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Matt Cutts on Guest Blogging – Reading Between the Lines

“Guest blogging”, or “guest posting”, as a method of generating links has come under a lot of scrutiny lately. This is largely a result of a method but not a mentality shift from article marketing to guest posting. In my previous post I wrote about how online marketers were treating guest posting as an opportunity to get lots of high-PR, anchor-rich links and rank a site that way.

Having run Compete Digital for a year now, and running Higher Click's consulting team (Compete Digital's predecessor) we’ve produced thousands of guest posts for hundreds of clients in dozens of industries. I’ve seen time and time again people react to these Matt Cutts videos in the wrong way and wanted to state my opinion on the matter.

Matt Cutts, the notorious head of the Google webspam team, has recently released another video commenting on guest posting:

The premise of this video is Matt explaining how the webspam team determines if a link should face manual action by the webspam team. In doing so, he tries to teach us about some best practices for doing guest blogging.

The very first point Matt makes is that he says, “Usually there is a clear distinction between occasional guest blogging and large-scale, paid-for links”. We’ve noticed a clear race to the bottom when it comes to large-scale guest posting. It’s important to dig a little deeper into this point to understand the motivations of all parties.

On one hand you have website owners and SEOs who want lots of anchor-rich links. They have the same SEO beliefs as they had from 2010 when article marketing was ever so prominent. There are two ways for them to get the quantity of links they believe they need. One is to pay for them (often $5 is enough if you care to look on Fiverr for this kind of thing), and the other value proposition is to provide decent unique content to a “content farm”-type site. You are giving them content in exchange for an easy link. Often, these sites are on expired/re-used domains and typically they have very few real users.

Matt goes on to say that even if you are doing legitimate guest blogging but it looks like it might be a paid link or looks spammy in any way, then the webspam team may take manual action. It’s clear that even legitimate guest posting, if done incorrectly, could get caught in the crossfire. The other statements Matt makes seem to indicate a desire to see more genuine, less frequent and more relevant guest posting done instead of the mass market approach.

Lets look at some of the specific issues Matt touches on which his team use to determine which way to view a guest post:

The relevance of the guest post to the site it’s on and to the target audience

This is somewhat of a broad statement to make and I feel like this will be interpreted incorrectly among many bloggers and guest bloggers. Matt says that ”If you are paying for links, it’s more likely that it’s an off-topic or irrelevant blog post that doesn’t really match the subject of the blog itself”.

Most likely, the masses will interpret this as: “only do super relevant guest posting.” I don’t believe this is the case, for two reasons. Firstly, the term “more likely” gives an indication that this is a relative and not an absolute rule. Secondly, the later emphasis of the guest poster being an expert on the topic and providing value to the blog readers is important.

Also, this doesn’t really address multi-category guest post sites. For example, the all-too-common www.business2community.com. Every guest blogger in the business knows about this site. I’ve seen companies quote $500 for guest posts on there, when in fact anyone can register easily and at no cost. Since it’s not possible for one person to be an expert on all the topics covered by such a site, it poses a problem in interpreting what Cutts says. Furthermore, it is also possible that an expert on one topic could write a great article for the audience of a blog that seemed unrelated. The span of knowledge could encompass both topics.

A good example comes from an old client of ours. They sold gold coins as an investment product. Getting finance-related guest posts is notoriously hard so we look at what the client was an authority on, namely gold. We then tried to find how we can share the client’s in-depth knowledge of gold with a large market. In 2012, the London Olympic Games were being held. We did a guest post on a sports site about the gold medals in the olympics. There are a ton of interesting facts about them. For example, the gold medals are actually made of 92.5% silver.

In taking this approach we were able to check all of the boxes of Cutts’ criteria. The post was written by an expert, had no keyword-rich anchor text, explained why the authorwas contributing and provided value to the reader. Strictly speaking, the target site was not relevant to our client. However, I think it’s a good example of an informative and well-rounded guest post that aligned well with the client’s content strategy.

Matt: The relevance of the guest post to the site it links to and to the target audience is important.

Interpretation: Relevancy is not absolute and should be defined by your content strategy. Touching related verticals which you can be an expert on is good. Think about the users; if they would want to read your content, you’re doing it right.

Keyword-rich anchor text

This isn’t really a new one and the dangers of over-optimized anchor text have been known for a couple of years now. SEO has always been incredibly complex but a deliberately simplified version of the “recipe” in 2010 would have been something like:

1) Find keywords you want to rank for.

2) Do some minor on-page SEO (e.g Title tags for these keywords).

3) Blast thousands of spun article links to your site with the anchor text of the keywords you want to rank for.

In 2013, it’s sad to see some SEOs taking the same approach but replacing step 3 with guest posts. It just doesn’t work anymore. A more holistic approach needs to be taken. The primary function of guest posting (in raw SEO only terms) is domain authority building. Our experience of client work has shown that ranking for keywords is increasingly related to on-site content and site architecture.

There are five categories of keywords I tend to think of:

1) SEO Keywords – insurance quote london, cheap hotels miami fl – These are unnatural keywords that are only used as internet search terms.

2) Natural keywords – insurance provider, hotels in miami – These are natural keywords that would fit into a spoken sentence and also communicate what information a link will give to a users.

3) Branded anchors – ACME insurance, Four Seasons Miami – These are the names of a company.

4) Random anchors – Click here, visit our site – There are terms which SEOs throw in as an anchor in the ill founded belief that this will avoid over-optimized anchor text.

5) URL anchors - www.yourwebsite.com - Simply the URL as the anchor text

We always tell clients to avoid 1, 4 and 5. Random anchors are kind of irrelevant since we never work on an anchors + rankings strategy anymore. URL anchors are just super unnatural. It’s so rare that bloggers link using raw URLs.

Give the user some more information through a descriptive natural anchor. Branded anchors are of course good but often make it difficult to get your link in the body of the text. Using natural keywords that fit fluidly into sentences is a much smarter move. And since you are not using the same keywords over and over, there is no over-optimization going on.

Matt: Avoid keyword-rich anchor text

Interpretation: Avoid heavy SEO keyword-rich anchor text. Natural descriptive anchors and branded anchors are ok.

Guest Blogging done by someone who is an expert with an introduction from the blog

The premise of this statement is clear: guest posters should typically be invited if they are experts on a topic and have a level of authority within an industry. If a blog is explaining to its audience why a specific blogger is being invited to guest posts then, for a start, it also allows the google webspam team to understand the reasoning. Ok, so that’s clearly not the reasoning for this, though it does bring up a good point.

This is not about making it clear to the webspam team or to any algorithms that you are doing things right. It is about explaining, justifying and communicating clearly to the end users, i.e. the readers of the guest post. Worry about them first and foremost.

Going back to my previous gold coin client example, it might not be obvious to everyone why that company would be posting a guest post about the Olympics. A quick introduction from the blog which states who the guest blogger is and why they are contributing is helpful here. It’s showing that the whole process has the end user in mind and thus is a legitimate guest post.

How do you define an expert? It’s open to interpretation really. A good rule of thumb is, again, to always keep the user in mind. Can the guest bloggers contribute something valuable to the audience of the blog? If so, then it’s worth doing. A further thing to consider is that so many guest posts are written by freelance writers. This can be really bad if you hire a cheap writer. However, it works the other way too. You can hire topic experts to write your guest posts in related areas to your business (where you feel potential customers might be hanging out). Consider this as a valid option too.

Matt: It’s more likely that a real guest post is done by someone who is an expert and is introduced by the blog explaining why they are posting.

Interpretation: Align your content strategy with subject areas your company has good expertise in, but don’t take too narrow of a viewpoint here. Think of the end user and communicate to them through an intro paragraph why you are guest posting, or guest the blog owner to write this part.

Guest Blogging - Fad of the month?

Hardly. I’d say it’s been the fad of the year! But seriously, it’s a fad for two reasons: first, it works (*caveat – only if done correctly as part of an integrated strategy), and second, it’s a rational interpretation of what Rand Fishkin & Co. have been preaching for years. SEOs are taking the parts of content marketing that they can systematize and scale, and building a new link building machine out of it. The same thing is happening with infographics and other forms of content marketing too.

Many inbound marketers are starting to wake up to the fact that doing it right is far more productive and successful than trying to game the system and go for the mass production route. It’s truly astounding the amount of effort worldwide that has gone into creating scalable guest posting networks and systems. If only the same energy were put into true content marketing, the results would be incredible.

The “spray & pray” method is surely nearing its end. Every website owner receives dozens of these per day and they are all essentially the same poor-quality outreach message. Unfortunately, it seems that the people doing this think that sending more messages is a better solution than improving their process.

The truth is that mass cheap guest posting has already stopped. It continues, but it’s mostly done on large blog networks. The erosion of the middle market has already happened and it’s either low quality or high quality now. The total number of guest posts is less important compared with the quality of buzz surrounding them. This is why, I believe, Matt emphasized doing guest blogging in moderation.

Finally, Matt made a comment that should alarm anyone doing this kind of guest posting: if it looks like a low-quality paid post then the webspam team may view it as exactly that. How much real value is it providing to the user anyway? It’s a clear message that Google may start to take a tougher stance on the way it views low-quality guest posting. The reaction to this should be to move towards more high-quality guest posting.

Do your views differ from ours? Let me know in the comment section ;).

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