History of SEO Part 1: Link Trading Era 2001-2006

I have seen a bunch of “History of SEO” posts floating around the internet and whenever I read them, I usually laugh and think that it’s obvious this writer is a newbie. I thought I should write something about what this industry was really like… for real.

Human nature dictates that people tend to be reciprocal in actions. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours or maybe you pick and eat lice off my back and I’ll do the same for you if you want to go back to primates.

You see this today demonstrated all over the internet:

  • You follow me on Twitter I’ll follow you back
  • You like my posts on Instagram, I look for one of your images to like back (probably not your kid’s pictures because that is creepy).

I mean everywhere, this is prevalent.

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This used to be super popular on the web, even before the days of social media. In SEO it was known as trading links. At one point the Google guidelines told people to trade links with similar sites as a way of promoting their sites. This was before the advent of the no-follow link condoms that are popular today.

2001 SEO Landscape

When I first started doing SEO in 2001 there wasn’t as much info being shared on how to do it. People were not trying to make a name for themselves by sharing lots of technical info on SEO.  Spreading disinformation was more par for the course. These where the days of Jill Whalan and Doug Heil. There was a forum ironically called ihelpyou, which was my first stop on trying to learn SEO.  There is a whole post’s worth of funny observations about that forum but that would be a whole other article.

There was a whole continuous drama at this point which was primarily created by “white hat” SEOs calling out “black hat” SEOs. The whole thing seems pretty humorous this many years later. It was like the current guru thing that has become big, but instead of becoming noticed by giving out actionable information, it was about mostly just calling other people “spammers” and filing reports on your competitors to Google (did that ever work?).

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Google Wanted Links

Anyway, I pretty quickly deduced that Google wanted lots of links with keywords in them, and that it had no idea if they were relevant and they didn’t seem to care.  I came to this conclusion by trying to do what the big “white hats” of the time said to do and basically getting my ass handed to me. Instead I went and copied what the top sites were doing and also I copied what We Build Pages was doing (you might know them as internetmarketingninjas now). They were located right by my home town, and I knew they made stuff rank.

I started slowly and cautiously, since I was working on clients’ sites at the time, because I had not made the shift in mindset from web designer to affiliate marketer. I was still looking at SEO as an upsell to web design, not my bread and butter.  I traded links with similar sites and saw small bumps in rankings.

This tapered off though because I would run out of similar sites. So then came the sort-of related trades. I would trade links with a business that complemented the client site, or which was close by location.  This worked too. Then it started getting more loose.

You also did not need any software to check a site’s backlinks at the time you just put a link:whateverdomain.com into the search engines and it would report the links.

Some Clients Want You to Push the Limits

Contrary to popular belief, not all clients want you to play it safe (this was also in the early 2000s). Google had not got all crazy with penalties yet. You also saw almost immediate changes with link building. This was almost instant positive reinforcement.  Some of my clients said push it. I let it rip.

I would trade hundreds of links by hand and they would take top positions. They were paying me peanuts but I had no idea. I found networks of hotel affiliates with 50 to a hundred different location EMDs and I could trade links with all of them in one shot. You would just cut and paste the HTML for all their links, then fill out a form with your link info and bam you had a bunch of links. (EMDs = Exact Match Domains).

It was awesome. This was before multiple links from the same server where being discounted and this rush of backlinks was like sucker punching the competition with brass knuckles. Then it dawned on me, why don’t I have a bunch of hotel sites, too. So I signed up for a hotel affiliate program and started buying up EMDs for small cities + “hotels”. I also got an Adsense account.

At this time I was still sort of thinking that I wanted to be a web designer, and since I was constantly testing everything, I made a test of link relevance. I traded links with all these hotel affiliates on my web design website. Suddenly I was number 1 for “my city” + web design” and top ten for “my state + web design”. So much for link relevance.

Emailing Was Way Too Time Consuming

In the early days when everyone was running around emailing each other for links, it was very time consuming.

The official “White Hat” way of trading links was to do this.

  1. Add the person’s links somewhere on your site.
  2. Send them a polite email, saying something like “Your site is a great resource. Look: I linked to it, would you link back to me pretty please?”
  3. Wait and hope they responded.

You would spend a bunch of time trying to get a response, and even when you did they would want you to put their link up and once they verified by your site or page was up to whatever standards they had made up in their head, would your link get put up. If they remembered to do it.

So you would often have to go and check repeatedly to see if they did it, and if they didn’t you would take their link down.

I Had To Speed It Up

Now I had to think of a way to automate this process, and I was not alone in this thinking. This is about the time that the various link trading software packages started springing up, the king of which was Linksmanager and its partner site Linkpartners.

Linksmanger is no longer functioning and there is only a page where the owner is saying why he is pissed at Google

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How Linksmanager Worked

Keep in mind this is before anyone was using CMS. Websites were static html or if you have any knowledge you were building sites using server side includes.

Linkpartners was a directory where you could register your site and and then request link trades with other webmasters.  You would choose your category and say if wanted to swap with anybody or people in your own category. There was always like 10 times as many people in the gambling category as its closest competitor (LOL).

The Free version gave you email notifications with cut and paste snippets to put links up on your site.  If you paid ($20 a month) you got access to the Linksmanager software. This would manage your link trades for you. It would generate links pages with your server side includes for formatting and you could hook it up via FTP to your server. It was the “Hot Lunch” of link trading at the time.

Link Market and Link Metro

There was also its cheaper counterpart Linkmarket and Link Metro. Link Metro seems to have disappeared off the internet but Linkmarket still seems to exist. Not only does Link Market still exist it still LOOKS THE SAME! AWESOME.

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Basically these services worked like Linkpartners: you registered your site and then requested links from other people. Link Market would generate cut and paste snippets with 10 links each to cut and paste to your website. I remember there was no rhyme or reason to the snippets, and links weren’t categorized or anything. You would just end up with huge lists of links.

In addition to these services, I wrote my own link exchange script. I liked what I saw the hotel affiliates doing and decided to improve on it.

Deadbeat Linkers

As link trading got hugely popular of course there were webmasters who would try to take advantage.

There was a whole culture developed around this, and of course there was what I had called “deadbeat” linkers. These were people who would put your link up for a minute while you checked and then take it down, and rip you off essentially. The deadbeat linkers still exist, they are now the people who follow you on social media, like a few of your posts and once you follow them back, they wait a bit and unfollow you and hope you don’t notice.

Made my Own Software and Started Building a List

So when you were looking for links, if you found a site where your links where posted instantly it was a great find. So I set up a form that not only allowed you to trade a bunch of links at once but also checked your link back and if it existed added your link to my sites instantly.

People loved it.  I also started collecting emails and created the Lake View Studios link exchange newsletter, which was also a big hit. I would send out an email periodically when I had new sites that people could trade links with automatically.

It was awesome: new site, boom 20 to 30 new unique links. Site was indexed and usually appeared in the rankings within a couple weeks. There was a slow trickle as all the webmasters on the list came up with new websites and added them. If I needed more links I could just turn to the link trading systems like Linksmanger.

Adsense was still paying very good per click for almost any subject. Adding links was like guaranteed increases in Google rankings. It was like printing money.

I Needed More Links Faster

I needed more links even faster and I could not do it myself, so I started paying my girlfriend to sit around the house and trade links all day. That was still not enough. So I started hiring more people.

I had this friend from when I was growing up, this guy was a party animal but was actually really smart.  His name was “the Russo”, like he would introduce himself just like that. I hired him to trade links all day too. He would wander around South Beach Miami.  He would party all night, and then wake up wherever with his laptop and connect to various wi-fi hot spots logging into Linksmanger and trading links all day.

At this point I really put the hammer on my personal site. Why stop at ranking for “my state + web design”  why not just rank for “web design” and be done with it? We hammered my homepage, threw every link we could at it. It never really ranked for “web design”. It was like top 20, but it was like top 5 for “website design”, “website optimization”, “flash web design, “website marketing”… the list went on and on and the phone calls just kept coming.

I couldn’t design the sites fast enough and half the people online where super bargain shoppers so it didn’t make sense to have me do that work. I hired this guy from Poland to make the sites. That’s was an ok business but why focus on that when the SEO affiliate route seemed way more lucrative.  I started turning away SEO clients, it made no sense to help them rank, when I could just rank my own sites and just keep all the profit.

Of course sometimes the amount I could earn as an affiliate or Adsensee publisher was way less then a real business, but you cut out all the social interaction: the sales, the supports calls, the questions, and the eventually complaints when an update made their rankings go down.  I would just rank my own Adsense sites and if the rankings fell or if it turned out way more difficult then was expected, I would just ditch them. Take whatever loss and move on to the next websites.

I developed an attitude and had no patience with web design prospects. I kind of let that aspect of the business go. Looking back that was really stupid.

It Came Crashing Down

I don’t really have an exact date or Google update, but it was sometime in 2006. The thing is unlike many of the more recent Google smack-downs,. It was like in general, traded links were just devalued to some degree.

The egregious violators like myself got their sites totally knocked in the rankings but under a certain threshold traded links still seem to have value. In fact I still see older sites that rank with many traded links in their backlink profiles. I haven’t studied them that deeply to see whether they still have the recip link on their site.

It didn’t look good for me and my little crew of link traders but something else was on the horizon and if trading links were like a set of brass knuckles then this was like a backpack nuke. It was called the Digital Point Co-Op Link network.