“complete with handy guides explaining how you, too, can get in on the gold”
This is my fourteenth year as a practitioner of SEO and in that time I’ve seen a lot of tactics come and go when it comes to link building.
One thing that hasn’t waned is the demand for link building as a service, and with high demand comes a crowd of suppliers ready to build links to your site for a fee.
The Hoth are one such company.
Their name is an acronym for the phrase “Hit Em’ Over the Head” and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed by their business success.
They’ve been on the Inc 5000 – a list of America’s fastest growing private companies – for two years in a row now, reporting 2017 revenues of $10.4M.
They’ve fine tuned their sales process to become what is possibly the highest earning links provider in the entire space.
But do their links actually work? Are they risky? Are they truly ‘whitehat’ like they claim?
Or are they just a front for a market so in need of something they’ll buy anything with the best promise?
I bought some links from them to find out.
Full Upfront Disclosure
There are no affiliate links in this post so if you sign-up with The Hoth based on what I have to say here, I don’t get any credit.
I should disclose that one of the founders of The Hoth, Clayton, has ran an affiliate promotion for a product I own but that was done with my business partner and I didn’t directly benefit (it was his initiative and there were no upsells).
Still, in that sense, I have a bias to be favourable towards them.
In another other sense, I also have a competing product in Detailed Pro – I’m still convinced the best links are built through relationships – which would make me more likely to discourage using them.
I like to think these two things cancel each other out but even if you disagree, I receive no benefit if you use their services after this review.
Finally, no one at The Hoth knew I was conducting this review until just before this article went live (around six months after ordering the links).
Purchasing $849 In Links
The Hoth sell a lot of link packages which are focused on earning them repeat customers.
Those link packages have recently undergone a name change. Products like “The Hoth Mini” – which sells for $97 – is now known as HOTH Foundations Small.
They refer to these link building packages as a “natural link building strategy” but I think it’s fair to say that to anyone in the industry – and I think The Hoth would admit this themselves – this is not what a natural link sounds like:
We create mini-authority properties on powerful blogging platforms that link back to your site.
Perhaps you could state that back in 2010, but not in 2018.
They have a range of services including content writing, press release submission and even video creation, but I was solely focused on their link offerings for this review.
You can see some of the link packages that they have on offer below as part of their contextual link building services:
For my own order I decided to focus on guest posts and a tier-two “boost” package.
Here’s specifically what I purchased:
- DA 20 Guest Post with 500 words of content ($150)
- DA 30 Guest Post with 1,000 words of content ($225)
- DA 40 Guest Post with 1,000 words of content ($425)
- Tier-two links boost package ($49)
DA, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is a metric from Moz which stands for ‘Domain Authority’. The scale goes from 0-100, with the highest rated sites including the likes of Instagram, Facebook and Wikipedia.
The higher the number, the more authority a website should have, and the better a link from that site should be.
By default each guest post comes with 500 words of content written by a native English speaker, though you can bump that up (which I did for the DA 30 and 40 links).
Guest posts, when done properly, should be one of the safer types of links to purchase. Big brands have accepted guest posts from outside authors for years so although many people focus on them solely for link building, there can be a legitimacy to the tactic as well.
Keep in mind though that pretty much anything to do with acquiring links goes against Google’s guidelines so proceed with similar tactics at your own risk.
I’ll get into the links boost package I ordered a little later but my understanding is that unlike guest posts they use spun content (not human-written) on various web properties to link back to your website.
This includes a warning that it shouldn’t be used on websites you care about.
The Site I Promoted
Before I get into the links themselves, I do have to talk about the site I was promoting.
And before I get into that, I have to make an important caveat: There’s no concrete way to know if the links you purchase actually work.
You can get a good idea – you bought a link and now your site ranks higher – but with Google’s algorithm changing multiple times per day, you can’t be certain that a particular service had an affect.
For this experiment the site I used only had scraped or nofollow links pointing to it from the years it had been online. It was indexed but didn’t rank for its own name, even though it’s not a real word.
I theorised that the lack of links would give more credibility to the end result because if a site is currently picking up links from other sources – including natural ones – then it makes it harder to determine which links actually helped (if any at all).
The domain has had quite a few sites on it over the years but it wasn’t a ‘dropped’ domain in the sense that it expired and I snatched it up. Instead, I actually wanted the domain name for a project of mine and simply contacted the current owner – who had a ‘dead’ site on there – to purchase it.
It set me back a few hundred dollars but the price had nothing to do with its backlink profile. The name was sentimental to me.
Finally, when it comes to content, the site has just five articles published on it, though they are fairly in-depth and very niche-specific.
I think I’ve covered the most important points so let’s dive in to what I got for my eight and a half Benjamins (I’ve always wanted to write that).
Link #1: My Domain Authority 20+ Guest Post ($150)
Once your guest post link goes live The Hoth will send you an email that looks like this:
This first link was the cheapest and should really be the worst that I purchased.
I ordered this link on June 4th, 2018 and received confirmation the link was live on June 13th.
The site looks real and certainly doesn’t look like a PBN but the lack of an About page and anyone acting like the owner did set off an immediate red flag.
I don’t know if showing a blurry screenshot of the link is worse than no image at all but I guess you have the choice to skip past it (Edit: I decided to mix these up more so used their themes rather than actual sites to protect their owners).
I realise the irony of buying “whitehat” and “natural” links and not being able to show them but there’s a) A chance the site owners themselves don’t know what is happening on their site and b) A chance you could find other paid links that people don’t want to be found as easily.
I like that the site is still active many months later and frequently produces articles which don’t link out. In other words, posts aren’t just written there to include links from The Hoth.
It’s fair to say however that I don’t believe this link is a guest post.
There’s no obvious way to contact the owners and the site just feels like it exists for the purpose of linking to other people (even if not every article does so).
According to Ahrefs the site gets around 280 visitors per month from Google, though this was a bit higher – around 400 per month – when the link went live.
The current DA for the website is 53; much higher than what I paid for and quite a nice surprise. Though I’m not a huge fan of algorithmic ratings, Moz appear to have gotten better at this in recent months.
If you’re curious, it has an Ahrefs Domain Rating (DR) of 33.
Outside Perspective: Joshua Hardwick of Ahrefs
As I am not revealing the actual links to be respectful to the site owners who may have had no involvement, I asked other SEOs to comment on what they thought of them to bring another perspective to the table.
My first impression of the site is that it looks to be either a mediocre affiliate site or a PBN. My gut instinct was the former rather than the latter.
Having dug a little deeper in Ahrefs, I can see that the site gets a couple of hundred visitors per month. That’s not terrible. However, I also see that organic traffic has dropped off quite significantly over the past 1-2 years. That’s worrying.
Metrics aside, the link itself looks reasonably legit. I don’t think it immediately screams “paid link!,” at least not to an untrained eye. I think it’s actually the destination URL that gives it away. If the link was genuinely natural, the author would almost certainly have chosen to link to a contextually-relevant post/page as opposed to the homepage.
Digging deeper, I can see that many of the other blog posts on the site link to homepages with keyword-rich anchors and some of them are ridiculously spammy. They just have to be paid links. So I think it’s pretty clear that this site was created with the primary purpose of selling links.
I don’t think this looks like a guest post. It looks like a “Send us your article. Our publishing fee is $30” type job.
Link #2: My Domain Authority 30+ 1,000 Word Guest Post ($225)
While this site looks great aesthetically, the author situation is a little strange.
There is a real name behind the site, which appears to be a real person, but their background is a little bit…odd.
The person who claims to be the author of this site also sells content on the same topic and talks about the SEO benefits of that content.
Whenever he references his own websites from other places online – where he has a more polished bio – he never mentions the site I picked up a link from.
To me it looks like a site that was started for legitimate purposes and then solely became about being used for selling links. I don’t think the average person could reach out to them and write for them and I presume The Hoth has a special agreement with the owner.
That said, I do believe it would easily pass a quick, manual inspection. It does look good, and anyone not clued up on SEO would be happy to receive the mention.
Moz give this one a DA of 45 which is 50% more than the 30 promised, and Ahrefs give it a DR of 35.
Ahrefs also report it gets around 835 visitors per month, which is a nice increase over the previous link and shows Google care about it somewhat, though that number is incredibly low for a site with over 400 pages of content.
My article clocked in at 1,066 words so they really try to stick to the length you order. They also linked out to a few authority websites such as the LA Times which is a pretty standard practice to make articles look more “natural” and to help hide who might have purchased a link.
I wasn’t told this was going to be the case, but I don’t mind that it happened.
Outside Perspective: Cyrus Shepard of Zyppy
As I am not revealing the actual links, I asked other SEOs to comment on what they thought of them to bring another perspective to the table.
At first glance, the design of the site looks totally legitimate. Only after you dig in a little bit do you realize it’s not a real-world business. It is strange to see a page called .gov links – that’s a small red flag. The content itself feels like original, readable English. Nothing outstanding; maybe a step below eHow quality, but passible.
Next, I quickly look at the backlinks – the site has a ton, and some of them are very good! Others look like they are from the same type of built-for-ads content network as this site. Moz gives it a slightly elevated spam score, and the spam distribution is unusual. Not a total deal breaker, but another red flag.
Overall, I’d guess this link is “possibly” safe but with potentially toxic overtones depending on the chosen anchor text. If I were a link buyer, I’d be hesitant to spend much on it. I believe the seller would be reasonable in asking for $250, but I also think there’s a good chance this link may not move your rankings at all. If I knew the site in advance, I’d likely pass.
Note: Cyrus mentioned $250 as this was what I presumed I had paid for the link at the time (I gave him a range of $250 – $300). I couldn’t see my orders because I use an ad-blocker, so only figured out the $225 price later on.
Link #3: A DA 40+ 1,000 Word Guest Post ($425)
This was my most expensive link and actually went live on the ugliest website (though that’s mostly because of their WordArt-esque logo).
I think the other two are far more likely to pass a quick, manual review.
That said, the extra expense is because in theory, links from this website should pass more “weight” and put me in better stead for ranking higher.
This link had a Moz DA of 54, so above what was paid for and the highest of the three. It has an Ahrefs DR of 55 which is the first that has a higher DR than DA, and an estimated 2,700 people visit the site each month from Google.
That said, I couldn’t find an about page or a contact page on the site – even when doing a site: search in Google – so once again I don’t believe this was a genuine guest post.
Update: Writing this on December 18th, 2018, the site has so far published five articles for the month. Four of those were clearly written for links from The Hoth’s service, while one only linked out to very large brands who I would be very surprised to find purchasing links.
Search traffic has also increased in recent weeks according to Ahrefs. Going from averaging around 2,700 visitors per month to 4,100.
For as much as we can trust estimated search traffic, the site appears to have taken a pretty big hit in August of 2017 but may have just started a recovery.
Outside Perspective: Brian Dean of Backlinko
As I am not revealing the actual links, I asked other SEOs to comment on what they thought of them to bring another perspective to the table.
Overall, the site design and layout looks decent. And the post reads well. So it definitely doesn’t look like an obvious PBN site.
The only red flag for me were the links in the post. I counted 2 external links. Both of which were to commercial sites. For an article like this I’d expect at least a few links to Wikipedia or the NHTSA. That would have gone a long way in making the paid links look more natural.
Next, I poked around the site a little bit.
Again, the content was all well-written. Much better than you’d find on most PBN sites.
However, the site lacked that certain something that most real sites have like:
- An about page
- Author information
- Contact information
- Newsletter signup
- Social media accounts
Finally, I looked at some of the data behind the site.
According to Ahrefs, the site has some baller links (including a few .edu links). And gets $1k worth of organic traffic every month, which is pretty high for a PBN site and suggests that Google views this a real website.
Overall, I’d say this link is OK. The link might help you rank because it’s from a site with a decent link profile. But it would have a hard time passing a manual review.
I had given Brian a sentence of what I initially thought of the site, but it’s nice to see we pretty much had the same thoughts.
It’s certainly not terrible, but there are some oddities.
An Important Intermission
I’ve made the same comment three times in a row now so before I get into whether the links had any affect at all, I should address whether I actually received what I ordered when it comes to guest posts.
My understanding with what a “legitimate” guest post should be is that you:
- Find a site that accepts guest posts
- Pitch them on an article idea they might like
- If they do, you write up the article and they publish it
It’s pretty simple.
In fact, the Hoth do have their own graphic that represents this:
That picture was taken from my actual order receipt so there’s no confusion about what I ordered and what they believe I ordered.
Of course, in the world of selling guest posts as a service, this process does make things harder for service providers.
If they’re going to charge lower prices and be efficient, they likely don’t want to go through a back and forth every time they’re submitting an article.
With that said, I ordered “natural” guest posts and I’m pretty certain that is not what I received.
I’m not angry about this – I expected this to be the case and anyone in SEO for a while will likely expect the same – but I’m sure there are people just starting their SEO journey reading this and they should be aware of this likelihood.
I’ve purchased tens of thousands of dollars in links over the years and will likely spend many thousands more but I know exactly what I’m buying and the risks involved. If these relationships from The Hoth are not natural, that’s something to keep in mind.
I did ask:
(Note: I don’t have a Hoth account with an @Detailed.com email address. I just used that for support).
I then received this response:
It’s clear this was a pretty templated reply – I didn’t suggest PBNs were at stake or ask for an Ahrefs report – but I appreciate that it was quick.
I followed up one more time and received this:
Though I understand they don’t want to share personal communications and I’m taking up their time, I think it’s fair to assume that the proof I asked for simply doesn’t exist.
I should reiterate that I’m not surprised if that is the case. After all, I paid money for a link, so even if it was done “naturally” it’s still not really natural.
I wasn’t sure whether to mention this last point but I believe I found a strong connection between two of the sites I received links from. It certainly wasn’t an obvious footprint but still something I notified The Hoth about so they can take care of if it is the case.
I have no way of knowing for certain, so to be fair I have to give them the benefit of the doubt here.
Perhaps Most Importantly: Do The Links Work?
When I’m buying links I understand there are risks involved. There are risks involved in SEO even when you don’t buy links, but you should be cautious about the products and services you use.
What matters to me when I’m purchasing links is whether or not they get results.
Hopefully this section isn’t too anticlimatic but as I said in the introduction, it’s pretty much impossible to know for sure.
There are so many factors that go into rankings that you just can’t say for certain.
All three links were pointed to the homepage of the site and used its name as the anchor text of the link to be as safe as possible.
Within days they were picked up by Ahrefs. I think that’s both a testament to how active the Ahrefs crawler is and how ‘real’ the sites were that I purchased links from.
I have over a decade of experience and using that as my best barometer I think it’s fair to say that they helped, yes.
The site never ranked for anything in the few months it was indexed in Google – including its own name – and purchasing links from The Hoth was literally the only thing I did to the site after that.
It finally started ranking first for its own name, and also picked up a few top 100 rankings for some keywords in articles already published on the site.
Here are the stats in Ahrefs:
The extra links are basically just people scraping the sites I picked up The Hoth links from and random links that most websites tend to pick up over time.
Over the last 28 days the site picked up 57 visitors from Google from 720 impressions.
The results certainly weren’t mind-blowing but I never expected them to be. The site has very little content on it and no other links of any value besides those from The Hoth.
Also, I would expect to spend quite a bit more money – and get a lot more links – to have a real impact from any service.
It’s very hard to test link building services as there are many factors at play, so it’s easier to look into whether the links appear to be of a high quality, rather than being able to judge the exact effect of them.
I guess a more important question I have to ask is whether I would purchase them again.
For my own sites where I accept the risks that these more than likely are not guest posts, I would buy them again…with some important caveats.
For internal pages which can be harder to pick up links to I would be happy with some of their DA 20 and DA30 links if they were all of the same quality. I don’t think the price jump for the DA 40 link was worth it.
I would not buy them for client sites unless a client specifically said, “I want paid links, fast. I don’t care if they tank the site in the future. I just want something to happen.”
I don’t expect that conversation coming up anytime soon so I wouldn’t personally use them for client sites, even though having their service be whitelabelled is a big part of what they focus on.
A $49 Small Boost: Taking One for the Team
After finishing one of my orders, I saw an upsell offer that looked like this:
I was building these links purely to write this article – I can live with the site not ranking – so I decided I would give it a shot.
Note that my own boost offer was focused on high DA sites but did not include EDU / Gov links.
I refer to this as taking one for the team as when you go to place your order, they make you check a box to say that you’re not building these links for a site you care about.
I checked the box then ignored it – #madlads – and sent all links, with some varying anchor text, to a single internal page on the site.
Just to clarify, this was all done just a couple of weeks ago and six months after the first three links had a chance to “kick in”.
That’s why I’m able to share a new Ahrefs graph of the links pointing to the site.
Before ‘The Boost’:
After ‘The Boost’:
When The Hoth sent me my report, the 50+ links they promised included 55 links.
Every link I received was from either a .info or .us domain.
They seemed to ignore the anchor text that I asked for, though they didn’t state they would only use the anchor text I provided to them.
One of my links literally had the anchor text ‘next page’.
They were right in making you check a box that states you don’t want to point these links to your own site: You’re likely going to have to disavow them later.
They are not nice links.
They are however a good way to find other people likely using their services so you can spy on their results, hah.
I don’t think it’s fair to judge them too much on this because of the price and the admission upfront to be careful, but this was probably a complete waste of money.
This could be a total coincidence, but a fortnight after ordering these links my site no longer ranks first in Google for its own name, even though it had held the position for months.
The name of the site is not a dictionary word so it’s uncommon, but this was quite a surprise to me.
I’m now second in Google so it’s not a huge drop but I would be surprised if it’s coincidental.
My Hoth Review Summary
If you didn’t get a chance to read every word in this review, let me break down my thoughts.
- The links had a far higher DA than I ordered (the DA 20 article has a DA of 53)
- The links arrived in eight days, even though I was told to expect to wait around four weeks
- Support was incredibly fast, even if I didn’t get the response I was looking for
- The sites publish articles that don’t always link out making them more legitimate
- The links appeared to help
- The DA 40 link was not worth the price increase
- I have a strong suspicion I did not receive guest posts (this is a pretty huge con)
- I don’t think they’re “safe enough” for client sites
- I think a single link would have gotten the same results
So should you use The Hoth? Will their links help rank your sites?
That really depends on your goals, the niche you’re in, and how many links you will likely need to beat the competition.
I don’t think you can show these off in a client report and say “Look what I built for you!” (and you shouldn’t), but for your own sites in difficult niches or where you need another internal link or two, they are one of the cheapest providers out there.
Keep in mind that this review was solely for their guest post links and the boost package, which for the latter I agreed would not be used on a site I care about (though it partially was).
The Hoth offer a lot of services so I imagine guest post links only make up a small percentage of their 8-figure revenue.
I can’t deny I’m curious to see how far their network and connections scale (i.e. what would the quality be like if I ordered 50 links at once) but I probably won’t be the one to find out.
If you’ve used The Hoth or plan to use them, I would love to read your thoughts…
P.S. This was one of my first blog posts in a decade where I am not sending an email about it. I have a feeling most of the people who read my content don’t care about this topic but if you would like to see me do more service reviews I would love to write them so please do let me know.