Want to cause outrage in SEO? Change one word. 

Especially if that one word is a recommendation in the form of an SEO tool company. 

At issue. Brian Dean of Backlinko – and his integrity – is under attack for altering references (and links) from Ahrefs to Semrush. As recently as May 16, the most noteworthy article in question said this:

“But if you had to make me pick ONE tool to use for SEO, I’d have to go with Ahrefs.”

At some point, it changed to say:

“But if you had to make me pick ONE tool to use for SEO, I’d have to go with Semrush.”

Why is this an issue? Because Semrush bought Backlinko in January. 

What has not changed. The line following the two variants of the above sentence: 

“This was a REALLY hard call to make. I honestly think you can’t go wrong with either tool.”

The above line was written long before the acquisition. And if something could have gone either way, and Dean wrote as much, changing a choice from one tool to another feels like a stretch to label this an ethical breakdown.

Is it shady? Maybe somewhat. Dean could (and probably should) add a simple disclosure to any mentions or recommendations of Semrush, along the lines of “Disclosure: I work on a part-time basis for Semrush, which owns Backlinko.)

The only mention I see clearly of Semrush’s involvement in Backlinko is a link in the footer of the Backlinko website: “© 2022 Backlinko is a Trademark of Semrush Inc.” 

Will every Backlinko visitor know Semrush owns Backlinko or scroll down past all the comments to see it? No. But it’s there. 

Also at issue. There is more. Here’s what Ahrefs CMO Tim Soulo tweeted: 

This LinkedIn post by ​​Daniel Emery, head of SEO at PWD Australia, implies this is an ethical issue because:

  • Links to competitors have been removed.
  • Mentions of competitors scrubbed.
  • Opinions changed sitewide in what appears to be independently and objectively written review content.

Let’s examine each of these.

First, Removing a link is not a question of ethics. A link is neither good nor bad morally. No website has an obligation to link to any other website, no matter who owns it. A link simply either exists or does not exist. 

Second, not all mentions have been scrubbed, as a simple site: search will show you. Backlinko still features a definitive guide to Ahrefs and a thorough review of Ahrefs. 

Third, changing an opinion is just that – changing an opinion. This was not a life or death choice and the content has always said the decision could go either way. Neither Dean, nor the article, slanders or attacks Ahrefs as being an inferior tool. Though, yes, this change was done lazily and non-transparently. 

In the end, Backlinko is a Semrush-owned product and Semrush can market it however they decide. But clearly, the search community is watching. 

Why we care. Smearing and naming-and-shaming is a popular sport in all of life and in SEO. But Dean isn’t not harming or misleading any person in this specific instance. Not every recommendation is a moral or ethical choice.

This is also a good reminder to question and think about everything you read about in SEO. Beware of myths, misinformation, misconceptions, junk science, commercial motivations and outdated information. Because all of that is everywhere. Question and test everything. 

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About The Author

Danny Goodwin is Managing Editor of Search Engine Land & SMX. In addition to writing daily about SEO, PPC, and more for Search Engine Land, Goodwin also manages Search Engine Land’s roster of subject-matter experts. He also helps program our conference series, SMX – Search Marketing Expo.

Prior to joining Search Engine Land, Goodwin was Executive Editor at Search Engine Journal, where he led editorial initiatives for the brand. He also was an editor at Search Engine Watch. He has spoken at many major search conferences and virtual events, and has been sourced for his expertise by a wide range of publications and podcasts.


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