Paid Guest Posting: More Proof That It’s Bad for Business
Google has been repeating itself for years: paid links are spam. Yet an entire economy has sprung up around paid guest posting — essentially just another form of paid links.
What is the difference between selling or buying a link on a webpage and paying someone to write a webpage with the link in it? There is no difference to Google.
Yet paid article writers have been selling linked articles to the naive marketer for years. However, Google has drawn a hard line: paid guest posts are spam. And it doesn’t matter who you paid … if any fee is involved, then you are in the danger zone.
The latest developments absolutely send a clear message that paid guest posting as a way to build links will not be tolerated. And here are the lessons we’ve learned.
- Lesson 1: Guest posting services selling links are spam
- Lesson 2: Know when to tell Google about the links in guest posts
- Takeaways for guest posting
On June 3, 2020, SEMrush (a popular SEO tools SaaS company) received a tweet from Google’s John Mueller. The message? Your guest posting services are spam.
That’s an unnatural link – the kind the webspam team might take action on. https://t.co/kfQQithCnK & https://t.co/q5GmAxx2YM have more. Making sure the links use rel=nofollow / rel=sponsored would still allow sites to get visibility without having to worry about manual actions.
— 🍌 John 🍌 (@JohnMu) June 3, 2020
You can read more about how this came about here at Search Engine Roundtable for context. SEMrush was caught up in the turmoil because it had a service clearly called out by Google. They promptly responded to the community saying that the links through their service were not paid placements. Were the posts and included links free? Of course not — someone somehow made money.
Fantastic tool but this is incredibly concerning.https://t.co/Weo1astBPg
Feel like I’ve travelled back in time 10 years.
Sort it out @semrush
— Ryan Ogilvie (@ryanogs) June 3, 2020
Exactly who did not receive payments? No one can argue there wasn’t some form of payment involved.
Looking at Google’s advice on steering clear of link schemes, we can see some examples here of what to avoid. In Mueller’s tweet to SEMrush, he pointed to this article on links in large-scale article campaigns.
Some relevant excerpts from that article include:
Google does not discourage these types of articles in the cases when they inform users, educate another site’s audience or bring awareness to your cause or company. However, what does violate Google’s guidelines on link schemes is when the main intent is to build links in a large-scale way back to the author’s site. …
For websites creating articles made for links, Google takes action on this behavior because it’s bad for the Web as a whole. When link building comes first, the quality of the articles can suffer and create a bad experience for users.
It’s pretty clear that Google does not want people or businesses to manipulate their rankings using links on paid guest posts. That’s due to the long history of guest posting as a way to extend and disguise link spam.
If Google does not take action to curb link spam, then pretty soon the first page of results will go to those that have the most money to buy guest posts instead of those worthy of ranking. Sounds like a breach of trust to me.
Ultimately, SEMrush decided to rethink its guest posting service and sent out a message to its community about it.
At the end of the day, this is not about pointing the finger at SEMrush, but about the lessons we can continue to learn about guest posting and link spam. SEMrush, like many, I think just got caught up in the moment and the fact that Google was quiet about it for so long. Now the signal is clear.
So this first lesson is understanding what link spam is.
I talked about this in a recent article on guest posting and manual penalties. It’s not just the people who are placing paid guest posts that should be aware of link spam. Websites that accept guest posts stand to suffer the most from Google penalties on their websites.
Back in 2017 (link earlier), Google said:
Sites accepting and publishing such articles should carefully vet them, asking questions like: Do I know this person? Does this person’s message fit with my site’s audience? Does the article contain useful content? If there are links of questionable intent in the article, has the author used rel=”nofollow” on them?
- Am I getting a fee? If yes, then it’s spam.
- Am I paying for placement? If yes, then it’s spam.
- Is this a link I would normally use and support? If no, then spam.
That brings us to our next lesson about paid guest posting and link spam: How to actually handle the links.
On June 3 and then again on June 11, 2020, John Mueller described how people should be handling links in guest posts: “nofollow” or the newer attribute, ”sponsored”:
@JohnMu Since your recent tweet with SEMrush, it would be good to get total clarity, as there now seems to be a lot of confusion around.
We all know, ‘paying’ for a guest post is against the guidelines BUT what about guest posting in general, where no money changes hands?
— Mark Preston (@MarkPreston1969) June 11, 2020
Mueller followed up in the same thread, clarifying a little bit:
Essentially if the link is within the guest post, it should be nofollow, even if it’s a “natural” link you’re adding there.
FWIW none of this is new, and I’m not aware of any plans to ramp up manual reviews of this. We catch most of these algorithmically anyway.
— 🍌 John 🍌 (@JohnMu) June 13, 2020
In typical Google fashion, the message is not 100% clear. One would assume that he meant that we were to disclose to Google the links pointing to the guest poster’s website.
But his message seems to say all links, even if they are “natural” (which could mean links to supporting research, too).
I assume he is doing this to make it easy for guest posters not to intentionally or unintentionally have spam links. If you “nofollow” all links, you have less of a chance of harming the site.
There are plenty of people who disagree with Google’s latest suggestion. Is it that big of a deal to go ahead and comply by using those attributes? Not really. Because even with those attributes, Google is likely to figure out more about the links on its own.
In March of this year, Google began treating these attributes (“nofollow” and “sponsor”) as merely “hints” when considering the links they are applied to. But a hint of what? A hint that you are probably selling links?
From its announcement of this change back in September 2019:
When nofollow was introduced, Google would not count any link marked this way as a signal to use within our search algorithms. This has now changed. All the link attributes — sponsored, UGC and nofollow — are treated as hints about which links to consider or exclude within Search. We’ll use these hints — along with other signals — as a way to better understand how to appropriately analyze and use links within our systems.
Why not completely ignore such links, as had been the case with nofollow? Links contain valuable information that can help us improve search, such as how the words within links describe content they point at. Looking at all the links we encounter can also help us better understand unnatural linking patterns. By shifting to a hint model, we no longer lose this important information, while still allowing site owners to indicate that some links shouldn’t be given the weight of a first-party endorsement.
In other words, as Danny Sullivan at Google mentioned in a tweet, using these attributes is now a way to send more granular signals to Google (which, of course, is good for Google and some say not so good for others). But a signal of what? A signal that you are probably selling links?
And then Google can determine whether the link is good and will count, or if it’s a paid link and spam that will hurt the site.
And there remains the issue. According to the FTC, this may be an advertorial and it needs to be clearly identified as a paid page. I really think this is an entirely new blog post, so I only mention it here.
So what’s the takeaway for a business that wants to guest post? Do it for reasons other than link building. Do it for traffic and users.
If you want to contribute content as a way to add value to a community, that is fine. But don’t expect it to build quality links or boost your website’s authority.
A better strategy is building links to your site by creating great content published on your own site. As I wrote in that post:
You want to build authority and you need links. But there are good links, bad links and downright ugly links. The good links you earn naturally by creating great content on your site that people want to link to. The bad or ugly links are usually those that come out of a “link building” program.
If you’re a website publisher who is accepting guest posts, create guest post guidelines that meet Google Webmaster Guidelines. If a link in the article is off-topic, the quality of the linking site (i.e., yours) will likely suffer.
Only accept posts that don’t diminish your website’s expertise, authority and trust. And make sure you and an SEO pro review all posts before publishing.Only accept guest posts that you wish you had written. Otherwise, consider them poison. Click To Tweet
When in doubt, it’s a good practice to use a “nofollow” or “sponsor” attribute on relevant links in guest posts.
But keep in mind that Google may catch spam links anyway:
The other thing is that because this is so old, we have a lot of training data for our algorithms. I wouldn’t be surprised if the largest part of those links are just ignored automatically. If all that work is for ignored links, why not just do something useful instead?
— 🍌 John 🍌 (@JohnMu) June 14, 2020
This is something I talked about in my article on guest posting and manual penalties:
In most cases, “nofollow” is a hint to Google. But on Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) pages like news, finance, health and so on (see the list in Google’s guidelines), Google may ignore “nofollow” entirely. In other words, if you have a spam link on a YMYL website, consider yourself open to more scrutiny by Google and potential penalties.
Also, have you ever gotten an email telling you about all the wonderful sites you can get a paid guest post on? Think about it: Who owns Gmail? Do you really think Google does not know who is manipulating the link landscape and the sites to ignore?
I think that selling high domain authority (DA/DR) posts for the value of the links where Google probably ignores the links is unethical.
So does that mean every single link in a guest post needs to have “nofollow” or “sponsored”? If you want to be safe and are unsure, yes. The reader cannot tell if the link is followed or not, so making them all nofollow is a viable choice.
But for those who are savvier when it comes to the nature of link spam, you can make the call on which links should have which attributes.
As a reminder, here is Google’s help file on qualifying your outbound links.
Note: If you receive guest blog post spam requests, you can report them to Google as “paid links” webspam.
Remember Penguin? Now think about what happens when (not if) Google rolls over onto paid guest blogging.
I am imagining a world where, like the Penguin penalty, Google marks paid guest posts as spam. Not simply a zero value, but rather a hard loss of rankings that takes websites years to recover from.
Google does not want link manipulation by any means. What would you do if you were Google trying to protect your product?
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