The news of the week in the SEO community comes off the back of this post by Matt Cutts.
He started the post by saying this:
Okay, I’m calling it: if you’re using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop. Why? Because over time it’s become a more and more spammy practice, and if you’re doing a lot of guest blogging then you’re hanging out with really bad company.
Back in the day, guest blogging used to be a respectable thing, much like getting a coveted, respected author to write the introduction of your book. It’s not that way any more. Here’s an example unsolicited, spam email that I recently received:
Nooooooooooooo. That’s gone and done it. career over – I write this on my mobile (shit, need to cancel the contract) in the taxi on the way to the airport, ticket to Outer Mongolia in the other hand where I have applied to work on an organic tea farm in return for food and board. It’s going to be a different life than the one I have gotten used to, but surely I can get used to the simple life…..I wonder if they have internet on the farm…..
Halt, wait a minute, really…..
Is this Google, the feared and revered overlord of search, admitting defeat to the dark and highly disorganised army of hapless and underskilled content spammers? Well, not exactly. The challenge that Google faces is a toughie and I have a feeling that Matt Cutts post was basically expressing his frustration with the complexity of managing search results quality in the face of web spam.
I have worked in this industry for a long time and have seen Google go from strength to strength and particularly the releases over the past few years have really helped to improve the search engines results pages (SERPs). Still there are many loopholes but Google do seem to be getting there and winning the war. At least that was what I thought.
This statement from Matt Cutts (and by proxy Google) says to me that they are a lot further away from being able to identify trustworthy sites and people on the web than I thought they were.
In this post I want to try and break down the issue that Google face and then look at how they can potentially solve it.
Why did guest blogging become an issue?
On the face of it, publishing a post on another related blog that gives your ideas and viewpoint on a subject is a great way to get visibility from a new audience that could potentially be interested in your ideas. This is just sensible marketing. Why would Google not count the links in these types of posts? Even if they are in the author bio box as they are just giving credit to an expert who has been hosted on another blog based on their level of expertise.
However – the other side to it is that if people are just knocking out guest posts like there is no tomorrow, without giving much thought to them, and getting them placed across hundreds of sites in their niche (each with a bio linking back to their site) then the value of those links should be less, as they are not a clear indicator of expertise.
The problem that Google face is determining the difference; where do they draw the line? It is a tough job even for a human being to call.
This is a guest post placed for the link, but it is well written, gives an opinion and is quite interesting:
But that post resulted from an ad (shown below) on My Guest Blog where the exchange happened because the writer wanted the link and understood that they would get some benefit from the link that the are given. I am sure that the writer also would like some direct referral traffic but I would put money on their primary motivation being the link and it’s perceived value.
Since the original Panda and Penguin updates a few years ago it is obvious that many of the lower level link building services have switched focus from article directories and social bookmarking to guest blogging. The scale of this issue has grown incredibly. Sites like My Guest Blog have exploded (not knocking the site – It was a great idea when it was originally conceptualised and in many ways still is) . However, most of the really low level stuff is a result of businesses in the UK and US taking up those low cost offers that they get in spam emails e.g.
Even a close friend who is also a client repeatedly sends me these asking if he should go for it. Noooo mate – same answer, NNOOOOOOO.
But you can see from the screenshot below (taken on My Guest Blog) that a whole industry has developed around creating guest blogs for the purpose of links and the value of those guest blog placements are often judged based on the homepage pagerank of the hosting site. Only one of the offers below does not mention page rank (PR).
Here is an example of the submission guidelines from one of the hosting blogs:
As you can see it will be very difficult for Google to decipher whether the resulting article on the blog has been written with the purpose of just getting a link for SEO purposes or whether it has been written for the purposes of sharing knowledge and insight in return for getting visibility amongst a new audience and bringing a few back to your community.
If you look at one of the resulting articles:http://blog.pre-pay-as-you-go.co.uk/2014/01/15/lg-g-flex-phablet-puts-curved-displays-to-the-test/ (same as listed above), imagine you just stumbled upon this; could you say categorically that this post was written with the intention of gaming search engines? No, you cannot.
Google’s algorithm is based on the foundation that links signify quality and that trust can be placed in links. Obviously Google and all of us in the marketing community have known for a long time that links are not uniform in their quality but with guest blogging it’s misty on the mountain.
What are Google doing and what could/should they be doing?
A few years ago Google launched authorship in search. The idea was that this would be a system where Google would be able to track the publishing (guest posting) activities of all writers around the web. Google want to be able to apply identity to all publishers on the internet as then they can determine authority and consequently differentiate trustworthy authors from the spammers.
There has been some confusion on the set up of authorship which has meant adoption has not been to the scale that Google would like but I do think that it is just a matter of time until that becomes easier which will enable adoption amongst those unable to edit a few bits of code on their site.
Authorship is explained well in this post from 2012 on the Moz Blog. It is also summarised here on the Google Authorship pages:
In this post Michael Martinez, a very respected SEO laments on his frustration with Google’s failures with authorship. I think that he is right, but I do hope that Google do not give up on it as I think that they could get there with persistency.
Creating an identity layer for the web
Authorship was a step towards this, but adoption of it has been poor because of the aforementioned difficulties in use and also Google’s interpretation of the data they are receiving. What Google really want to understand is people’s identity – theoretically that identity could be anonymous but it needs to be consistent, and if Google and the web in general can get to a point where everyone’s identity is clear (doesn’t need to be true identity with national insurance/social security number etc) then we would eliminate and exclude the spam easily.
In this (guest) post by Mike Elgan he talks about his experiences with Google+. He is a mere mortal that now has 3 million people that have circled him so knows a thing or two about the network and how it works. He has some very insightful opinions on what Google are doing around identity – the article is well worth a read, but here is what I think is the most important quote from it:
The bottom line that everyone needs to understand — I’m talking to YOU, tech media echo chamber! — is that Google+ is not a Facebook without the family and friends. It’s in fact just one part of a larger Google strategy to improve all its sites, services and hardware with a single, universal identity layer and a single, universal social layer.
Google+ is a central part of the future of Google, and a central part of the future of everything. It’s the solution to the problems everyone complains about on other social networks. And it’s just a really great site.
If we can get to the stage where everyone’s identity is understood then search engines like Google will be able to understand how much trust they can give to an author and consequently the sites that they write for and the sites that they link to in the content that they create.
Last year Google made it so that people wanting to leave a comment on YouTube needed a Google+ account. You can look at this as a negative thing but YouTube was full of hateful and racist crappy comments due to the anonymity factor being taken advantage of my some arseholes.
Last week Google also made it so that Google+ contacts can email each other through Gmail even if they do not know the others email address. The message is sent based on the users identity rather than a named address. This move also moves the company closer to understanding their users identity with their social layer of Google+.
Measuring Social sharing
There is constant discussion on whether social signals affect rankings, this is our blog, and we say they do not (we believe it is a causal factor of links) so we will not go into that anymore here. What I DO want to talk about is how search engines almost certainly ARE using social signals to understand the trust they should apply to pages and to sites. I do not believe it is a volume thing – search engines are not that naive as they can see that sites like Mashable receive loads of automated tweets in the first few minutes of a post going live – that is not a social signal.
But if we go back to the identity thing – Google are starting to show search results that tell you which of your contacts (on Google+) shared or +1’d a page. Google know that you trust (or know not to trust) your mates and if we had a situation where pages that got lots of social shares from highly trusted identities ranked highly it would make sense.
Google are just not there yet as they do not have everyone’s identity logged.
Is Guest Blogging Over?
If any top search marketing blog offered me a guest post slot tomorrow I would take it up.
Likewise for our clients, if I believed that a guest posting slot would bring them high volumes of quality referral traffic then I would place a guest post for them.
I think that there are 2 points to note:
- Intentions: Make sure that you are placing the guest post to share expertise and opinion on a blog that you trust and that trusts you, and that you believe will send you direct referral traffic. If Google start penalising this kind of activity then the web will surely become a worse place overall.
- Diversity: If your marketing efforts/link building efforts revolve around guest posting as the key strategy then you need to change. It should only be one part of a broader strategy that aims to create a deep footprint (see what I did there) for your site on the web.