Ever gotten an email offering a guest post on your blog? One of Google's top search engine officials, head of Webspam Matt Cutts, announced this week that many of these campaigns are scam artists in writer's clothing.
Here's how it works. A marketer sends a form letter out to hundreds of people on an email list. Often, the list is filled with people who own or operate a website that needs fresh content. The marketer proposes that guest posts be published on the person's site. Those posts contain a "linkback" to one of the marketer's clients.
The site owner often takes the marketer's post, along with its "linkback," and publishes it him or herself. Sometimes, the site editor or owner actually gives an authorship to the marketer. Either way, a "linkback" appears in the guest post.
This is where Google's "bots" come into play. These computer programs ceaselessly push themselves throughout the Internet, tabulating connections between websites. They help to determine which sites are linking to what. The type of "linkback" can show respect to the site it links to, or be indifferent to it, through the code it is written in. Theoretically, if a product or site accumulates "linkbacks," it will appear higher in search engine rankings than sites that have not been doing so. The client pays the marketer for this, even though the method violates Google's quality guidelines.
"When a site links to you it passes on it's credibility to you," says Search Engine Journal editor-at-large John Rampton. "This tells Google and other search engines that the site that's being linked to is important. An easy way to think of this is how back in high school, if the cool kids say you're popular, you become popular."
Cutts said this "guest post outsourcing" has taken a once authentic practice and made it so "only the barest trace of legitimate behavior remains."
"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." ~Matt Cutts, Head of Webspam, Google
Cutts enjoys a kind of mythical cult-leader status among many marketers and SEO professionals. In periodic blog posts and videos, he gives hints about how his search quality team might adjust Google's search algorithms in order to block or discourage abusive behavior from folks trying to boost site rankings. He also gives recommendations for how marketers should behave if they hope to climb the rankings honestly. That means that each time he speaks, huge numbers of online marketers are waiting and watching like hungry dogs at mealtime.
It turns out, this "automated guest posting" trend has been going on for several months if not years, and Cutts has been harping on it the whole time. This latest post caused some marketers to fear that guest posting itself might be banned somehow, but that's not the case. It's only the lower quality chum that is going to become more worthless in the eyes of the search algorithms.
These developments have caused editors of Search Engine Journal and many other marketing-centric blogs to tighten guest posting editorial guidelines. Some months back they started requiring that posts be longer and have fewer, more appropriate linkouts. "We set forth strict standards for all of our writers," said Rampton. "It makes some guest posters mad, but it's what we need to do to protect our site and its readers."
This brings to light something many people didn't realize was happening. There hasn't been much coverage of "guest post spam" aside from blogs devoted to this subject. It has left site owners who need fresh content wondering what they can do to avoid spam.
"One key thing to ask an SEO vendor for is references," said Anne Ward, a San Francisco SEO specialist who works with several national brands. "If they are experienced and trustworthy, it won't be a problem. If they can't provide you with a solid reference, chances are they don't have the experience they're saying they do. Also, If someone promises guaranteed rankings just run far, far away. Nobody can promise that, not even Matt Cutts."
At the heart of the problem is that some scammers still think they can get away with fooling people into providing them linkbacks. The simple truth is, a site owner can run into trouble if they are linking back inappropriately. "Linking for the sake of it has never worked consistently," Ward says. "Google wants you to follow their guidelines for determining content relevancy, which are fairly academic in nature."
[Image: Flickr user Will Folsom]