Some say Scholarship Link Building is dead, while other SEO agencies still offer it as one of their core link building services. Are they still quality links?
Who is right?
Google has been telling webmasters to avoid building links since the Jagger update back in 2005. With the release of other search engine updates like Penguin 4.0 in 2016, Google has all but finished its war on poor quality backlinks.
Does this spell the end for Scholarship Link Building as a viable SEO tactic in 2020?
This tough question is exactly what we set out to answer with this post.
Can You Still Get .edu Links From Scholarship Link Building in 2020?
Years ago in 2015, when Scholarship link building was still picking up steam as an SEO tactic, campaigns were seeing conversion rates as high as 10%, earning up to 100 backlinks for a single scholarship.
And this was for a single investment of a measly $1,000. (Actually, more of a promise of potentially giving away $1,000.)
Hardly expensive for a large scale SEO campaign that nets 100 referring domains. Are such great results for low investment still possible?
A recent case study seems to suggest that it may be. In late 2018, out of curiosity, a rogue SEO went against Google advice and decided to test if the tactic still worked. He created his page and did his research. In the end, he had a list of 200 schools and contacts to reach out to.
He chose to send the 200 emails cold, instead of dedicating time to personalize each email for better response rates. In the end, 24 people responded. And out of those 24, 12 ended up adding links to their scholarship page. This response suggests that you might be looking at a lower response/conversion rate now, possibly because of saturation, but it is still a respectable 6%.
Which answers the question.
Yes, you can still get backlinks from a scholarship link building campaign in 2020. So much for the tactic being dead and gone.
But just exploring the possibility of getting the links is not enough.
Another question that is perhaps as important is:
Are The Links DoFollow?
When someone first had the idea to build links with scholarships ten years ago, university departments probably didn’t know any better than to give DoFollow links to anybody that emailed them.
And some SEOs cashed in big time.
It became a public core service for some agencies and a “secret weapon” for others.
But with SEO becoming more mainstream and available to the public, most departments that have anything to do with the website will be aware of some SEO basics.
They are probably aware of Google guidelines that indicate you should avoid followable links to low quality or irrelevant sites.
At least they should be.
So I scoured the web for university websites that still offer links to obvious link building schemes.
And the first one I found showed DoFollow links to extremely blatant “just for links” scholarships.
As you can see, the links on the FIU scholarship page are all DoFollow.
Including links to diet spotlight and foreclosure.com’s pages.
And this page was not the only one.
The next few pages.
Out of the next 20 university sites, I found that had links to similar scholarship sites, 19 out of 20 had DoFollow links for every single scholarship link.
That’s a whopping 95% rate of followable links, and a somewhat conclusive result showing that scholarship link campaigns in 2020 will still yield relevant backlinks.
Can You Get Links From Reputable Universities & Colleges?
A lot of the targets of these campaigns tend to be smaller institutions. Think community colleges, international or faith-specific universities, etc.
But can you get yourself extremely high authority backlinks from reputable universities in 2020?
When researching we noticed that most reputable universities had changed their approach to external scholarships on their website.
Cornell University, and many, many others, now link to searchable portals and advise students to look out for scams.
But after just going a few pages of search results, we struck gold.
Rutgers University still appears to be linking to a vast array of random scholarships.
Rutgers is a large institution with almost 70,000 students.
And it has the domain authority to match.
The domain authority is 89 with a more moderate 56 in page authority for the specific financial aid page.
So not only is it still possible to get backlinks with this tactic, but you could potentially land backlinks from very high-profile schools with lots of domain authority to spare.
Is It Cheaper Than Buying Links?
Despite Google’s best efforts to stop it, websites are still selling links (as many as 44%) and people are still using Scholarships and other strategies to build backlinks.
But which one method will get you better links for less money?
First, we have to look into what each method will cost.
What Does It Cost To Buy A Backlink?
According to a 2018 survey, a single backlink will set you back on average $361.44. And these are the prices offered when directly approaching the websites yourself, without relying on third-party services, and these can often be disguised as guest posts.
The cheapest backlink was $50. The site had 13.4k backlinks from 826 different referring domains.
The most expensive one was $3,312. This site had 115k backlinks from 2.43k referring domains.
Most other sites fell somewhere closer to the bottom end, both in terms of price as well as domain authority.
Your experience with contacting webmasters in relevant niches for your site might be completely different, but this is at least a point of reference for what prices could be.
Tip - Outright buying backlinks is not a white hat method of SEO. Guest posts may be a better option vs. buying backlinks.
What Does A Scholarship Link Building Campaign Cost?
In the 2018 case study mentioned above, the person got 12 backlinks from a scholarship and 200 cold emails.
With a dedicated campaign in 2020, you can probably easily hit somewhere around 30.
So you could offer a $5,000 Scholarship and end up paying a lot less per backlink.
But you don’t even have to put that much money down to get the desired results. In the case studies, the only amount that was disclosed was in the 2015 case study which netted 100 backlinks. For that campaign, they set the amount to an even $1,000.
But digging through the scholarships linked to on Rutgers, we were able to find several scholarships that only offered $500.
So not only could you potentially run a successful campaign with just $500 down, you could net yourself a backlink from a domain with over 32 million backlinks.
In other words, if you just landed a single link from a reputable university, you could get a backlink from a domain with more than 200 times the inbound links / referring domains for less than 1/6th of the cost.
Other Costs In A Scholarship Campaign
Unlike with buying a link, it’s not quite as simple as just emailing a few webmasters, negotiating a little bit, paying up and getting a quality back-link thrown your way.
Depending on how much you decide to do with your own elbow grease, you will have a number of additional expenses:
- Development/Writing Fees for Scholarship Page
- Wages for Employee/VA Executing Outreach Campaign
- Wages for Employee/VA Vetting Scholarship Applications
But even if we are generous, it’s hard to imagine these extra expenses exceeding say $500-1000.
So at most you would be set back $1-2,000, which is decidedly cheaper than buying any amount backlinks, and many other SEO strategies at that.
So even in a worst-case scenario with just 10 universities biting, you would still likely average under $200 per backlink.
So it might be cheap, but how will it impact the rankings of your site?
How Will the Links Impact Your SEO?
Sure, 99.2% of all top results in Google have external backlinks. We all know how important backlinks are for conquering competitive keywords.
But context and anchor text matter.
Where on the page your link is matters. Higher up means more value. In-content links outrank sidebar/directory/roundup style links. Whether or not the page is relevant to the link can matter.
Scholarship almost universally builds directory/roundup style links, which in the worst case scenario COULD penalize your site.
After all, this is considered a strong indicator of “link schemes” which violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Now the domain authority and trustworthiness of major college sites will probably help offset some of these factors.
But for some of the more obscure universities, the links might end up getting discarded completely by Google’s post-Penguin 4.0 algorithm.
Remember the example of the scholarship links on Florida Internation University that we showed you earlier?
This is what the page with the links actually looks like:
If this doesn’t look exactly like a low-quality directory/bookmark link, then I don’t know what does.
Although Google has discontinued the penalizing of sites and pages as a result of low-quality backlinks, it’s hard to imagine that these types of links were not affected by the rollout of Penguin 4.0.
.edu Backlinks Aren’t Inherently More Valued by Google & Many Get Ignored Completely
At the peak of its hype, people dedicated their entire business to this strategy.
Some SEOs even had the misconception that because of the .edu domain, backlinks from edu sites would be more valuable.
Here John Mueller, Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst, confirms that Google now ignores many of these links.
He also calls the notion that “.edu” domains are somehow inherently better a misconception.
The reality is that there is a stronger tendency (because of the vetting process) for .edu domain website to have lots of backlinks and online press coverage.
The reason is that they are official school websites. Reputable colleges with thousands of students often end up getting press coverage, linked to in student blogs, etc.
So naturally, their link profile and domain authority will be stronger than an average website.
The Main Boost Hits Your Dedicated Page (Not Your Home-page or Landing Page)
The issue with a lot of the case studies into scholarship link building is that they stop at the amount of and quality of the links.
They rarely discuss the actual SERP and organic traffic impact of implementing the strategy.
The rare exceptions admit to implementing it as a part of a broader SEO strategy, so it’s hard to isolate the results and guarantee that they were caused by specifically.
One key difference about this tactic vs. building links to a dedicated content landing page or your home page is that all the links will be to your dedicated scholarship page.
Which means that the main SEO boost will be given to that specific page. The results are
This is evident in the Case Study by Nifty Marketing where they actually published the traffic results.
While a fair amount of the traffic is obviously referral traffic, there aren’t substantial spikes or growth that coincides with the introduction/success of the campaign across the clients.
Since other tactics were being implemented at the same time, it’s hard to conclusively say whether it had any impact at all on anything other than the added traffic from the scholarship page itself.
Conclusion (Is It Still A Viable Link Building Strategy?)
Sure, scholarship link building is cheaper than straight up buying links, and gets you high-quality links faster. It also costs you much less blood, sweat, and tears than something like the skyscraper technique.
But for most businesses, the links will seem irrelevant and risk not getting picked up in rankings at all, other than scholarship page, and there will be.
If a scholarship is a viable branding opportunity for your business, your website is fairly closely related to universities (like financial institutions/law offices) and you have a close relationship with local universities already, it might still be a worthwhile investment.
You could tie it in with HR and possibly enable yourself to line up talent for the future.
You might even be able to gain some local press by taking a unique spin on the application process (which will drive even more backlinks, possibly to your homepage).
But it is not the end-all-be-all solution to your link-building problems in 2020.