Should You Link to a Competitor’s Site ?

no-dead-linksI was asked to remove a link on a client’s blog this week. I’d written a news item merely announcing that a senior member of staff was moving onto another job after eight successful years at the organization. The company the member of staff was going to had also posted an interview with her about her new position and I’d linked the two articles together so anyone interested in the community could get a more nuanced picture of events. After all, this was pretty big news for both communities.

Neither the client article or linked article was critical; in fact, both were very positive and looked to the future development of each organization.

Still, I was told to “delete the link” by the powers that be because they felt it was tantamount to an “advert”, I was told, for the other organziation.

My Initial Reaction

I found the incident dismaying and actually strategically naive.

To remove a link from a post that had been up for two weeks smacks of paranoia. Moreover, linking information together is one of the ways that we as content publishers contribute to the free flow of information.

What’s more, it can be incredibly useful to share link love with businesses or organizations that could be regarded as competitors.

For example, I am a podcaster. I wrote a podcast ebook. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t recommend the likes of Dave Jackson over at the School of Podcasting or Ray Ortega’s Podcasters Studio to other podcasters. Both Ray and Dave provide outstanding content and I am sure their consulting services are similarly outstanding.

A Strategic Reaction to Linking to Competitors

In the past I’ve retweeted links to so-called competitors because I could see the value in the content they were sharing. As I’ve said numerous times before, I don’t need a bazillion customers. I only need a certain amount of customers each month. If I can help others in the industry I am happy to do so. Amazingly, others are happy to share my work too.

I love the work of Jamie Wallace, Scott & Michelle Quillin and Jayme Soulati and what many others are doing. Am I naive to have them on my podcast and interview them ? Am I stupid to be promoting them ?

No ! These people are the kind of people I love exchanging ideas with and I’d be delighted if I did something to help them be successful.

The Bit I Decided Not to Publish

Okay, so maybe I shouldn’t be talking about this in public.

Fair enough.

But it’s a risk I’m prepared to take because I believe in putting my site where my mouth is. Also, sometimes you have to nail your colours to the mast and take a position.

What do you think ?

  • jennwhinnem

    Hi Jon, thanks for sharing this story. As I started to write “linking is not advertising,” I realized how murky this is. Just recently I declined a request for a backlink, as the request was clearly a spammy SEO tactic (and I said so, politely). When I declined, I immediately got a response asking me who I might know who WOULD be interested in backlinking to their sites! Ah, I’m sure we all have stories like this.

    At any rate, what I’m thinking about is “what’s the difference?” I know there’s a difference. But articulating it seems key. Help, I’m out of ideas!

    • Jon Buscall

      It IS murky. I decline backlinks that come out of the blue. IMHO they are rather spammy; however, in this case it was about informing the community and giving them the possibility of seeing the more of the same picture. No one was being criticized in either article: they simply complemented each other.

      It’s funny, though, because no one noticed I’d put tweets out containing the links when the article was first published.

    • Erica Holthausen

      Oh, this is a great question, Jenn. Okay, my $0.02. Generally, those out of the blue backlink requests have no purpose other than to build SEO. But contextual backlinks have several purposes (the least of which is SEO): they are intended to provide some context or additional information; they are designed to add to the conversation or open a dialogue; they are intended to build relationships and increase community. So, the actual backlinks themselves are not different, but the intention behind them makes a huge difference. In the case of contextual backlinks, SEO is often just a pleasant little side effect.

      • jennwhinnem

        I like this. Thank you Erica. I guess it just seems weird to ask anyone, even people I know, to link to my site.

        • Aaron Hemmelgarn

          Hi Jen, I’m new to the topic discussion going on here, but linking out to like or similar businesses is integral to the success of a full seo campaign. It helps to have inbound links from other sources, as long as they’re decent and don’t muddy you and your brand. Rules to follow: Only link to equal PR or higher so not to loose link juice, only link to sites that have and produce fresh content, only link to relevant industry related sites and if you want to link out as a reference, but you’re not getting a reciprocal link back, then make the link out a rel=”nofollow”

          • Aaron Hemmelgarn

            *lose :(

          • Jon Buscall

            Thanks Aaron !

  • Jamie Wallace

    Hello, Jon, and thanks for being so transparent about this (not to mention complimentary and supportive of the work I’m doing).

    I am a huge proponent of collaboration and cooperation among colleagues. In fact, a large percentage of my business landed in my lap via colleague referrals. “Talking to the competition” – both publicly and privately – has been a huge boon for my business.

    I believe so much in the power of collaboration that I am a founding member of two group blogs. Savvy B2B Marketing you already know – we (the “Savvy Sisters”) are about to celebrate our (gasp!) fourth anniversary together – all of us blogging on one site about B2B Marketing. Some people thought we were crazy, but the platform is stronger because of our combined resources and diverse voices. I also blog with a group of creative writers at a site called Live to Write – Write to Live. Again, although we might be considered competitors, coming together helps us to expand our reach while we share the workload of keeping the blog fresh.

    There is far more power in working with your competition than most people realize. And it’s FUN, for goodness sake! Who wouldn’t want to hang out with people who share your interests and “get” what you do?

    Love the post, Jon. Love your podcast and blog. I will always promote you to my audience because you help them AND you make me look good. ;)

    • Jon Buscall

      In the words of Smokey Robinson, “I second that emotion” :=)

      I couldn’t have built (or be building) my business without daring to collaborate, share, promote and encourage people working in the same space. One of the things I loved about my interview with Lisa Gansky last year was how positive the sharing economy can be for those of us willing to think outside the conventional box of business.

      You make yourself look good ! :=)

      • Jamie Wallace

        Love a little Smokey! :)

        I’ll have to look up your interview with Lisa … sounds like a good ‘un!

  • Soulati

    Hey, my dear friend, Jon! Thank you for the shout and bringing me over; I’ve been away too long. I’m going to write my thoughts and then read what Jamie and Jenn (what? 4 Js? #RockHot!) said…

    My first reaction before I read in its entirety was exactly as the client reacted. Companies (larger than us) that compete with arch rivals rarely want to give a vote of confidence to the rival especially when said company just lost a good employee to the other side.

    That tastes sour and it also looks bad when the competition snatches good assets from another company. When I write for my clients that have strong competitors in their space, I am always careful not to mention another company. This is basic public relations practice, in my view.

    Switch gears to SEO and content sharing and link building, etc. I absolutely believe you did nothing wrong; however, the former thought I have here wins when it comes to comparing the two disciplines. Thumbs down sharing good news about a competitor; thumbs up sharing links and promoting optimized content.

    • Jon Buscall

      Thanks for your thoughts. Always love having your voice here.

      Yes, I hear what you’re saying and in some instances I would agree; however, in this particular case it felt like pure paranoia or at the very least the wrong call.

      The organization’s head office had approved the content which included full details of where the staff member was going. The “leadership team” okayed the content and then two week’s later asked for the link to be removed as they felt it was “advertising” despite the fact that everyone in the organisation and its sizable community knew where she was going.

      I felt that it was silly not to include a link to the article on the other site as it included positive commentary about the organization that the staff member was leaving. Plus both organizations were reporting it on their Facebook pages.

      • Soulati

        Ahh. Yes, I understand, It was a delayed reaction that didn’t sit well. Wonder who made a comment to whom to cause that? Nothing you could do about behind closed door mutterings which seems to be what this is.

        Your strategy was correct and you got the necessary approvals in advance.

        Someone dropped a rotten egg along with way! And that changed it all up.

    • Jamie Wallace

      “4 J’s” – sounds like the name of a new band! :)

  • James Royal-Lawson

    Openess, integrity and honest wins. Providing the link to the article is good service to the reader – it improves the user experience. All of this is good from a branding perspective.

    Also, in this case, we are talking communication rather than conversion. Readers of the article are not at a critical point in a conversion tunnel where a distraction would be a no-no.

    Sad to see the link go due to digital immaturity. We’ve got a long way to go…

    • Jon Buscall

      James, what a brilliant phrase: “digital immaturity”. That says it all.

  • Erica Holthausen

    It seems as if there is a significant difference in mindset between small businesses and microbusinesses. In the world of small business, others who do similar work are still seen as competitors. But in the world of the microbusiness, those who do similar work are seen first as colleagues. Yes, they are my competition, but first and foremost, they are my colleagues (and often they become my friends). While we are all in business to make a living, we also hope to be of service. And if I can introduce people familiar with my work to others who might be able to help them along the way, why wouldn’t I do it? If they end up working together, I’ve just helped two people and the effect will ripple out from there!

    • Jon Buscall

      Erica, I’m so with you on this one. Thanks for joining the conversation.
      Ripples come back across the lake. :=)

  • Sharon Gilmour-Glover

    Hi Jon,

    I agree completely with you. We’ve had a couple of people over the years leave us to strike out on their own. Our position is that it’s always best to support their efforts because sometimes, it’s just time for people to move along, for any number of reasons. However, Jayme makes a good point too and I have to say, I’ve never considered that perspective before. For me, openness and transparency feel right. Perhaps it depends on the specifics of the situation.

    I have really enjoyed reading some of the other comments here. They’re provocative and have me thinking. This is a complex issue and likely there’s no one right answer for every situation. What a great conversation.

    I am so glad I found your site!


    • Jon Buscall

      Hi Sharon,
      Thank you so much for joining the conversation.

      The whole issue last week really upset me to be honest. I heard yesterday that my personal integrity was questioned because of the link. A mere link that extended the communication between two mutually supportive communities.
      The CEO of the company apparently saw it as “advertising”.

      When a customer takes this kind of stance I have to question whether they are ever going to get the way the Net works in spite of the massive success we’ve delivered over the last years, helping them become competitive and reducing the budget they’ve put into traditional marketing.
      After much thought, and in spite of a difficult economy here in Sweden, I’ve taken the decision not to renew our contract when it’s up for renegotiation with the client. It’s not just because of the link issue. This is just the tipping point. There have been a number of other issues which I’m not going into here but ultimately it comes down to a company culture that is not keeping up with the Net. There seems little point in fighting a losing battle.

      • James Royal-Lawson

        “Knowing when to say Goodbye” – sounds like you’ve got another blog post sorted there Jon.

        • Jon Buscall

          Ah, yes ! Cheers.

          • Erica Holthausen

            That would be a wonderful blog post! Knowing when to say goodbye and how to have that sometimes difficult conversation.

          • Jon Buscall

            Must put my thinking hat on :=)