How Guest Bloggers are Sleepwalking Their Way into Penalties
Posted by James Finlayson
This post was originally in YouMoz, and was promoted to the main blog because it provides great value and interest to our community. The author’s views are entirely his or her own and may not reflect the views of SEOmoz, Inc.
How do you get links in a post-penguin world? For far too many the answer seems to be, exclusively, guest posting. Today I’m going to give you four reasons why I think this tactic is as dangerous as those it replaced.
Note: I’m not about to say that ‘all’ guest posting is bad – in the same way not all directories are automatically spammy. I’m also not about to say ‘all’ guest bloggers will be penalised. What I will do is point out the dangers of guest posting as Google becomes increasingly intelligent; and what you can do to avoid them.
Penguin really hurt sites that relied on low-quality links. Many have responded by setting a minimum domain authority threshold when prospecting. To keep the process efficient they then remove sites with a DA over a certain level – seeing these as less likely to accept content.
No new site owner ever sat down and thought ‘hmm, well I best not link to buybluewidgets.com today, my domain authority’s only 28 – I’ll wait a few months’. Equally, the reason Mashable's not linking to you isn't because your DA has yet to hit a magical level. If you offer something of value links naturally come from a huge variety of high, medium and low quality sites. High quality links are rare naturally, that’s part of what makes them so valuable, but they do occur. As a result, a completely natural link portfolio looks something like this:
I’ve now started to see new sites, fresh out of a ‘successful’ outreach campaign whose link portfolio looks like this:
There’s little way that this could have occurred un-engineered and, if it’s obvious to us then it’ll be obvious to Google too.
"Mass guest posting is dangerous because it creates an unnatural looking link quality graph." [tweet]
Conventional wisdom tells us that directories are bad, blogs are good and academic links are amazing. Tools like Link Research Tools and Linkdex allow you to break up your competitors’ links by type – if SEO tools can do this then so can Google. I took a vertical at random and wasn’t surprised to see this:
It’s not unusual to find sites with a huge percentage of their links coming from directories and these are sites we currently think of as having engaged in low-quality link building. So your site proudly strides in to the market and builds this profile:
I’m not saying that you need to replicate the industry standard – that’s not going to put you ahead of your competitors. I am saying “A link profile made up of only one type of link looks unnatural – whatever those links are.” [tweet]
Google devalued footer links because they’re too easy to game. Google devalued sidebar links because they were being purchased en masse. Are links in author boxes next? When you’re consistently relying on links in guest-post author boxes you’re building a very obvious footprint. Due to the author box’s proximity to the author markup, relatively standard layout and positioning on the page it would be incredibly easy for Google to algorithmically target them in the same way it did sidebars and footers.
When a link’s in the middle of a post there’s an assumption that it’s there because it’s relevant. When a link’s in the author box it’s rarely there for the benefit of the user – it’s the writer’s payment for the post. It’s a box in which the author advertises themselves. So it could be argued the author box is a form of paid advertisement. How long until Matt Cutts does a video saying those links should be no-followed?
That’s all before you consider that the link’s in a box that gets skipped over by readers. That means you can expect virtually no traffic from it. Wouldn't it be better to be building links that drive traffic as well as rankings?
“Anchor-text-heavy links in author boxes look fishy, even to non-marketers; let’s stop building them.” [tweet]
Google’s really started to push authorship as an important signal. So, many guest bloggers have used their own name (or repeatedly the same name) in each of their guest posts to build up their authority. This has led to a great new form of competitor link-building. If you’re an agency, this creates a competitive issue:
Whoever you are, this creates two other problems:
- Your competitors can Google your name and easily find your link-building efforts – no SEO tool necessary.
- Whichever domain you’re building links to has a large number of their links coming from a single author.
Every SEO knows how important domain diversity is; having a large number of your links coming from a single author is the authorship version of putting them all on the same domain. Assuming all other factors are equal (including average link quality), which of these do you think Google would be likely to rank more highly:
In real life it’s natural to assume a company that has lots of people talking about it is more important than one nobody's heard of – that has very few people mentioning it; shouldn’t Google follow the same principal with linking authors?
Let’s assume Google gets smarter still. On your Google profile there’s a nice box for you to enter your employment history. What if Google used that data to make a graph similar to this?
Search engines see links as an indicator of quality because they’re essentially recommendations. If most of a company’s recommendations are coming from its own employees would you trust them? You’d probably just ignore those recommendations. What if Google decided to discount all links created by a company’s own employees? Simpler still, what if Google decided to ignore all links created by SEOs where those links are in articles that aren’t talking about SEO? Google’s collecting all this data now, why wouldn’t it use it?
“One person authoring the majority of your links looks like link building – because it is.” [tweet]
Fundamentally, this all comes back to Dr Pete’s Top 1 SEO Tips For 2013 – diversify. Each of the issues is a problem of oversimplifying the link building process. I’m convinced that taking a holistic view to inbound marketing not only provides the highest ROI, but will increasingly become the only ‘safe’ way to aggressively grow a company’s reach online.
- Don’t rely on any one type of site for a majority of your links; build links of all types into your plans.
- Be aware of the quality of links you're building, but make sure to keep the overall portfolio looking natural.
- Don't use a single author for all your content – vary it between different, real, people. When using external writers, use their authorship to help further vary the mix.
- Split up different parts of a client’s campaign between different team members; that way there should naturally be a slightly different approach applied across the client’s links.
- Oversimplifying a link building process may make it faster, but the footprint it generates also makes it riskier.
Have you begun to scale back, or even phase-out, guest posting? Let me know in the comments below.
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