Digital marketers live and die by Google's link schemes guidelines. No one wants their business or client to get penalized, and how to avoid penalties is a hot topic these days.
Just when we – the content marketers, the link builders, the SEO professionals, the link earners, the relationship builders, and the growth hackers – thought we were safe, Google updated its link schemes guidelines, and there are some major changes.
They actually mention guest posts now and the Internet is pointing fingers and going crazy. So, pretty much business as usual.
Denial vs. Overreaction
It seems like there are two camps where these link schemes updates are concerned. There are the link builders who are denying that anything is happening, and the other camp that is pointing at the link builders and saying "I told you so!"
I'm in the link building camp, but I'm not denying anything. In fact, I want to address the elephant in the room and maybe even take its photo.
I think the combination of a rational analysis and common sense is the best approach here. We don't need to have a meltdown, we don't need to point fingers and we don't need to ignore the update. A calm examination of the new link schemes guidelines page is all we need.
Google's Core Guidelines on Links
Before we make an analysis, we need to take a look at the guidelines themselves.
Google and Matt Cutts are notorious for leaving these things open-ended, which makes sense – they have to change their mind (and their algorithms) often. And as new offenses and new manipulations pop up or gain in popularity, they're forced to become more specific about what these guidelines apply to. It's not ideal, but it's the way Google works.
The guidelines warn against:
- Paid links that pass PageRank
- "Excessive" reciprocal linking
- "Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links" (quoted verbatim)
- Automated link creation
- Advertorials that pass PageRank
- Over-optimized press releases
- Link abuse in widely distributed widgets
- Forum spam
Google still values links above everything else, but the guidelines attempt to clarify:
The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.
Link earners, have you been vindicated?
Examining the Elephant
Obviously we're going to focus on that part about guest posting, because it's the part that's causing the most catatonic shutdowns and the most vigorous debates – which are somehow happening at the same time.
"Earning links" is great, no matter which way you look at it. Great, useful content won't always be rewarded with links, but if often will – it can be used for references and citations, or it can just be passed around because of its entertainment value. Like I said, however, great content doesn't always "earn" links in that sense, so the guest post exists.
A guest post is a way to earn a link from a great, relevant site with your content. That content has to be good and it has to be valuable to the site's audience, otherwise why bother?
It seems like a natural fit to me, but a lot of search marketers are looking at this guideline update and just throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They're shunning guest posting for link building purposes altogether.
Let's look at Eric Enge's recent interview with Matt Cutts, where Cutts said:
"No, not all link building is bad. The philosophy that we've always had is if you make something that's compelling then it would be much easier to get people to write about it and to link to it. And so a lot of people approach it from a direction that's backwards. They try to get the links first and then they want to be grandfathered in or think they will be a successful website as a result.
Their goal should really be to make a fantastic website that people love and tell their friends about and link to and want to experience. As a result, your website starts to become stronger and stronger in the rankings...
There are lots of ways to do marketing and do it well; there are lots of different ways to get peoples' attention and to get traction. And the more creative you are or the better the experience is with your website, the more likely you are to be successful. But in a lot of ways, if you think like a good marketer and think about what will appeal to people, you will find your job as an SEO and getting links or trying to build your links will be easier as well."
Cutts hits on some excellent points here that I think every search marketer, no matter their discipline, will agree with: you need a good site before you go after links. You can't do it in reverse. You can't build or earn links to a garbage site in any meaningful or valuable way.
Also, Cutts talks about marketers. We are marketers, it's just that we're specialized.
Link building isn't the only marketing strategy in the world, and if it's all you're doing then you're going to fall flat. The same thing goes for content marketing, relationship building and any other term under the sun. They're all part of an integrated marketing strategy, and we need to think like marketers – which means thinking strategically.
Showing the Elephant to the Door
Still, I don't think real guest posts are on the way out. Cutts and Enge both mention spun articles, duplicate content and "article marketing," and refer to doing the link work backwards.
Of course, we don't know what "large scale" means in this case, and Google probably won't put a definition on it any time soon. We do know that 10 quality backlinks are much better than 1,000 spammy, irrelevant backlinks, but what's a large scale? Is it 10 or is it 1,000?
Regardless of the answer, link builders need to be just as discerning as webmasters. If we're putting in the work to create really good content, then we need to be choosy about where the post goes, and we also need to be sure we're addressing real people and that the post will have a real audience, however large or small.
Additionally, when people mention guest post abuse, they almost always talk about spun articles, tepid or regurgitated content, anchor text abuse, and just blatant keyword flooding. Guest posts should feature research links and resources to add value.
My argument to kick the elephant out of the room is this – if you're doing guest posting the right way then you can't scale it up to an amount large enough for Google to worry about it.
A real, non-spun guest post takes time and research. It goes on a relevant site and provides value. A real human being has to sit down and write it, as well as reach out to a webmaster, have a conversation, make sure the article works for both parties and publish the piece. Each link has to be reviewed by a human, and each link has to make sense, whether that link is in the bio box or it's an in-content link.
On a human scale, producing a valuable guest post is not something that can be done in a brainless 30 minutes.
These link schemes guidelines are just telling us what we already know. We have to play it smart, we have to put in the work, and we have to produce something that has inherent value. Otherwise, we're going about it backwards.