Today we are going to talk about an SEO backlink image scam. I searched online for it once I unraveled the mystery, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. Nothing online about it. And so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to create an awesome piece of content that explains this scam to people and hopefully helps them avoid being scammed themselves. So let’s get into it.
What Are Backlinks?
First and foremost, what are backlinks? When someone links to your website, that’s a backlink. So you’re a website. I’m a website. I was on your website. I found awesome information. When I went back to produce my own content on my site, I linked to your website or your page as the source for that information.
Backlinks tell Google that a website’s content is valuable and reputable. So that’s why original research always gets a ton of backlinks. Especially if you’ve got research with numbers in it because people love statistics. When we craft our content stories, we can deliver a second solid punch with firm numbers supporting our analysis, our opinion, or just a particular feeling that we’ve had about a subject.
Backlinks are also one of the top three SEO ranking factors. So more good backlinks mean you’ll rise in the search engines back. Bad backlinks can bring you down by association. It’s kind of like how a man or woman is judged by their friends. A website can be judged by its backlinks.
So what are backlinks? Backlinks are basically Internet street cred. That means the more you have, the better off you are, as long as they’re high quality backlinks.Ruthie Bowles, Defy The Status Quo
How Does This Backlink Scam Work?
They’ll target you based on an image that you’ve used on your website. How do they do this? With a reverse image lookup tool. So they’ll upload an image and this tool will spit out all the websites that it can match the image to.
Then, they’ll send you a message asking them for a backlink to credit them because you took their photo. How dare you! The message likely sounds nonthreatening, which is great because you’ve probably just about lost your mind as soon as you read it.
And then you paste the link on your site again because you don’t want to be sued. You’re relieved that they were so nice about it. Boom, SEO backlink image scam complete!
It Works Because No One Wants to be Sued
This scam works because you’re relieved they’re not suing you. They could’ve served you with a takedown notice and they can sue you right off the bat for infringing on their copyright. For a real photograph owner anyway. They don’t even have to warn you; they don’t have to ask.
You’re just relieved that that is not what happened to you. Something like that could totally destroy small business and the scammers are taking advantage of that.
The Message Started an Investigative Process
So my client received the following message:
Hi, it’s James here from Pickcomfort.com. I’m reaching out because I noticed that you used one of my images in this post [he provided a link to my client’s post].
I took this photo in 2014 and it’s copywriter belongs to me and my website. Here it is: [he provides two links that appear to go to his site].
Unfortunately you didn’t give me credit for the image. I’d really appreciate it if you were able to add a source link beneath the image, could you do this?
Investigative Process Step 1: Freak Out and Confirm Your Image Source
Actually, my pre-step was freaking out. I freaked out because I said, “No, this could ruin my credibility!”
First of all, I only ever use royalty-free images or paid stock photo options, all right? I’m like, “Oh my goodness, please do not tell me that the royalty-free image sites are corrupted or something!”
I confirmed that this image was taken from Pexels, which guarantees royalty-free images. So if this photo isn’t actually royalty-free, that’s Pexels fault, not mine. “Sue them”, that’s what I’m thinking.
But at the same time, Pexels entire business strategy is built on this. So why would they run the risk of having any unusable photos in their database? That’s when the scam alerts started going off.
The freak out part of this step is optional. Confirming your image source is not.
Investigative Process Step 2: Evaluate the Message
So your next step is to evaluate the message that you’ve received. So there were some grammar errors in the message. The big one being a misspelling or improper usage of a word. He put “copywriter” instead of copyright.
He also signed the message, James H. Well, I mean that’s better than John H., right? But that could be anyone, and he didn’t even include a contact phone number in the message.
And the links are actually to the site’s media library. So it was www.pick comfort.com/wp-content/. That just means that you’ve uploaded images or media into your WordPress media library. I can upload anything I want into my media library without actually putting it on my site, but it does generate a link for it.
So you’ll see companies do this sometimes with downloadable content. They’ll put it in the media library. You put in your information to download the ebook, you hit submit, and then you go to the “thank you” page. You can click that link it shows the media that you wanted.
As I said, you can do that with anything without actually putting on your site, images, videos, documents, audio, all sorts of things.
Investigative Process Step 3: Vet the Company
My suspicions are sufficiently riled up at this point. Now, we must vet the company. I tried to look up Pick Comfort on social media. I also tried using Google and I couldn’t really find them anywhere.
They didn’t have any social media accounts and only a basic contact form on the website. I also noticed that Pick Comfort actually links its products to Amazon product pages that don’t belong to them. Based on that, I concluded that it’s likely an affiliate site trying to generate revenue.
Now for the next 48 hours (I think), anything you purchase, not just that item, Pick Comfort, will receive a commission. So now, of course, I have to avoid Amazon for the next 48 hours or else I’m giving Pick Comfort money.
Investigative Process Step 4: How Did They Find My Client?
Next, I needed to determine how they found my client. I’ve pretty much unraveled the method of attack and now I want to know how they even targeted us in the first place.
They used a reverse image lookup tool. The entire process is free when you consider the images are also free. To duplicate the process, I uploaded the image that we used in our post into the reverse lookup tool that Google provides. I found my client’s blog post after page 5.
They probably did the same thing and then sent the same message to every match that they could find for that image. All they had to do was change out the URL or the link to each company’s website and they would have a complete message pretty easy.
Reassure the Client and Calm My SEO Spidey Sense
Whew, finally done! Well, kind of. I still needed to reassure my client and confirm my suspicions. The best way to do both was to see if they’ve done this before. The average company will likely just give the backlink because they don’t have the SEO spidey sense.
Remember, most will be happy they aren’t getting sued. I don’t blame them, especially if they’re just trying to create content and they don’t necessarily have the content marketing and search engine optimization background that someone like me has. So lucky for me, and lucky for you reading this post, I actually found three examples of them succeeding in getting the backlink for images that were not theirs.
Checking a Site’s Backlinks
So how do you do this first step, check out their current backlinks? What I decided to do was use Neil Patel’s backlink tool.
His Backlinks tool is a free way to check out backlinks for your site or someone else’s site. Ahrefs also has a free backlink checker, which provides more results usually. The only thing you have to do is copy and paste the domain name into the search bar and hit enter and wait for the results.
If you pay for SEMrush or another type of SEO tool that will let you check for backlinks, then, of course, you could use that instead. But this was the easiest option and it’s free and accessible to everyone.
Successful SEO Backlink Image Scam Example 1
My first example was a real estate website that wrote an article on how to spruce up your bathroom, which is incredibly important for real estate. Especially when people are coming to view your house. You need to make sure that your bathrooms and especially your kitchen, those two areas look amazing.
This image on the left, at the bottom, you can see the arrows that I drew. You can see that they hyperlink to pick comfort as the source for this image.
And so what I did in order to find it, I searched “small orchid in bathroom” and I found the image on the right on Unsplash.
Successful SEO Backlink Image Scam Example 2
I felt that number two was really the nail in the coffin that I needed. The website is a news and trends website. Their article was about why you should wash your hands and sing at the same time. So probably singing happy birthday and washing your hands at the same time.
This particular image on the left, you can see it says in the caption: “credited to James H, Pick Comfort”, and then Pick Comfort’s URL. Wow. Just put all of it out there. And so what I did was I looked for “bathroom sink” or “running faucet” or something like that. And I found the image on the right on Unsplash.
Now to be honest, after reviewing the website, I don’t feel like this particular image was really on brand. It’s incredibly dark and I feel like they probably should have picked a different one. But I digress.
Successful SEO Backlink Image Scam Example 3
Finally, I found a gamer website. This actually attests to the accuracy of the reverse lookup tool. As you can see, the image on the left is actually altered. They put logos for different companies in the image. They’re going down the faucet cause the author was talking about leaks in the video gaming industry.
Instead of putting just Pick Comfort.com, they hyperlinked the text “image source”. But if you click on it, it goes to Pick Comfort.com. So again, I just looked up bathroom sinks and found the image on the right on Unsplash.
So as you can see, these images are royalty-free and the person claiming that they took these photos lying. And that’s the point. And that’s why we go through this exercise of checking and confirming how these things play out.
Don’t Get Taken in By This SEO Scam!
Make sure that you double-check any communications you receive about your photos or any original content that you’ve created on your website. Do your due diligence upfront when you’re producing content. What I mean by that is to make sure that your photos are royalty-free or you’re using paid stock photo options.
You have to be careful with websites like Flicker. They have great images, but oftentimes they don’t allow for commercial use. Just keep that in mind. If you outsource your content and you have content partners, make sure you vet your partners. You hire them for their expertise. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be aware of their processes, at least a high level.
When they’re giving you images to use, just ask them where they came from. If anybody does reach out to you about photos, make sure that you can easily present the source.
If you receive any information about your photos on your website, run them through this process or contact a trusted content professional and ask them to help you determine whether or not this is a scam. You don’t want to have any bad or erroneous backlinks on your site going to someone else that’s not related to what it is that you do.
Have you heard of this scam before? Has someone reached out to you to get you to place their link as an image source? Let us know in the comments!