A recent blog post from Matt Cutts, head of Google's web spam team, has some internet marketers and industry experts in a tizzy. In the post, Cutts makes the dramatic statement that "if you're using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop."
When Cutts speaks, it's as close as one can get to having direct access to the details of Google's algorithm by which the search engine indexes and ranks websites. So, of course, SEO experts everywhere are taking note. But let's not jump to any conclusions.
A little background: Guest blog posting is a beloved tactic of many SEO professionals, myself included. The idea is simple. Google analyzes links that point to your website from other websites, and uses the data it gets to determine when and where your website will show up in its search engine. All other things being equal, if you have a lot of links from high-quality websites, your website will rank more often and higher up than a competing website that doesn't have many high-quality inbound links.
It used to be that Google didn't focus so much on the quality of these links, but updates over the past few years have targeted low-quality links, and many websites that bought up lots of suspect links were punished by lower rankings. The answer to this challenge was for SEO consultants to recruit higher quality links, and part of the answer was guest blog posting, in which one person posts on another person's blog as a guest, getting a link back to their website in the process.
The problem Cutts is seeing is that this practice is being abused. An example of abuse might be if my SEO firm were to take on a hotel website in Salt Lake City as a client, and then try to get a guest post on a blog that focuses on the self-storage industry in New York. It would be a stretch to say there is any connection between these two websites, and a blog post about hotels in Salt Lake City would only confuse people reading it on a self-storage website in New York.
But if I get a link for my client, and the link boosts my client's rankings, who cares? Google cares, because the search engine doesn't want to help the rankings of a website if it is gathering links through means that make no sense to humans. To do so would be to lower the quality of its search results, which in turn would open the door for competitors to provide better results.
What Google likes is natural links. A hotel in Salt Lake City should have incoming links from websites that cover travel, tourism in Utah and perhaps the hotel industry.
So, in other words, Cutts is reiterating what Google has been saying for several months. It is warning marketers about creating spammy, low-quality content in an attempt to game Google's algorithm. Those who do will be punished.
But might not this hotel receive inbound links from other legitimate sources, and shouldn't Google consider these when indexing and ranking this hotel website? For example, what if someone comes to Utah to compete in a triathlon, stays at this hotel and writes a post on their popular triathlon blog about it? Is this a legitimate link, and should this factor into the hotel website's rankings?
This is where things get difficult for Google. It is virtually impossible to distinguish between a guest blog post and any other type of post. Technically speaking, this very article could be termed a guest post, but it certainly is not the kind of content Cutts is speaking out against.
As with all SEO tactics that become abused, the question will come down to quality. "The reason why Google cannot and will not penalize quality guest blogging is because at the end of the day, they truly do encourage the creation and distribution of quality content," states Kevin Phelps of GuestBlogPoster. He continues that Google is "going to continue to go after spun content, duplicate content, blasting out emails to webmasters with the same article, posting with webmasters with little to no editorial guidelines or control, keyword-rich anchor text and abnormal link profile consistencies (e.g. too many links from one method)."
Even if Google possesses or develops the means to accurately differentiate between blog posts and guest blog posts, this isn't the point. Rather, the point is that good SEO has always focused first on humans, and second on search engines. As Cutts himself says, "There are still many good reasons to do some guest blogging (exposure, branding, increased reach, community, etc.). Those reasons existed way before Google and they'll continue into the future."
Rand Fishkin, CEO of Moz, says, "Guest blogging isn't completely invalidated. But, if you're doing guest blogging for SEO rather than writing for other sites in a way that may happen to earn some SEO side benefit, you're in trouble. Guest blogging for SEO will be seen by Google as similar to tactics such as directory links, blog comment spam, etc. Either the value of those links will be removed or the links may actually penalize/hurt your site if you're clearly doing it to manipulate rankings at scale."
I do not see Google ignoring or penalizing guest blog posting, but only abusive or low-quality guest blog posting, just as Google does not penalize link building, but rather low-quality link building. Continue to use guest blog posting as a means of getting more exposure and increased reach, as Cutts suggests, but if you're using a company to provide this service, follow these three rules of thumb:
Verify the quality of the blogs where your content will be posted. The company should provide you with regular reports showing you exactly where your content has been placed, and it should not be difficult to judge the quality of that placement.
Make sure your content remains unique. Each piece of content should be posted on one website, and one website only, with rare exceptions.
Focus on people first, search engines second. As will all SEO efforts, if you focus on people first, the search engines will generally fall into line.
Google and other search engines aim to give users the search results they want and expect, and that requires Google to become more human. If you, as a human, can see that a particular SEO tactic does not make sense to real people, but an SEO consultant is pressuring you to do it anyway with the claim that it will improve your rankings on Google, steer clear.
Joshua Steimle is the CEO of MWI, an online marketing firm. Steimle currently lives in Hong Kong where he's opening his firm's Asia office and is involved with the local startup community. Connect with him on Google+, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.