How The Apache Software Foundation Earns $246.000/Year Selling Dofollow Links for SEO

Apache, The World’s Largest Open Source Foundation is selling dofollow links for SEO benefits, in direct violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. The list includes multiple gambling websites, VPN & privacy websites, hosting review websites, dietary supplements, etc. Here’s the full story.

What is The Apache Software Foundation (ASF)?

In their words:

Established in 1999, the ASF is a US 501(c)(3) charitable organization, funded by individual donations and corporate sponsors. Our all-volunteer board oversees more than 350 leading Open Source projects, including Apache HTTP Server — the world’s most popular Web server software.

How are they selling links for SEO?

ASF is selling links on the Sponsor Thanks page.

If you only take a quick glance at the page, then you will be impressed by big sponsors like Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Comcast, IBM, Bloomberg, Huawei, Target, etc.

But if you go down the page you will also find two small sections: Bronze Sponsors and Targeted Bronze Sponsors. These blocks of sponsors don’t have any logos, just text links, thus making them easy to miss. But let’s take a closer look.

At the time of writing this (7th of September, 2019) there is a total of 41 bronze sponsor links (31 regular bronze sponsors and 10 targeted bronze sponsors). Among them are:

  • 7 Gambling links;
  • 6 Web Hosting links;
  • 4 Privacy / VPN links;
  • 4 Blogging & Affiliate Marketing links;
  • 1 Dietary Supplements link;

To see how much this costs, we can take a look at the Sponsorship page. There we can see the four sponsorship levels: Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze.

The Bronze level of sponsorship is $6,000 / year, or $500 / month. The plan’s description says that the links are NOFOLLOW. But, if you pay for multiple years then the NOFOLLOW rel attribute is dropped.

OK, let’s take a look at the number of links that have the NOFOLLOW attribute.

Hmm. The whole Sponsors page has only one nofollowed link, all the rest are just regular links with all the SEO benefits.


How strong are these links?

In short: very.

According to MOZ Link Explorer, the apache.org domain has a 94 Domain Authority index, with 705K domains linking to it. It ranks in search engines for 225.000+ search terms.

And here’s what SEMRush thinks about the apache.org domain.

Additionally, the ASF website is mirrored on a few other domains. Because of this, there are multiple domains and URLs that contain these sponsored links. So in reality you don’t get just one backlink.

We can see this in the following screenshot from SEO SpyGlass, a tool that I use to find and analyze domain backlinks.

Furthermore, the ASF website does not force HTTPS and a WWW or non-WWW structure. Because of this, the Sponsors page can be accessed via four different URLs:

  1. http://apache.org/foundation/thanks
  2. https://apache.org/foundation/thanks
  3. http://www.apache.org/foundation/thanks
  4. https://www.apache.org/foundation/thanks

For many of the websites on the Sponsors list, the link from apache.org is one of their strongest backlinks, even for giants like VerizonMedia. Let’s take a quick look at their strongest inbound links, again courtesy of MOZ:

Two different links from apache.org, one from the WWW version and one from the non-WWW version.


When did the ASF start selling links to dubious “sponsors”?

Using the Wayback Machine we can see snapshots of this page starting from 2012. Looking at the list of all sponsors, they all seem legit and very relevant to this industry.

But then in March of 2016 the Bronze Sponsors list started getting less relevant.

  • The first one was ChameleonJohn Coupons, which we can see in the March 11 2016 snapshot.
  • The next snapshot from June 8 2016 has 5 new bronze sponsors, the total number jumped from 8 to 13. Among them are an online casino, a clothing online shop and a hosting reviews website.
  • One week later (June 17 2016), we see 2 new bronze sponsors: another online casino and a stag & hen party planner.
  • In the snapshot from August 11 2016, the total number of bronze sponsors jumps to 16. The new sponsors are a hosting reviews website and a Make Money online website (“Binary Option Robot Info”).
  • In the snapshot from August 29 2016, the total number of bronze sponsors jumps to 18. The new sponsors are WebsiteSetup and “7 Binary Options”, a clone of the previously featured “Binary Option Robot Info” sponsor.
  • By the end of 2016, in the snapshot from December 29 2016, the total number of bronze sponsors is 21. Among them are: 2 casino links, 2 “binary options” (make money online) links, 2 hosting reviews links and even a FOREX-related link.
  • One year later, in the snapshot from December 28 2017, the total number of bronze sponsors fell to 17. But the casino, hosting, FOREX and make money online sponsors are still on the list.
  • Another year later, in the snapshot from December 31 2018, the total number of bronze sponsors jumped to 24. The lineup included 6 gambling websites, 4 hosting websites, 2 VPN websites, etc.
    Also in 2018 a new type of sponsorship was introduced: Targeted Sponsors. A new list with Targeted Bronze Sponsors was created, but as far as I’m concerned, this list contains links that are relevant to the industry.
  • In the snapshot from June 10 2019, the total number of bronze sponsors was 26.
  • In the snapshot from July 2 2019, the total number of bronze sponsors was 27. Yet another VPN sponsor.
  • Two weeks later, in the snapshot from July 16 2019, the total number of bronze sponsors was 28. Journal Review is the new sponsor.
  • And finally, in the most recent snapshot from August 22 2019, the total number of bronze sponsors jumps to 30. LeoVegas Indian Online Casino and Top10VPN are the newest additions.
  • Sometimes between August 22 2019 and September 7 2019, a new type of sponsor became fascinated with open source software. This time a medical supplements website – Gundry MD.

If they keep up with the current pace of attracting sponsors, by the end of the year the list could jump to 40 sponsors. The quality and type of these sponsors can go much, much lower.

Remember: these are dofollow links, on the same page as sponsors like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. What a company to be in.

How much is a quarter million dollars?

The Apache Software Foundation has a page dedicated to Public Records, where anyone can take a look at some of their internal documents and filings.

One such document is the Fiscal Year 2016-2017 Annual Report.

If I read this report correctly, then in the year 2016 they have earned $972,716 from contributions and have spent $946,589 of it, while the total assets of the foundation are close to 2 million US dollars.

In 2016 they had 21 bronze sponsors: $126,000 (21 x $6,000). That is 12.95% of all declared contributions, unless I misunderstood their annual report.

In 2019 they have 41 bronze sponsors (31 bronze + 10 targeted bronze): $246,000 (41 x $6,000). It is unknown what percentage of their total contributions for the year that represents.

Is this legal?

Yes, this is perfectly legal. You are allowed to get paid for placing links on your website.

Is this ethical?

My personal opinion is that it is unethical to sell these links to some of the sponsors. The intentions of many of these bronze sponsors are very obvious. It doesn’t look good for the ASF to be linking to (thus supporting) gambling websites, make money online websites, etc., especially on the same page with sponsors like Microsoft, Google, IBM, etc.

Is this against Google’s Guidelines?

Yes, very much so.

This is a direct violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. To read what Google thinks about paid links, you should start with these two pages:

  1. Use rel=”nofollow” for specific links;
  2. Quality Guidelines: Link schemes.

ASF’s “Follow” link with multi-year commitment sponsorship rule does not make these links any more legitimate in relation to Google’s Guidelines.

Is Anyone Else Doing This?

Yes. I have analyzed the backlinks of some bronze sponsors of The ASF and have found other software foundations doing this.

The Python Software Foundation (PSF)

A similar sponsorship program can be seen on the Python Software Foundation Sponsors page (PSF). Two of their cheapest sponsorship levels, Copper and Iron, cost $2,000 / year and $500 / year respectively.
In terms of SEO you get the same benefits, so the $500 plan is as good as it can be.

All links on their Sponsors page are dofollow links. There are zero nofollow links on the whole page.

Who can sponsor the PSF?

In their words (emphasis is mine):

Any organization is welcome to apply for sponsor membership. Approval of the membership is conditional on a vote by the PSF Sponsor Working Group, comprised of Foundation members and staff.

To be fair to The Python Software Foundation, I did not see any obviously irrelevant sponsors on the page. The way I see it, the PSF Sponsor Working Group are moderating the type of sponsors they can list. So I don’t hold this practice against them. But Google might.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)

EFF is the leading nonprofit defending digital privacy, free speech, and innovation.

They have a Thanks page where a lot of sponsors are listed, similar to the previous two foundations.

There are even some gambling-related links and obviously a bunch of VPN-related links. The important part is that all of their sponsored links are nofollow, even the top-tier ones ($10,000+). Just take a look:

Those with a keen eye might have spotted an innocent typo for one of the $1,000 sponsors. The link is rel=”no follow” instead of rel=”nofollow”. I’m sure that ExpressVPN.com are pretty happy with that mistake :)

So EFF are playing by the rules and are nofollowing all sponsored links, which is the right way to handle this situation. Good job EFF, keep it up!


In Conclusion

At first I thought this is not worth writing about publicly. In a way this is a great SEO tip, a great way to buy strong backlinks that have a low probability of a manual penalty. Who is going to report an organization like ASF for selling links?

But no matter how you look at it, this is wrong. It’s one thing to list sponsors that are relevant to your industry, but gambling links? Dietary supplements? The ASF is better than that.

What do you think? Was this worth writing about?


Update #1: September 10, 2019

My tweet announcing this blog post got good attention on Twitter in the SEO circles.

One of the commentators was John Mueller (@JohnMU), Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google.

A good conversation started in a retweet from Dr. Pete Meyers, Marketing Scientist at Moz.

An expected angry reaction came from multiple Twitter accounts with 5-10 followers. They are obviously unhappy by the fact that someone decided to out a charitable organization for selling gambling and dietary supplements links.

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10 Replies to “How The Apache Software Foundation Earns $246.000/Year Selling Dofollow Links for SEO”

  1. Samuel

    Apache, The World’s Largest Open Source Foundation is selling dofollow links for SEO benefits, in direct violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines

    Honestly, you are not the Google Police. You have absolutely no right to command someones to use the tags you thing they should. Any webmaster is free to sell links in the way they see fit, because Google Guidelines are just that. Not a federal law or something.

    I got your point, tho. Making a post that can bring some links and traffic to your website is always a good idea.

    • Dumitru Brinzan

      Thank you Samuel for your comment.

      I don’t think that I made any requests for Apache or anyone else to change their HTML code, so I did not command anyone to do anything.

      I can however point out when someone acts unethically (in my opinion).

      Of course you and anyone else are free to disagree with me, nothing wrong with that.

  2. Hasan Deniz

    Nice find.. It is pretty obvious that Google may take some measures. Or perhaps they already did… According to John they do not count these links (-meehh-).

    One other thing is the way you mention VPN and dietary supplements websites. You sound as if they are “bad” websites.. VPN is a great thing, so is dietary stuff… The business or the particular company that has a link may have some some bad name or something but this should not be reflected as “all bad” for the whole industry…

    • Dumitru Brinzan

      Thank you Hasan for commenting.

      I think most people would agree that there are certain topics that are associated with spammy, low quality websites. Among them are dietary supplements.
      VPN providers are not bad by default, of course. I have mentioned this genre of websites because of their quantity.

      As for Google and any potential actions, that’s not even the main purpose of the post.

      What I wanted to show is that a reputable and important organization like ASF can just accept money from almost anyone and list them on their website as supporters with a dofollow link.
      Would they accept a sex shop there too? How about a hentai website or male enhancement drugs?
      Is there a limit?

  3. Kyle Alm

    There is a good chance that Apache doesn’t need to get a lot of discovery from search terms.

    My hypothesis is, ASF probably figures they show up in search just fine when people Google their Apache branded queries. Could they be experiencing a small penalty for it already?

    It does sound like Google has dealt with this already and have other ways of detecting if these are sponsored links or not. Pretty interesting.

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