Should You Add Attribution To Websites You Design For Clients?

Is it harmless? Is it helpful? Is it the right thing to do?

Years ago every web designer and his (or her) duck would be adding an attribution link to the footer section of any website they designed.

Couldn’t hurt, could it? A little bit of free advertising, and perhaps some even thought that it might help with SEO.

But times, they are a’changin’, and the world of web design has moved on. WordPress has taken over (almost half of all websites, which feels very much like taking over), and attitudes have changed.

Not to mention the rules of SEO. 

So the big question is this: should you add an attribution link back to your own website on any website you design and build for your clients?

In this post I’m going to sift through the evidence, examine what other people are doing, draw in various opinions, and weigh up the arguments for both sides, before offering some sage and practical advice for getting this thorny issue right.

The early days of the internet and website building was much like the Wild West. Dropping attribution links in any website you built (or even had a hand in) was pretty much par for the course. Each of these links was seen as a seed that could help grow a web development business, and with SEO as basic as it was back then, this worked.

In those earlier days, what mattered to the search engines was largely the number of backlinks a website had.

It was simpler back then.

Adding attribution links mattered, and it did do some good. I’ve spoken with many web developers who were established back then, and most confirmed that they did get leads as a direct result of people clicking on those ‘Website Designed By’ links emblazoned across the footer of every page.

But then the dusty red tones of the sandy streets in the Wild West were replaced with quite a lot of black and white animals – most notably, pandas and penguins.

Google’s Panda and Penguin updates to its algorithms fundamentally changed the landscape for SEO, and indiscriminate footer links were dead. What mattered wasn’t the number of backlinks. It was something many people didn’t even foresee – quality.

I remember very clearly overnight almost, many highly established brand names almost completely vanished from the search engine results pages. Those companies that had been churning out keyword-stuffed beige content offering little to any human reader, whilst generating (and buying) as many backlinks as possible… were gone.

Blown away like the bad guy’s stetson at the end of the western.

But although the message was clear – quality mattered, and spammy, low-quality backlinks didn’t (and may even trigger penalties), something got lost in the murky gray area between what was clearly out, and what was absolutely needed – attribution links.

Nobody was terribly clear about where they stood with these.

And even today many designers will argue fervently that they remain a cheap and misguided way of adding spammy backlinks that won’t do any good, whilst many others will argue that they’ve gained genuine leads and clients as a direct result of these links.

But the argument goes much further than that. I think it can’t just be thought of in terms of SEO.

Because there’s a bigger issue at stake.

Yes – bigger than SEO.

Footers used to be the domain of the web developer. A thin horizontal banner that contained a general copyright notice, and a link back to the designer’s page. But just as with SEO and the search engines’ algorithms… times have changed dramatically down at the very bottom of the internet.

It’s easy to assume, in these days of limited attention spans, that the humble footer isn’t really anything to get too worked up about. Hardly anyone ever sees them, right? Maybe the client won’t even notice your link?


As Andy Crestodina of Orbit Media Studios noted, the footer is now hugely important – the safety net at the bottom of every web page, there to catch visitors who don’t find what they’re looking for on the page they happen to have landed on.

And he references a survey carried out by Chartbeat that shows just what a huge proportion of visitors do actually make it all the way to the very bottom of even the longest page. Those footer links are getting eyeballed. A lot. And the clicks are happening.

This makes it much harder to justify sneaking an attribution link into a footer. Clients may not be happy about having what amounts to an advert for another company sitting on every page of their site.

After all, it’s not like your design company did them a favor. They paid for the service provided.

Their web hosting company isn’t advertising their service at the bottom of every web page. So why should you?

The general feeling amongst many of those caught up in this debate is that, yes, it no longer makes sense to add an attribution link in a site-wide footer. But having no attribution anywhere is also not necessarily the alternative.

I’ve talked with several developers and design agencies who have moved from using the footer for their attribution link, to including a small section near the end of the ‘About Us’ page. This can acknowledge the collaborative effort of the designer in constructing the website, with a link back to their site.

But in response to this opinion there have been many who have warned against this. And for a very good reason:

Case studies.

The problem is that many developers and designers will feature at least some of their clients in a case study published on their own page. Certainly here at Atarim, we have quite a few case studies published on our website. And every single one of them includes a link back to that client’s website.

See the problem?

For years Google has been warning about the use of reciprocal links – a bright beacon warning of almost certain link sharing or link swapping game tactics, and very much frowned upon. Those of us who have been around for a few years will almost certainly have known of people who signed up to link swapping schemes, and later suffered the consequences very badly when the algorithms caught up.

So if you have links to all of your clients on your website, and they all have links back to your website, that sounds very much as though there’s a danger of being flagged by Google for creating reciprocal links as part of a link-sharing scheme.

However, John Mueller – Search Relations Team Lead at Google, said recently that reciprocal links aren’t necessarily bad, and that in general, they’re fine.

Which of course immediately split the field, with many SEO professionals taking this to mean that reciprocal links are the way to go, and others advocating very firmly against it.

Google’s own documentation clearly states that “Buying or selling links to manipulate results and deceive search engines violates our guidelines”, but having a link to one of your clients as part of a case study, and having a link on their ‘About Us’ page recognising the work you did helping them develop their website is a far cry from Google’s warning.

In another document Google covers link spam, and states that “Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking are likely to be considered link spam” – with all the penalties such an assessment will include.

Although Google does not outlaw link sharing, or even the buying and selling of links, they do state that:

“It’s not a violation of our policies to have such links as long as they are qualified with a rel=”nofollow” or rel=”sponsored” attribute value to the <a> tag.”

This echoes the sentiment of many developers I have spoken with, who all firmly believe that any attribution link should always be marked as “nofollow”. Since there is no PageRank value, and minimal risk that the link could be considered spammy, it makes sense to mark any attribution link this way, since its only primary purpose can be as an up-front, open, and transparent recommendation.

Which brings us to another issue – one that I’m surprised not more people have been discussing.

The Danger of WordPress

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the statistic that WordPress now powers over 46% of websites on the internet, including big names such as Sony, CNN, Disney, Spotify, Microsoft News, Nasa, cPanel, The White House, and even (hold your breath) – Taylor Swift.

At this point it’s pretty much a given that, as a designer, you’ll almost certainly have built (and will continue to build) many WordPress sites.

See the problem yet?

Maybe you have a hugely successful post-project maintenance package pitch that nets you almost every single client. But maybe not. Maybe not every client wants to pay for ongoing maintenance.

Again, we’ve all been there.

We’ve all had those customers who insist you design and build a beautiful website, and just because it’s WordPress, they feel they have the confidence (and lack of budget and foresight) to manage the ongoing maintenance themselves.

The danger is that you could go to all of the effort to design and create a truly magnificent website, of which you can be justly proud. You agree with the client that you can add your brand name and website address to their site, and off you go.

And off the client goes, adding content, installing a few new plugins a friend said were quite good, not updating the theme, trying out a bit of custom CSS they found in a forum online… and slowly, and surely, your glittering creation is starting to look more like a disaster. The whole thing starts slowing down, pages are missing, errors, bad links, wonky graphics – even security warnings.

And right there in the middle of it all – your brand name and website address.

This is the growing problem we face – clients who take over websites we’ve built, and over which we no longer have any control. Unless you have an excellent on-going care package, is it really worth the risk to have websites emblazoned with your brand name and website address that could end up jeopardizing your reputation?

So what’s the answer?

Having spoken to many people in the industry, my opinion is this:

  • Don’t add a site-wide attribution link in the footer of a website unless (i) the client agrees that they are happy for you to do this, and (ii) you have an on-going maintenance package that will ensure you have control over the appearance, performance, and security of the website, and are able to remove your link should this come to an end.
  • Do add a small section in the About Us page, if the client agrees, in which the collaborative process of designing and building the website can include your name and link, as long as you have a maintenance package in place.
  • Do feel free to add links to clients in your case studies pages, or your portfolio, as these are not likely to trigger any penalty where reciprocal links are concerned.
  • Do try extremely hard to put an excellent after care maintenance package in place! Not only is this often the more lucrative part of any project, it also gives you the ability to have greater control over those links that could be valuable to your brand.

Delivering a website maintenance package is a no-brainer, providing you with:

  • A regular income stream for relatively little outlay of resources
  • Better control over the quality of websites potentially linking to yours
  • Keeps your brand name in your client’s mind, increasing the likelihood of them thinking of you should they have a conversation with someone about recommending a good website designer

We’ve written about how to sell an ongoing website maintenance package to clients, and how Atarim can help you achieve this.

Many web development teams and hosting companies have taken advantage of Atarim to be able to sell a maintenance package to their clients as it massively simplifies the entire workflow needed.

Forget endless emails, phone calls, unclear screenshots, and confusing conversation threads.

With Atarim at the core of your maintenance plans, clients can simply click anywhere on any page of their live website, and leave a virtual sticky note with their comments, or requests for edits, right there and then.

They can even use the Atarim Chrome extension to do this on any website in just two clicks.

And from your point of view, each of these virtual sticky notes hides a powerful tool, immediately creating a task in the Atarim dashboard that includes the client’s notes, a screenshot capturing exactly what they were looking at (including the browser and screen resolution), and all this delivered directly to a shared inbox. 

For a limited time we’re offering a FREE 7-day trial of ALL Premium features! Just sign up to Atarim for free, and click the green bar at the top of your dashboard to grab this deal while it lasts. If you decide it’s every bit as good as others have said it is, then paid plans start from only $20 a month.

(And you don’t even have to include an attribution link back to us to say thanks for saving you so much time! 😉)

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