seems a little suspect though, it probably is, and it won’t end well. Just yesterday, Search Engine Land posted about Google “releasing a new search algorithm it hopes will better catch people who spam its search results or purposely do things to rank better.” So let’s hope your brilliant idea isn’t the SEO tramp stamp!

What is the SEO tramp stamp?

Links back to your site in your client’s footer. It’s shameless self-promotion, and speaks volumes about the types of links you’ll shoot for in client campaigns. The SEO tramp stamp is link spam of the sketchy variety, and here’s why we say no to it.

Your Link Spam Just Threw You Under the Bus

Because Google relies heavily on its link-based algorithm, and because the links you plop in the footer aren’t there because of merit, your tramp stamp is quite arguably link spam. Wait, isn’t spam bad for SEO?

Yes it’s bad for SEO, but this kind isn’t considered by all to be bad because it produces ranking results. “But, so do a whole bunch of other shady link building techniques!” I’d be willing to bet that the same SEOs who tramp stamp the footer would balk at other spammy techniques, but for some reason, this one prevails.

The reason this is bad is because it shows that spam is not beneath you, and gaining links in an editorial manner (which are much more meaningful, valuable, and built for longevity) may not be your strong suit. That’s bad, and not in the cool Michael Jackson sort of way.
So if spam is your strong point, your short-term victories are not scalable, and won’t produce long-term results. And we know long-term results mean everything to the business owner who is trying to make a prolonged, sustainable profit. If your clients barely stay in business, how can you?

Your Stamp Hurts the Trust and Relevance of Your Clients’ Sites

link buildingI’m all for the quick wins when it comes to link building, but a quick-win link doesn’t have to compromise your client’s site, or your integrity as an SEO. You wouldn’t link to your client from your own footer because the link isn’t relevant, it provides no additional value to your site, and you know the link juice could be used strategically elsewhere on your own site. You don’t like link juice leaks, and neither does your client (if they know better).

Yeah, but does it work?

Sure it does. Even if it isn’t the Willy Wonka golden ticket in your backlink profile, there’s a good chance it is helping.

I’ll give you a quick example. I recently came across an SEO/Web Design company that is killing it in the local SERPs. I do, however, know of other local companies that are delivering a higher caliber of work with their SEO consulting (and design chops).

I jumped into Open Site Explorer, and in a mere five seconds, I was able to see that the majority of backlinks on the first two pages of results were coming from keyword-rich anchor text in their clients’ footers. The average Page Authority of each link was 49, and the average domain authority was 53.
page and domain authority

Not the highest P.A. and D.A., but if they’re getting tons of these links over the years, from a multitude of .coms and .orgs that are aging, that’s surely helping them rank really well, at least locally.

So yes, it works. And yes, it has worked for a long time. So when is Google going to drop the guillotine on this tactic? Google is already dropping the hammer on less than valuable/relevant links, so the tramp stamp can’t be far behind. SEO tramp stampers: Just like the tramp stamp tattoo fad, so too will your link popularity fade. Get to work on increasing your quality signals now, before it’s too late. Get to know about the Google over-optimization penalty, though. SEOmoz has a whole Whiteboard Friday video that, which you should watch.

Bad Neighborhoods Breed Bad Link Karma

Unless you’re actively involved with link building for each client that has your link stamped in the footer, you’re just asking for trouble. The point being, you have no idea how they are building their link profile, or if there is any quality to them at all.
For all you know, they are out buying links, attaining tons of links from seriously low quality pages, and creating a bad neighborhood for you to be linked to. I suppose you could check every client’s backlink profile on a regular basis—or you could spend that time building quality links back to your site instead! The latter would be so much more beneficial to you in the long run.

Recently, Wil Reynolds of SEER Interactive posted about the issues they were having with rank (banned in Google for 12 hours, to be exact) and he commented, “Oh one more, watch which clients you link to, that’s all I’m sayin.” Along the same line as a bad link profile linking back to you, if you’re linking out to a site that is involved in shady practices, the bad link karma can go both ways.

People Hate to Get Burned—So Do Your Clients

How many times has your site gotten spammed? Your e-mail?
Just as we can’t stand getting caught in the quagmire of spam, they can’t stand it either. Some SEOs, though, are taking advantage of a client site only to get more business for themselves. Those who are succeeding at self-promoting, footer-link spam are only preying on those who don’t know any better (clients).

  • If you were hired to implement an e-mail campaign for a client, you wouldn’t slip an ad for your SEO business in it, would you?
  • If you were hired to run a social media campaign for your client, you wouldn’t tweet about your business would you?
  • If you create an infographic for a client, you don’t link back to yourself, do you?

Spend Time on Quality Self-Promotion and Links

Rhea recently shared a link building spreadsheet, and even if you’ve already taken a look at it, it deserves a second and third look. If you haven’t seen it, download it and use it because there’s no excuse for crap links. You’ll know what works, how much time you need, and who to get them from. In the meantime, let’s look at a short list of things you can do to promote yourself and get quality, meaningful links back to your site:

  • Create engaging, meaningful, sharable content
  • Create educational content
  • Give something away
  • Create tools, widgets, badges
  • Sponsor events
  • Use PR outreach
  • Participate in social media marketing
  • Write guest posts
  • Create contests

The list of link building strategies (originally published by Jon Cooper) is long and I get it—it takes work. But hard work pays off, and the SEO tramp stamp isn’t work at all. Think about it. The tattoo tramp stamp looks desperate (no offense to the ladies…or men) and cheap. It has that nickname for a reason! Don’t give your client a bad reputation for personal gain. We’re better than that as an industry.

Your Comments

  • Mike Wilton

    While I agree with you from the backlink standpoint, what are your thoughts on using it for referral and site traffic? I’m not a fan of footer links by any means, however my current company uses them and my opinion in our situation is a bit different. I have found that in our case we see a lot of referral traffic to our website from these links. Since we offer both internet marketing and design services we find that a number of people in our niche would use this link to find out who designed a particular client’s site that they liked or wanted to mimic. Is a practice like this still bad if you use nofollow? Just curious on your thoughts, because as I mentioned, this tends to drive some decent traffic for our design services even though its not really a practice I am a fan of.

    • Joe Schaefer

      Hi Mike. I’m sure footer links can be a great source of referral traffic for some agencies, but on the other hand, quality link building (like those tactics linked to at the end of the post) can drive referral traffic as well as help increase your organic — all without having to advertise yourself on a client’s site. Make sense?

  • Justin

    I’ve always viewed it as shameless self promotion, a desperate attempt to gain links to your site at the expense of your own clients’ link juice.

    If you’re a professional, get your links naturally.

  • Doc Sheldon

    I agree, Joe – it’s a tacky practice, at best, and risky for both parties. I can see some sense in a “This site designed by ***” in the footer, but for an SEO, I think it’s totally inappropriate.

  • GP

    For an SEO, sure, it’s tacky. I don’t agree with the way you’re throwing web design companies under the bus, though. In that context I think it’s fine, and no worse than an artist signing a painting.

    • Doc Sheldon

      You misunderstood me, GP. I wasn’t throwing designers under the bus at all. I was saying that I can see some sense behind a designer having a footer link… much like an artist will sign a painting, they’re displaying the quality of their work. I just don’t think footer links are appropriate for an SEO practitioner.

      • Jason Lancaster

        I think it’s tacky no matter who does it, only I must admit that sometimes I stuff a link in the footer here and there…so I’m a hypocrite.

        I’ve struggled with this question for a few years now: I’ve seen my competition put their name on everything they do, which I view as unprofessional. Yet there’s no denying that these links boost rankings and can spontaneously generate visitors to your site.

        My latest tactic is to convince our design clients to let us put an “About This Website” paragraph on the bottom of the about page. It seems natural there, and I think it probably has more value as a sales tool in that location than a generic “Website by Spork Marketing” in the footer.

        Anyways, just one man’s opinion.

  • Mike Kalil

    I don’t see any problem with site credits, and I also don’t think they’re the target of the latest update. It’s a lot more transparent than writing guest posts, doing contests, giving stuff away, etc., etc., etc.

  • Le Juge

    Hey Joe,

    I’d agree a little with Mike Wilton on this one – What about the traffic??

    I am not a big fan of footer links either but, Hey! I have seen many many many times some leads to the company I was working for driven by the links we were having in the footer. Not mentioning this is a real low hanging fruit, especially if you don’t do it like a pig.

    Many of us would love to spend more time on “quality self promotion” and many of us do, but we only have 24 hours a day.

    As per some of the recommendations you gave, sometime this is just not possible – Especially in B2B – period.

    Want an example – worked recently for a client who sales oil country tubular goods – Pipes and tubes if you prefer – well not easy for them to create “engaging, meaningful, sharable content” or “educational content” or any other action you listed – as per the PR outreach once again there is so much you can do sometimes when it comes to pipes and tubes and so called “press releases” website are a little bit in the Cyclone eye currently.

    • Joe Schaefer

      Le Juge — I do understand that this tactic can drive traffic, but there all kinds of sketchy tactics that can do that. I think my point is this: as an industry, we’re better than that. We should uphold the highest standards for ourselves, as SEOs, as I’d hope we would do for our clients. If your main strategy is footer links and lots of them, I’d be careful too of Google cracking down on low-quality links.

  • runebug

    So the “Powered by WordPress” and the link to the theme designer is bad for their SEO?

    • Joe Schaefer

      My point is more geared towards SEOs using footer links as a backlinking strategy to help increase their rank. For theme designer, I’d be cautious what kind of bad link neighborhoods their themes can end up in (and then linking back to the designers site from a bad link neighborhood).

  • Barry Wise

    Great article Joe, but I’m on the other side of the fence on this one. While I don’t think you should go around spamming footer links on every site you can, I do think they’re appropriate for stamping your brand on a site on which you did a great job.

    I operated a development and marketing company for over 10 years and we always put our company name on the bottom, whether we were doing development or marketing. We were proud of our work, and as long as the client agreed, we wanted to let visitors know who did all the hard work. Sure, sometimes the links were a little “keyword heavy”, but so what. It used to work :)

    Today as the owner of a business with a different model I sometimes GO OUT OF MY WAY to look for footer referral links because I want to know who did such a good job designing the site. I look for Designers’ links because I will actually hire them, and I have. If the footer links weren’t there it would actually be doing both me and the designer a disservice. I’m not looking for any SEO help, but if I was, I would love to see the attribution on a site which I think was marketed well. And if I was competing with a site, I would loooove to know who was doing the SEO for competitive intelligence reasons …

    If it’s such a bad SEO practice, then let Google decide to devalue footer links. I still wouldn’t stop putting them there.

    Oh, and please keep the link to my website in this comment because that’s SO much better … j/k :)

    • Joe Schaefer

      Hey Barry. I know there are a lot of people on both sides of the fence here. My post just happens to show what side of the fence I’m on.

      This might be a thin comparison, but it just struck me as I’m going through comments and got yours: placing credit or giving attribution may have to be something as an industry that we rethink. The point of my post was to show how going for the really low-hanging fruit of footer stamping for SEO purposes is on the shady side. Besides, when I see a good series of commercials on television, there are no credits on there. There is a whole world of creativity out there that we come in contact with all day long that goes uncredited — what makes the Web any different? Just a thought.

      • Barry Wise

        That’s a very good point. Commercials and traditional ads carry no attribution. But these are older, more mature marketing channels; but, as we know, most of the internet is, well, less mature :) I can tell by the SEOs and marketers posting here, as well as your post, that internet marketing is moving towards these more traditional practices. Marketers are employing less attribution and are instead moving towards more social media engagement and in some cases these selfsame traditional marketing channels.

        Years ago no one cared about footer links, but there were a lot less people who cared about SEO best practices in general. Now everyone knows a footer link is for all intents and purposes useless for SEO. I still see them as holding value in referral and attribution, but at the end of the day it’s a subjective issue. Obviously some people hate footer links. Others are careless. As a marketer, I would care less about what my competition thinks about footer links and more about what my clients and Google thinks about them.

  • Alysson

    There’s a reason big companies like Intuit, and 1&1 collectively build millions of sites and include footer links by default. Of course it works. But talk about using your clients’ sites for your company’s benefit…potentially even to the detriment of individual client site performance.

    Those who are succeeding at self-promoting, footer-link spam are only preying on those who don’t know any better (clients)…

    Just plain shady & an overt attempt to capitalize on their clients’ ignorance. But isn’t that what charlatans & shameless self-promoters do…regardless of industry?

    • Barry Wise

      Hi Alysson;
      I don’t understand what you mean by “potentially even to the detriment of individual client site performance”. Do you think a footer link to their web designer or SEO will hurt the performance of a client’s website?

      • Alysson

        In some instances, yes. Let’s say that company (or individual designer) employs other shady link building tactics for their own site that eventually result in Google taking action against their domain.

        It stands to reason that footer links on every page of their clients’ websites could flag those sites for review, as well…or, at the very least, cast suspicion on them (i.e. guilt by association, linking to “bad virtual neighborhoods”, and/or spammy, link farm-type footer links that are not topically related).

        An example: local small business in a non-competitive niche – new site, new domain. Decent on-site SEO, solid ranking from the get-go because there’s really no competition. Only backlinks to the site are from their designer, whose domain has been flagged by Google…but they don’t even know it yet.

        Think that increases the potential for that client’s brand new site to get flagged for a manual Google quality review? Even if they suffer no consequences as a result of the review, that site is on Google’s radar from that point forward. And that’s never a good place to be. :)

    • Joe Schaefer

      Well said. And yes, it happens in all sorts of industries. When it’s in the SEO industry, near and dear to my heart, it irks me.

  • Todd Shelton

    Footer links build SERP, and SEO/design companies get direct referrals when visitors click those links–two unrelated results. OK, good. But I’m confused about the risk here. Footer links are bad because there’s one on every customer page, so customer pages x customers = links / lack of topical relevance?

    What’s the recommend? Don’t ever put in footer links? Use topical footer links (Distilled designed this page for search engine optimization )? If your customer likes you well enough to give you that space how is it not relevant? Wouldn’t you link back to your customers?

    Wil hit me with this: “DIVERSIFY your lead sources, relying on something that can be accidentally taken away so quickly is insane…”

    Google changes its algorithm–should you change all the work you’ve done so far? Then change it back when Google changes again?

    Help me Obi-All you’re my only hope.


    • Joe Schaefer

      Hey Todd, if we’re talking about pure relevancy, here’s an example where I don’t think relevancy makes sense: Your SEO company is linked back to from a client who sells blue hammers and all their content is about hammers. This is an over-simplified example, but there’s no connection between content on the client site and yours.

      Quality, relevant links coming from marketing sites, other SEO blogs, etc. that makes more relevancy sense to me. I know, over-simplified, but to make a point.

      And an example of risk is this: Let’s say the blue hammer company goes out and starts buying all kinds of links and attains thousands of spammy links in a short period of time, but they are still linked back to you — this just connects a bad neighborhood to you. That’s a big time risk!

  • Todd Shelton

    And thanks for a great article and resources!


  • Mike Wilton

    I think ultimately it depends on intent. I think everyone is divided on this because of the separation in how they are being used. If you are dumping links in the footer to gain a bit of link juice, shame on you. If you are using it to help drive referrals and you do your part to nofollow the link so that it’s nothing more than a referral source and your client is ok with it. Then you’re probably not the group targeted in this post.

  • Dan La Bate

    The upcoming Google update has everyone scrambling around guessing what will be done. Footer links have traditionally been a grey area, and that most footer links have been devalued, IMHO.

    I agree with Mike, nofollow would be the most honest/best approach, especially when claiming design credit. Maybe the footer link should be limited to the home page so that the link doesn’t appear on every page too.

    I am very interested in investigating using “Credit” type links using Microformats. If you think about it, in a case that you view the web design as an artistic work, maybe the best course of action would be formatting links using something like citation or work of art formats

    I do agree with Joe’s main point, as an SEO you DO know better so why not do it honestly or not at all.

  • Becca

    Very interesting post. We all need link juice but like what Mike said it depends on intent of joining conversation like this.

  • Jason

    Well, with google now imposing penalties for “unnatural links”, it makes sense to reconsider our strategies. Furthermore competing seo’s and business owners can now much more easily ruin other people’s rankings. No empire lasts forever. I wonder when Googles time will be to be replaced.

  • Nick Stamoulis

    I’ve always been against this “tramp stamp” as you call it. If you are paying for a service whether it be SEO or web design or anything else, you don’t owe them anything and placing a link on your site is like a favor. SEOs, web developers, and web designers that place a link on their clients’ sites are taking advantage of them because they obviously don’t know any better.

  • Blake Denman

    Great post! It is most definitely a shameless self promotion. The worst ones I’ve seen consist of the anchor text being “SEO Company” and the rest of the text being “by” I’ve seen this from a MAJOR player in the SEOsphere.

  • Dan


    I’ve always thought links built in this manner were tramp-stampy, and back when I did web-designing (a good decade ago) I was always loathe to add links in this manner even if I felt like our work was really good.

    What if it isn’t link-building though, and is for self-promotion (no matter how shameless)? Are we so wrapped up in how Google is going to categorise our site that we just disregard all link opportunities?

    Look at a real world scenario. A builder (that’s house builder) has his signs up all over the property when he is working on that house. He might be working on that property for many months or even years, meanwhile advertising to any who walk past that it is his business doing the job. Should he not be taken advantage of that opportunity because he is shamelessly self promoting? He’s taken advantage of referral traffic

    In the same way, I think it is extremely bad marketing for an online business to not be proud of the work they do and want to gain other business through their portfoilo via referral traffic. How else are people going to find you? Through natural/organic search results? *cough* please don’t make me laugh!

    So perhaps there should be some sort of compromise. Build an “expiring” link into the job that disappears after the design is no longer “new”. Once it is no longer a referral link and becomes a backlink it should be removed…

  • William Imhoff

    Good article but, the Penguin update isn’t armed at footer links back to a designer’s web site. It’s more about auto comment about links and so on. Google is able to trace and record know sources of “Spam and Illegal ranking sources”. Just my 2 cents worth. Nice website.

  • writer jeff

    Wow! I never thought of getting links via footer as a spam.
    If Google will add it to its search engine algorithm, we will be seeing less people releasing free word press themes or free software.
    Thanks for the inputs. Maybe its time to rethink my link building activities.

  • A P Geofrey

    I know that big G is fond of taking some real actions to fight against people who tries to manipulate their algorithm and all, but I hardly think that footer links can really be considered as spam (not that I approve of them).

    For one, many of those footer links are place as a means of advertisement, and as far as I know, big G does places ads right at the top of search results.

    Next, many or most of those footer links are also placed with the approval of the clients. So what’s the harm in this case? You are sure that your link will be there for a log time. So this isn’t really spam at all, or “tramp stamp” as Joe Schaefer calls it.

    Really guys, I think big G should just give us all a break, since they are no better than spam them self, as long as it makes them some $$$$$.