I’ve been on the receiving end of a lousy link building scheme that in my view hits a new low. It involves building links extortion-style.
It’s the first time I’ve heard or been on the receiving end of this tactic. Apparently, it’s been around for some time (see the quote from UNNAMED SEO DUDE below).
Recently a blogger in one of my niches sent me an email with the subject “Image copyright infringement”.
In the email, after alleging I ripped her off, she says, “I am happy for you to use it, but can you please link back to my website with photo credit”.
I checked which image she references (she provided a direct URL).
It turns out I licensed that image via Shutterstock. I have proof.
The gist of the scheme
The gist of the scheme is that the link building blogger assumes other bloggers won’t remember where they obtained images and out of fear will immediately create the photo link credit to avoid any problems.
The problem arises in that one can reasonably infer from the threatening email that if the recipient doesn’t create the link, they’ll suffer further legal consequences such as receiving a demand letter demanding damages for the infringement, or worse, get sued for copyright infringement.
The blogger who targeted me probably gets a very high inbound link success rate using this fear-mongering tactic.
This is different than requesting image source links when you DO own copyright
This is not the same as when you actually own the copyright to an image and ask other bloggers to provide a source link when they use your image. That is a legitimate link building method.
This is different. This is a blogger who knowingly does NOT own the copyright, but counts on other website publishers being unable to recall where they got the image and therefore out of fear of getting a letter from an attorney, place the link.
While the mechanics of the link building are the same, the underlying method is vastly different. One is legitimate while the other is unethical and potentially criminal.
Originally, I was just going to send this little saga to email readers. However, after I sent the email, a reader emailed me with some interesting info about this link building scheme.
This scheme was presented at an SEO conference in lat 2018
One reader, who will remain anonymous, replied to my email version of this blog post telling me the following (I’m not outing anyone in this blog post because that serves no purpose so all details have been redacted and replaced by the ALL CAPS portions):
Jon, this tactic was covered by UNNAMED SEO DUDE at the UNNAMED SEO conference this past X MONTH. UNNAMED SEO DUDE said he’s gone as far as building a quick (fake) law firm website and linking to it in his extortion emails.
There were 500-600 SEOs in the room, so I suspect this isn’t a “niche” tactic any more…
Keep up the awesome content, as always.
It turns out this extortion SEO method is being taught en masse. The SEO conference in question was toward the end of 2018.
The same fatstacksblog.com email reader followed up the above email with:
Just to confirm: everyone I personally talked to after UNNAMED SEO DUDE’S presentation was shocked (and disgusted) by it. One person told me he was angry that his VAs (who he flew to the event) were exposed to that kind of tactic.
Since I licensed this image from Shutterstock, there’s not a chance I’m linking to her. In fact, I’m going to have some fun with this situation. I’m all about doing SEO, but I don’t appreciate being the target of extortion.
Ironically, the links created with this tactic are white hat in Google’s eyes, because source links are acceptable; in fact, they’re the types of links Google encourages.
Of course, if Google learns of the way the source links were obtained, they’d have none of it and this would clearly be a violation of their TOS… but on the surface, these are legit links.
Here’s what I did about it
Step 1: Reply to Initial Email Asking for Verification
My first step was to determine whether she does or does not own the copyright to the image in question. I wasn’t going to escalate this until I knew one way or another. Here’s my reply to her “Image copyright infringement” email to me.
Thanks for reaching out.
Can you verify you are the copyright holder by providing me the following:
- EXIF data for the photo (the original will have this data);
- The original digital version of the photo so that I can verify the EXIF data;
- Date, time, and place that the photo was taken;
- Camera make and model
- Name of the photographer
Thanks so much. I get a lot of people claiming copyright when in fact they don’t have copyright and so it’s my practice to seek verification.
I haven’t heard back from her.
Step 2: Method Taught at SEO Conference in Late 2018
I decided to inquire to the SEO DUDE who presented this method at the UNNAMED SEO CONFERENCE to learn more about it. I contacted him via his SEO services website form. Here’s my contact inquiry:
Hi UNNAMED SEO DUDE,
Recently, a blogger claimed that I infringed her copyright regarding an image I publish on my website.
It’s an image for which I licensed from a stock photography site, so as far as I know I did not infringe copyright.
I’ve asked her to verify her copyright claim. I’ve heard nothing from her.
I believe this is an extortion-style link building method. Initially, I believed it was just her who came up with this.
I thought this was something my email readers should know about. I emailed them about being targeted with this tactic.
One reader replied and told me you taught this method at the UNNAMED SEO CONFERENCE.
Can you confirm or deny that you presented on this method at the above-mentioned conference? Do you use this method in your SEO practices?
I’m investigating the use of this tactic and am in the midst of writing a blog post about it.
I look forward to hearing from you.
UNNAMED SEO DUDE was kind enough to reply. Here’s his response:
This is a well-known tactic that people have used, not one I personally use but has been used for many years to get links. Teaching the method, or telling people about tricks that SEO’s get up to are two very different things.
I don’t do client work, so I don’t need to resort to such tactics, but of course in the world of SEO there are these types of tricks that are used, and thousands more…
But I do pitch this stuff to make people aware of this stuff so that they can avoid it happening to them, rather than using that type of tactic as there are tons of ways to get links rather than resorting to those type of tactics, but depends on the audience im talking too, UNNAMED SEO CONFERENCE is for an advanced audience and these type of things are what people want to know about.
I get his point about making “people aware of this stuff”, but it appears at least one or possibly some people in the audience figured this type of SEO tactic is a good idea. After all, people attend these conferences not to learn what to watch out for, but what to do for better rankings.
Step 3: Follow-up Email
24 hours after sending my reply to the initial “Image Copyright Infringement” email, I sent a follow-up email to the blogger. My email was as follows:
You have still not verified that you own the copyright to the image you allege that I used illegally.
Does this mean you do not own the copyright? I take your failure to send proof that you do not own the copyright.
In fact, I purchased a license to the image via Shutterstock. It’s documented in my Shutterstock account.
However, it’s possible someone stole your image and submitted it as their own to Shutterstock. If this is the case, I will, of course, discuss the matter with Shutterstock.
If you do not own the copyright to the image in question, it’s unfortunate you thought it necessary to knowingly make a false allegation of illegal conduct against me while demanding that I give you something in return.
I look forward to your reply.
I still did not receive a response. I decided to follow up given the seriousness of the matter. I would like to know where I stand. Here’s my third email:
I’m awaiting your response.
You made a serious legal allegation against me.
So serious in fact, that I’m consulting my attorney about the matter this week to discuss my options to defend your allegation and to discuss how this matter should proceed via legal channels in Canada and/or UNNAMED COUNTRY.
This was no veiled threat. I did consult a criminal defense attorney on January 22, 2019, to discuss this matter. While I no longer fear any wrongdoing on my part, I am curious as to what exactly this type of allegation constitutes in law, if anything.
Step 4: Lawyer Consultation
Approximately 2 days after the first email, I consulted a criminal defense lawyer. The purpose was to inquire whether this type of link scheme is, in fact, extortion or merely unethical behavior. It was not to discuss copyright.
The lawyer told me that this scheme COULD qualify as extortion, but not necessarily.
In a nutshell, the blogger knowingly made a false allegation demanding something in return. She did not set out what she would do if I did not link to her. However, the email subject line said “Image Copyright Infringement” which is serious. It’s reasonable for a recipient to infer that failure to comply with the demand could result in legal consequences. However, inferences are up for debate and therefore whether this link building scheme is extortion is up in the air.
Another issue is whether the blogger “knowingly” made the allegation. In my view, she knew she did not own the copyright. It seems to me photographers know whether they took the photo or not.
That said, there is always the possibility her photo was stolen and uploaded to Shutterstock. That is a real possibility. However, I suspect it’s not likely given that she has not responded to my multiple emails.
Step 5: Publish this post and call it a day
I’ve done about all I can do at this point until if and when I hear back from the blogger who alleged I infringed copyright. If I get a response and this saga continues, I’ll update this post.
I have no intention of outing anyone here. That’s why I’ve kept all names and URLs anonymous.
My intention with this post is to make this link building scheme public so that other niche bloggers don’t fall for it. Maybe it will dissuade SEOs from doing this (wishful thinking on my part).
Had I not been able to prove that I purchased a license to the image, I would very likely have complied with her request and linked to her site.
This tactic made me angry. Copyright infringement is serious business. Likewise, knowingly making false allegations of copyright infringement is serious business.
My initial reaction was to go on the offensive and contact all sites that link to her and explain what she does, followed by contacting Google about her link building practices.
While her bully tactic is unacceptable, I hope this blog post brings this scheme to light sparing other niche bloggers being targeting. I’ll leave it at this post.
I don’t see any upside to going on the offensive trying to cause her harm. I made my point in my emails to her and here.
Once again, it’s been fun to don my lawyer cap and jump into the legal muck defending myself from false allegations.
I say again because I’ve already dealt with a threat of being sued for embedding a YouTube video.
What should you do if you receive such an email?
If you don’t own the copyright and the person contacting you does, do what they ask of you. You may need to consult an attorney, depending on the situation. This is why it’s important to track image sources and more importantly to ensure you have a license or permission to use images (and other media).
If you’re certain they don’t own the copyright and are attempting to extract a link from you, you still need to tread carefully. The lawyer I consulted told me that in these situations one should be careful not to over-step when responding or publicly detailing the situation (as in publishing this blog post).
My initial plan was to go on the offensive making various threats to “get back” at the blogger alleging copyright infringement. After letting the matter percolate with me for a day and consulting a lawyer, I settled down and replied with a more measured response. I don’t wish to make false allegations or defame anyone.
Another reason for a more measured response is the person knows your site. If you respond aggressively, there’s no telling what they might do. They may unleash negative SEO on your site. They may comb through your site looking for any potential copyright infringements or other issues. They may hack your site. While I am careful with getting licenses and permits for all media I use, it’s possible I or a VA have made mistakes. It happens.
If you wish to throw caution to the wind and would like to unleash your fury and go after them, consult an attorney first to ensure you have solid ground for what you wish to do. The last thing you want to do is actually create legal problems yourself.
As for avoiding this in the first place, you can’t. We can’t control what other bloggers and SEOs do. We can only defend and respond. The best defence is ensuring you have a legal right via license, ownership and/or permission to use the media that’s on your site.
Jon runs the place around here. He pontificates about launching and growing online publishing businesses, aka blogs that make a few bucks. His pride and joy is the email newsletter he publishes.
Hyperbole? Maybe, but go check it out to see what some readers say.
In all seriousness, Jon is the founder and owner of a digital media company that publishes a variety of web properties visited and beloved by millions of readers monthly. Fatstacks is where he shares a glimpse into his digital publishing business.