July 6, 2013

I’m pretty sure you’re a smart SEO.  You’re not one of those SEOs who gets links from low quality sources like comment spam, low quality directories and fake forum profiles, right?  You are likely able to get great links by writing good, authoritative articles and getting them published on high quality sites.  Those site make an editorial decision on whether or not to publish your article and include your links, so these are naturally earned links, right?

I’m writing this article to tell you that these “high quality” links can actually get you penalized.  Stick with me and I will share about cases where I have seen this happen.

Added July 10, 2013 - Scroll to the bottom to see comments from an interview with Matt Cutts.

Added October 17, 2013 - Scroll to the bottom to see Matt Cutts talking about how guest posting can get you penalized.

Added Jan 21, 2014 - Matt Cutts has just published a warning to site owners not to Guest Blog for links: http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/guest-blogging/

What is guest posting?

I’m going to take a step back here and make sure that everyone knows what I am talking about.  While this article is primarily written for an audience with strong SEO skills, it is also meant to help the struggling site owner who is exploring options on how he or she can get links to their site.

Guest posting, also known as guest blogging, is a technique where a site owner or their SEO will write an article and get it published on another website. If you are using guest posting as an SEO tactic, then the purpose of doing guest posting is to get links back to your site.  These links can come in the form of an author box link, or a contextual link within the article.


Low quality guest posting

Some guest posting is obviously low quality.  For example, a cheap SEO tactic that actually used to work well in the past would be to pay an offshore writer a small fee to write several low quality articles and then use automated software to get those articles published on article marketing sites.  Here is an example:


*Please note that the examples that I give in this article are random ones that I have found on the web and not client examples.

You can see there is a contextual link in the article body.  (However, it is nofollowed and will not offer any SEO benefit) and then there is the author box which contains two links containing anchor text as well as a url anchored link:


Medium Quality Guest Posting

I would venture a guess that the majority of guest posting links that SEOs obtain these days come from this category.  Here is an example:


The article has some merit.  I could probably learn some things from it.  It’s a travel article that is published on a travel blog.  There is a link back to the author’s site in the author box.  It's not as blatantly spammy as the first example, but it's still not a link that I would call a good one.


High Quality Guest Posting

The examples described above are obviously articles that were created with the sole purpose of obtaining a link.  But take a look at the following examples and see what you think.  These are high quality sites that have published informative and helpful articles.  Surely getting a link from one of these sites would be a good thing, right?






If you were given the opportunity of guest posting on one of the above sites, would you take it?  Most likely you would!  Those are high PageRank sites and a link from them would be fantastic.  But could links like this actually hurt your site?


What Does Google Say?

You have probably already seen this Matt Cutts video.  But if not, watch it.  Stay tuned, however, as later in this article I have much more specific advice from Google on guest posting.

In this video, Matt basically says that “high quality” guest posting could be ok, but “low quality” guest posting done on a large scale can be penalized by Google.  Well that’s nothing new.  We already knew that publishing several hundred low quality articles with keywords as anchor text pointing back to our site is not a good idea.  What we really want to know is whether or not a site can get in trouble for doing “high quality” guest blogging.


I recently stumbled across a very interesting Google Webmaster Central Hangout.  These hangouts are run by Google employee, John Mueller  John runs these hangouts so that webmasters can ask questions and learn to create and promote their sites in ways that meet the Google Quality Guidelines.

Start watching this video at 49:56:

In this video a hangout participant says that they regularly submit articles to the Huffington post and wants to know if they should nofollow the links that go from those articles back to their site.  (In case you didn’t know, adding a nofollow attribute to a link tells Google not to flow PageRank through the link.  The result is that the link does not add any direct SEO benefit to your site.)  Here is what John says,


Generally speaking, if you’re submitting articles for your website, or your clients’ websites and you’re including links to those websites there, then that’s probably something I’d nofollow because those aren’t essentially natural links from that website.


Here is another question from a Webmaster Central Hangout.  In this one, a site owner, Ryan Schwartz asks if it is ok to get links to his real estate site via guest posting.  Start watching at 31:19:

Here is what John Mueller said:


Think about whether or not this is a link that would be on that site if it weren’t for your actions there.  Especially when it comes to guest blogging, that’s something where you are essentially placing links on other people’s sites together with this content, so that’s something I kind of shy away from purely from a linkbuilding point of view.  I think sometimes it can make sense to guest blog on other peoples’ sites and drive some traffic to your site because people really liked what you are writing and they are interested in the topic and they click through that link to come to your website but those are probably the cases where you’d want to use something like a rel=nofollow on those links.


But How Would Google Know These These Are Self Made Links?

It seems clear to me that Google is saying that guest posting should not be used as a method of getting links to your site.  The question that always comes up when I have this conversation though, is that of how Google would be able to tell that a link is self placed vs. naturally earned.

In some situations it is quite easy to tell that a link is self placed.  I think that it would be very easy for Google to devalue links that come from author boxes.  We have also seen that overusing keywords as anchor text can get you into trouble as well.  If the algorithm sees that hundreds of people are linking to you from the body of articles and all of them are using the keyword, “cheap car insurance” to link to you then that is probably pretty easy for the algorithm to pick up as a linking scheme.

But, what if you are really smart about how you are linking?  Surely there are ways to trick the algorithm?  At this point, you probably can avoid Penguin by being creative in how you link back to your site via guest posts.  However, I think that it is very difficult to do guest blogging on a large scale and still be able to avoid detection should your site receive a manual review.  In some cases a manual review can happen if a competitor reports your site to the webspam team, but we don't really know why some sites get reviewed manually by Google.

My Experiences with High Quality Guest Posting Getting Sites Penalized

When I first started doing unnatural links penalty removal, the sites that I worked with had really obvious unnatural links in their backlink profile.  It was quite simple to audit links and weed out the spam from the natural links.  However, as I gained credibility as someone who knows how to get penalties removed, I started to work with larger companies who had received unnatural links penalties from Google.  I noticed that the unnatural links were not always so obvious.  Here is the thought process that I often go through as I start to audit links from a site that has done some sophisticated link building:

“This looks like a good link.  We’ll call it natural.”

“Oh...this is a good one.  They got a mention in an article on a high quality tech site.”

 “Interesting...another mention from a high quality tech site.  This article looks a little bit similar to the last one.”

 “What?  Another one?  This is an article on a different topic but it is linking to the same page as the others.”

When I first started doing audits like this it took me a while, but eventually I could see patterns indicating that these links could be self made.  Now that I have done several high profile audits, the patterns stand out much quicker.


Here are some patterns that I might notice:

-Although keywords are not used directly as anchor text, the site may use a variation of the keyword for each link.

-In some cases, the articles that are published on high quality sites are very similar to each other but different enough that a machine-run algorithm could not pick up the similarities.

-Often these articles will link out to Wikipedia, Published articles, and other non-commercial sources and then there will be one link to a commercial source and of course, that link goes to their site.

Some other patterns are hard to put into words. But what I can tell you is that as I manually review these links I can very quickly notice that these are not naturally earned links but that they are self made. If I can quickly come to this conclusion after doing backlink audits for a few sites, imagine the patterns that the webspam team can see after looking at thousands and thousands of such backlink profiles!

Many of these sites that I have worked with came to me after failing several reconsideration requests.  In several cases the site owners had gotten rid of all of their obviously spammy links but did not think that these links from high quality websites could be contributing to their penalty.  In most cases, once we addressed the guest blogging the penalty was removed.

Client experiences

I have consulted with several large brands who have been given an unnatural links penalty.  In one particular case it was quite obvious that guest posting was a strategy that had been used in order to gain links.  This site had hundreds of posts that were published on very well known sites.  If you look at one or two of these, you'd think they were perfectly valid links.  But, seeing hundreds of them makes you realize that the purpose was to gain links.  This site has failed at reconsideration and Google has given them examples of unnatural links which include links in "high quality" guest posts.  They also include links from scraper sites who have copied these guest posts.  It's quite a mess to clean up.

Update:The site mentioned above tried repeatedly on their own to remove their penalty and could not. They hired us to do the job for them and we convinced them that their guest posts were likely their main problem. We did a very thorough link audit. Our strategy was to remove (or where not possible, disavow) any keyword anchored links in guest posts and hold on to the brand or url anchored ones for now and remove those should we fail on our first attempt. Surprisingly our first attempt passed and the site is now penalty free. There are two interesting facts that can be noted about this case:

  1. At this point, Google seems to view only keyword anchored links in guest posts as unnatural.
  2. These links have been removed for over two months now. The penalty was lifted a few days ago. There has been a very slight increase in rankings. We removed a LARGE number of links from relatively authoritative sites. You would expect that the rankings would have decreased, but they did not. This makes me believe that Google was already discounting those links.


Aren’t These  Links Editorially Earned?

Proponents of guest posting will argue that these links are indeed natural because the owner of the site that published the article had to made an editorial decision to publish the article.  But does this mean that the link should count when it comes to increasing your site’s PageRank?

To answer this question we need to understand more about why we try to get links.  If you are at all interested in learning about how Google works, I would highly recommend reading the book, “In the Plex”  by Steven Levy.  The early search engines like Yahoo, InfoSeek and Alta Vista were not very good at answering search queries.  When Larry Page and Sergey Brin created Google it was so much better than anything in existence and this was mostly because of Larry’s invention of Page Rank.  In this system, if Site A linked to Site B then this was considered a vote for the quality of Site B.  If Site A was an authoritative site, then this was an even more powerful vote.  Google was the first search engine to base its ranking system on links.  Check out this article from 1998  about how Google emerged as the best search engine.  I found this quote interesting:


And according to Page, its site-ranking approach is nearly impossible for devious webmasters to trick or “spam,” since it’s based on links and judgments made by other respected sites: “You have to actually convince someone who’s important that you’re important."


Over the years we did find ways to game the system.  When you get a guest post published and link back to your site, is Site A really making a judgement about the quality of Site B?  Are they linking to you because they are vouching for your site? Or are you just gaming the system?

Do I Do Guest Blogging?

I may look like a hypocrite here because I have indeed written guest posts. I do publish the occasional guest post on moz.com  or searchenginewatch.com  and other sites.  But, I don’t do it so that I can get a link back to my site.  Guest posts like this bring me traffic and clients.  Will I be penalized because the links pointing back to me on those sites don’t have a nofollow tag?  No.  Why not?  Because it’s about scale.  Google is unlikely to penalize you if you have a few guest posts that link back to your site.  But, if you have used guest posting as a method to gain links on a large scale, you may be in trouble if your site gets manually reviewed.


So How Do You Get Links?

This is the ultimate question in SEO.  Links are still powerful when it comes to adding SEO value.  But Google has a team of extremely intelligent engineers whose mission is to make it so that only naturally earned links will help a site appear higher in the search engine results.  At this point there are still ways where you can game the system and create your own links, but they are getting less and less effective.  Ultimately, the way to succeed is to find ways to get people to actually link to your content naturally.  This is something that is very hard to do, especially on a large enough scale to make a difference.  In my opinion, the SEO who is able to master the art of attracting links is one who will be in high demand.  I will be writing in the future about good natural ways to attract links to your site.  If you would like to keep up to date with my writings, you can follow me on Twitter.


Added July 10: Eric Enge has just published a great interview with Matt Cutts in which he speaks about guest blogging.  Here is what Matt said:

The challenge with guest posting is that people have different conceptions about what it means. And so for a lot of people, a guest post is something that a fantastic author has thought deeply about, labored over, polished, put a lot of work into and then publishes on a highly reputable domain name.

Posts like that can be a great way to get your name out there, to build your reputation, to make yourself more well-known, potentially build links or traffic or help with your SEO.

The problem is that if we look at the overall volume of guest posting we see a large number of people who are offering guest blogs or guest blog articles where they are writing the same article and producing multiple copies of it and emailing out of the blue and they will create the same low quality types of articles that people used to put on article directory or article bank sites.

If people just move away from doing article banks or article directories or article marketing to guest blogging and they don’t raise their quality thresholds for the content, then that can cause problems. On one hand, it’s an opportunity. On the other hand, we don’t want people to think guest blogging is the panacea that will solve all their problems.

This is good news and means that Google is saying that it is ok to Guest Post if it is truly a guest post in the sense that it is a very high quality article that was not written primarily for the purpose of receiving a link, and not a way to get links on a large scale.  I still maintain that I have worked with clients who have been penalized because of overuse of what would be called high quality guest posting.  I think that if you are able to get an article published on an authoritative site and you are able to link back to yourself this can be ok.  But, if you are able to do that hundreds of times then Google can see that as a linking scheme, especially if your site is manually reviewed.


Added October 17:

Yesterday, Matt Cutts put out another video in which he talks about guest posting.  He describes ways that Google can detect whether the guest posts were created mostly for the purpose of gaining links.  He is basically saying that doing the odd guest post here and there is acceptable, but when there is a large scale, then it's not something that falls within the quality guidelines: