Are donation links the new link scheme for SEOs in 2017?

John Mueller from Google has stated in the past that making donations to sites in an effort to gain PageRank-passing backlinks is a violation of their webmaster guidelines.

Understandably, this is a grey area, since there are plenty of valid scenarios in which a company might make a donation in support of a organization, and may even receive a dofollow backlink in return. I'm sure this is a difficult area for Google to differentiate between valid and abuse cases.

However, we've noticed one site in particular which is almost exclusively relying on charity donations and sponsorships to build their backlink portfolio, and they seem to be succeeding with this. Since 2015, this site (PromoCodeWatch.com) has been making donations to select websites with high authority metrics, and has since built up a rich portfolio of links and is reaching almost one million users per month.

We recognize that it is possible that this website is making these donations simply to support these organizations, and not to manipulate their search rankings. However, when we looked at their link portfolio, we noticed two things:

  • Almost all of the sponsorship links in PromoCodeWatch's link portfolio are dofollow (you'd expect there to be some nofollows if their sponsorships were unrelated to SEO)
  • Many of the organizations they are sponsoring are linking to other spammy sites (who are also making donations)

For example, PromoCodeWatch is a sponsor of the website Enable-Javscript.com, which has a very high Moz DA of 96. They have a dofollow link in the site's footer in the Sponsors section:

PromoCodeWatch's backlink appears alongside a bunch of other commercial sites, some of which look pretty spammy (and clearly look like SEO-driven websites). It appears that SEOs are starting to sponsor this site as a means of gaining backlinks, and this is starting to happen on a widespread basis.

Below is a table showing PromoCodeWatch's top 100 dofollow backlinks (based on Majestic TrustFlow), showing that the majority of their backlinks are either sponsored / donation links or guest posts. The question is, where is the line between the valid business case of making donations vs. sites that are using this tactic to outrank their competitors?

The donation link scheme appears to be working, and concerned webmasters might wonder how to respond if competitors begin abusing this tactic. I wonder what Google's stance on this issue might be.

PromoCodeWatch.com top 100 dofollow backlinks (Majestic TrustFlow sort)

Domain TrustFlow Acquisition Method Paid Link? SourceURL
apache.org 96 Donation Yes Linking Page
creativecommons.org92DonationYesLinking Page
washington.edu90ScholarshipNo
ibm.com88Guest PostLikelyLinking Page
forbes.com87Guest PostLikely
homestead.com85AdvertisementYesLinking Page
enable-javascript.com84SponsorshipYesLinking Page
aol.com83Guest PostLikely
huffingtonpost.com81Guest PostLikely
entrepreneur.com76Guest PostLikelyLinking Page
redmine.org75SponsorshipYesLinking Page
internetsociety.org74SponsorshipYes
cloudfront.net71SponsorshipYesLinking Page
haaretz.com70AdvertisementYesLinking Page
isc.org70SponsorshipYesLinking Page
erowid.org70SponsorshipYesLinking Page
addme.com70Paid DirectoryYesLinking Page
cbsnews.com68Guest PostLikelyLinking Page
anybrowser.org63DonationYesLinking Page
nineplanets.org63AdvertisementYesLinking Page
snitz.com63DonationYesLinking Page
r-tt.com63Paid DirectoryYes
papermag.com63Guest PostLikely
geonames.org62DonationYesLinking Page
teachers.net62AdvertisementYesLinking Page
toolbox.com62Guest PostLikely
worldstatesmen.org61SponsorshipYesLinking Page
filmfestivals.com61SponsorshipYesLinking Page
netdna-cdn.com61SponsorshipYesLinking Page
activatejavascript.org60SponsorshipYesLinking Page
webdesign.org60SponsorshipYesLinking Page
eku.edu60ScholarshipNoLinking Page
cookiecentral.com59SponsorshipYesLinking Page
dmca.com59SubscriptionYes
lifehack.org59Guest PostLikely
apachecon.com59DonationYesLinking Page
stunnel.org58SponsorshipYesLinking Page
vccs.edu58ScholarshipNoLinking Page
chegg.com58ScholarshipNo
dmoz.org57Free DirectoryNo
cihar.com56SponsorshipYesLinking Page
thomasaquinas.edu56ScholarshipNoLinking Page
ioerror.us55DonationYesLinking Page
openwebmail.org55DonationYesLinking Page
coe.edu55ScholarshipNoLinking Page
maricopa.edu55ScholarshipNo
workingmother.com55Guest PostLikely
cincinnatistate.edu54ScholarshipNo
dailycal.org53AdvertisementYesLinking Page
daemen.edu53ScholarshipNo
avivadirectory.com53Paid DirectoryYesLinking Page
entireweb.com53Paid DirectoryYesLinking Page
spaceweather.com52SponsorshipYesLinking Page
twinhelix.com52DonationYesLinking Page
brightlightsfilm.com52SponsorshipYesLinking Page
sfbike.org51DonationYesLinking Page
uwb.edu51ScholarshipNo
gurufocus.com51Guest PostLikely
isoc.org51DonationYes
norml.org50DonationYesLinking Page
skaffe.com50Paid DirectoryYesLinking Page
fl.edu49ScholarshipNoLinking Page
businesstown.com49Guest PostLikely
accuwebhosting.com49Paid DirectoryYes
newsonjapan.com48SponsorshipYesLinking Page
becomegorgeous.com48Guest PostLikely
landoftalk.com47SponsorshipYesLinking Page
noobpreneur.com47Guest PostLikely
calhoun.edu46ScholarshipNoLinking Page
wmdirectory.com46Paid DirectoryYesLinking Page
mytartelette.com45SponsorshipYesLinking Page
procolharum.com45SponsorshipYesLinking Page
joeant.com45Paid DirectoryYesLinking Page
myfashionlife.com43SponsorshipYesLinking Page
lco.edu43ScholarshipNoLinking Page
jasminedirectory.com43Paid DirectoryYesLinking Page
sevenseek.com43Paid DirectoryYesLinking Page
summit.co.uk43AnalyticsNo
ggmania.com42AdvertisementYesLinking Page
kwikgoblin.com42Paid DirectoryYesLinking Page
ajdee.com42Paid DirectoryYesLinking Page
sitebar.org41DonationYesLinking Page
wanderingtrader.com40AdvertisementYesLinking Page
icdri.org39SponsorshipYesLinking Page
mommyshangout.com39AdvertisementYesLinking Page
afrol.com39SponsorshipYesLinking Page
jubler.org39SponsorshipYesLinking Page
newmusicusa.org39DonationYesLinking Page
abilogic.com39Paid DirectoryYesLinking Page
worldoffemale.com38SponsorshipYesLinking Page
apahcinc.org38Paid DirectoryYesLinking Page
hotvsnot.com38Paid DirectoryYesLinking Page
miniaturetrading.com37SponsorshipYesLinking Page
michelem.org37SponsorshipYesLinking Page
fashionallure.com37AdvertisementYesLinking Page
taftcollege.edu37ScholarshipNoLinking Page
digitaljournal.com37Guest PostLikely
speedwaymedia.com36SponsorshipYesLinking Page
rammichael.com36DonationYesLinking Page
designbeep.com35AdvertisementYesLinking Page

Have a concern about this site? Then you should report PromoCodeWatch for buying links on each of these sites. Google provides a simple tool to report sites here.