Link building as a stand-alone SEO tactic has been losing impact for quite some time. That’s not to say inbound links aren’t important. They absolutely are, and will remain a significant ranking factor for a long time to come. That’s also not to say that a linkbuilding campaign can’t move the needle. It still can.
However, link building — where the goal of the effort is simply to obtain links — is typically not worth the investment anymore because Google is getting better and better at detecting and devaluing links that don’t add value. Can link building still work? Sure. Are there more productive ways for businesses with a limited budget to spend their money? Absolutely.
There’s no better example of this than guest blogging. Over the past couple of years, guest blogging has been one of the most widely discussed topics throughout the online marketing community. That discussion took a turn Jan. 20, when Matt Cutts, Google’s head of Web spam, wrote a blog post warning site owners and marketers to avoid guest blogging as a link building tactic.
So stick a fork in it: guest blogging is done; it’s just gotten too spammy. In general I wouldn’t recommend accepting a guest blog post unless you are willing to vouch for someone personally or know them well. Likewise, I wouldn’t recommend relying on guest posting, guest blogging sites, or guest blogging SEO as a linkbuilding strategy.
For branding purposes, or for building a community, or for an array of other reasons, guest blogging can very well be a worthwhile strategy. Just as long as there are legitimate and loftier goals beyond simply earning an inbound link.
The Warning Signs
At SixEstate, we began moving away from guest blogging as a link building tactic a while ago, and it didn’t take a justified rant by Matt Cutts to inspire that shift. Just a natural hatred for spam, coupled with a bit of common sense.
Here are a few of the somewhat obvious indications that the glory days of guest blogging for links were coming to an end.
Abundance of Spammy Guest Blog Solicitations
As soon as any tactic gains steam throughout the SEO community — especially a tactic that’s scalable — it naturally leads to companies trying to sell related services … which in turn leads to crappy companies spamming the Internet hoping to get in on the action. It didn’t take long for the volume of spam emails offering to write guest posts, publish guest posts, and/or sell guest posting services to go from typical and expected levels to flat-out absurd levels.
I receive an annoying dose of guest blogging spam every single day. The higher your site’s profile, the more spam you probably receive on a daily basis. Matt Cutts receives this kind of spam too, and notes: “Ultimately, this is why we can’t have nice things in the SEO space: a trend starts out as authentic. Then more and more people pile on until only the barest trace of legitimate behavior remains.” I’m sure it pisses Matt off more than me.
Guest Blogging Communities Losing the Battle
I don’t want to mention these services by name since the people who run them are smart marketers who have grown impressive communities, and who are wholeheartedly committed to improving the quality of guest content across the web.
But if you’ve been a member of any of these guest blogging communities over the past year or longer, it’s clear that the quality of available content and the quality of publishers have generally diminished. I’m not saying there isn’t exceptional content available anymore or that all the publishers are sketchy, but the ratio of quality to junk is clearly no longer favorable — despite admirable attempts to keep the communities clean.
The association of my email address with these guest blogging communities has also quite obviously played a big role in increasing the amount of guest post spam I get every day.
Easily Identifiable Problems with Guest Posts
The two points above describe symptoms of the deterioration of guest blogging as a linkbuilding tactic. But what about on-site and content-related issues? You don’t need to be a scientist to notice things like this:
Flat-Out Irrelevant Links
There’s a comprehensive blog post over at Nenad SEO detailing a guest article strategy employed by Expedia. It’s surprisingly easy to connect the dots from one guest post to another, to ultimately uncover a massive link scheme.
One of the more obvious factors that tie these guest posts together, as Nenad points out, is that they all contain one completely irrelevant link to a landing page on Expedia.com.
Here’s a clear cut example from Nenad’s article (this is my own screenshot from today).
Even if the quality of the article above is tolerable, the link itself is completely irrelevant and unnecessary in that context. It’s pretty easy for any literate person to detect that the link and anchor text don’t quite belong there. And if I can spot it, so can Google. Search engines have gotten much better at determining contextual relevance, and they certainly have the ability to detect irrelevant links like this.
On Jan. 20, Expedia was (likely) hit with an unnatural link penalty for these practices that resulted in a 25% decline in search engine visibility, according to Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Land.
Author Boxes Stand Out
Not all guest articles include a self-serving link in the body of the post. It’s actually considered a best practice to include your link in the author bio at the end of your guest post instead. As logical and sensible as that is, I think this is one of the areas where the guest blogging movement lost its way.
Essentially, this completely excuses irrelevant links. It enables guest bloggers to write about any topic with free rein to include a link in their author bio, regardless of the relationship (or lack thereof) between the link and the content of the post. Sure, you can link to your furniture company in this guest article on winter driving safety tips … as long as the link is in your author bio!
Beyond relevance though, let’s take this a step further. If Google can determine when text and links are located in the sidebar of a page, or the header or footer of a page, how easy must it be for them to determine when content is located in a special author box at the end of every blog post on a particular website? It would seem like devaluing links in an author box would be one very easy way for Google to reduce the effectiveness of guest posts for SEO. They probably did that long before Matt’s blog post.
These issues above are not difficult to spot. And if I can spot them, you can be sure the brilliant and extremely well-funded teams working on search engine algorithms can spot them too.
It’s important to recognize the difference between a valuable marketing strategy and a short-sighted tactic or gimmick. Guest blogging can fall into both categories.
David Reich is co-founder and CEO of SixEstate, blending a background in traditional marketing and public relations with over 5 years of experience managing hundreds of online marketing campaigns for all kinds of organizations -- from small businesses and nonprofits to public companies. David is responsible for keeping SixEstate and its clients at the forefront of the rapidly evolving search and content marketing landscape. Connect with David on Twitter, Google+ or via email.