A popular link building technique is to write an article for another website as a guest author and include a link back to your website either within the article itself or in the author bio that is commonly included at the start or end of the article.
Should you Do it?
Update 22/10/2016: We are now advocating and using a certain type of guest post link building as we believe that other white hat techniques are too expensive for most small businesses. More on that decision here.
We’ve decided not to use guest blogging as a link building strategy for clients as we don’t think the links are high quality and they may be considered black hat in some cases and penalised by Google (see below for a comprehensive discussion of this).
I do think that its an effective way to get links and that you can definitely get results but the potential risks also need to be considered.
SEO links aside, there are many other reasons to do guest blogging so you shouldn’t write it off just because we say its not a good link building tactic to use. If you do decide to do guest blogging for non SEO link building purposes we would suggest no-following any author serving (if you are the publisher) or self serving (if you are the author) links to be on the safe side. If you want to see if you can get a little bit of SEO value, you can leave the links followed but don’t use keyword rich anchor text. Focus on high quality sites and create high quality articles with your own expertise.
Update 22/10/2016: Even though we’re now advocating and practicing guest post link building, we still think you should be conservative with anchor text keyword percentages (the percentage of your links where the anchor text of the link contains your target keywords) because the higher those percentages, the more likely you are to attract attention from Google and therefore the higher the risk becomes.
Black Hat or White Hat?
The general definition of ‘white hat’ is that the link must be given freely as an editorial choice and not due to any kind of exchange of value. Things are a little different when we’re looking at links from guest posts because the motivations and editorial processes are quite different to outgoing links from the site’s own content.
When creating content for your own site, you only include links if you have a good reason. On the other hand, when choosing whether to publish a guest post on your site, you only remove links if you have a good reason. Considering that guest authors are motivated to link to their own websites, those self serving links should come under more scrutiny but in practice its less. This fact alone means that self serving links from guest posts are potentially of a significantly lower quality than links from the site’s own content. This doesn’t mean that guest post links are necessarily ‘black hat’ but it does give Google reasons to doubt the quality of outgoing links from guest posts.
The author bio is usually included at the start or the end of the guest article and can be written by the site owner or by the guest author. If its written by the guest author, including the links, then it raises the same ‘editorial process’ problems as outlined above. On the other hand, if its written by the site owner, arguably that’s more acceptable because they have to positively choose what to write and which links (if any) to include so you could certainly argue that the links they do include are editorial. However, as we will explore in the section below, due to motivations, conventions and implicit/explicit arrangements, even those links created by the site owner might not be able to be considered as ‘editorial.’
Guest Post Motivations
The primary motivation of a site accepting a guest post is usually to get content from someone else that’s going to benefit them in some way that their own content can’t. The primary motivation of a site creating and submitting a guest post is often to get links back to their site for the purpose of search engine optimisation.
When these two motivations collide, the resulting agreement tends to amount to ‘you supply content and we’ll give you links in return.’ The publisher will usually still check the outgoing links, although sometimes they don’t even bother with that, but accept them if they meet only a minimal standard on the basis that the quality of the guest post itself is high and they want it for their site.
Links given explicitly in exchange for content are black hat attribution links but the problem for Google is that its difficult to determine when an explicit exchange has taken place. Its also worth noting that they might be perfectly happy with taking action against guest bloggers even if its only an implicit exchange and they might also end up penalising some people where there really was no exchange at all.
“High Quality” Guest Posting
Many people have tried to argue that guest blogging for links is OK if the guest posts themselves are high quality. I disagree with this argument because no matter how high quality the guest post is, it doesn’t mean that the self serving links are editorial and trustworthy as a ranking signal. However, I can appreciate that truly high quality guest posts are adding value to the web and there probably aren’t a lot of low quality sites investing in them to do manipulative link building.
Google’s Matt Cutts has released several videos talking about guest blogging (more on that below) and tried to describe high quality guest blogging and why it was/is ok. He mentions things like the frequency of your guest blogging (high volume = bad) and whether the person writing the guest article is actually an expert (non expert = bad) and is from the site being linked to (outsourced guest blogging = bad). I’ll sum up Google’s perspective below.
The problem for Google is that its impossible to determine the editorial process used for each guest post in order to judge the quality of the outgoing links. This probably wasn’t much of a problem when the numbers of guest posts around was relatively low but, in the last few years, guest posting has become a much more popular way of getting links which eventually prompted Google to take a closer look. Matt Cutts, from Google’s web spam team, released several videos about the increasing spaminess of guest posting, starting in 2012 and ending with this blog post in January 2014: The decay and fall of guest blogging for SEO.
In his videos, Matt focuses on guest blogging being bad only if the quality of the guest posts themselves was low. He also touched on the idea of using too many keyword rich anchor text links (more on this below) and the idea that the more widespread and scalable your guest blogging is the more likely it would be considered manipulative by Google.
In March 2014, Cutts tweeted that Google had penalised a popular guest blogging community which turned out to be MyBlogGuest (MBG). Ann Smarty, the owner of MBG, originally thought that publishers wouldn’t be penalised but later found out that that was wrong and that Google did penalise some guest post publishers as well.
The anchor text for a link is the text that is clickable e.g. in this example link the anchor text is “link.” Anchor text has been an important part of Google’s algorithm for a long time with the websites that have particular keywords in their anchor text ranking well for those keywords. Many people in the SEO community have argued that there was too much emphasis on anchor text and that it was too easy to abuse. These days, Google pays close attention to the anchor text distribution that a site’s backlinks have and if it looks unnatural this can trigger a penalty or drop in rankings.
In the context of guest posting, in some cases Google seems to emphasise that self serving links are only a problem if they have keyword rich anchor text while at others they emphasise that they are always a problem (and should ideally be no-followed).
From Google Webmaster Tools Help article on Link Schemes: “Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links.”
Matt Cutts in a Q&A video: “If you’re paying for links its more likely its an off topic or irrelevant blog post that doesn’t really match the subject of the blog itself, its more likely you’ll see the keyword rich anchor text…”
Google’s John Mueller said in a Q&A video: “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.”
In my opinion I’d say that all self serving links from guest posts are problematic but those that have keyword rich anchor text as well are more of a priority for Google because anchor text has such a large impact on rankings.
Black Hat / White Hat Conclusion
In some situations guest blogging links are definitely black hat, including when there is an explicit exchange of value and when the site owner/editor does not check the outgoing links before accepting and publishing the guest post.
In other situations its tough to make the call. The real question is; can the site owner still make an editorial choice about which sites to link to which will be uninfluenced enough to make those links valuable to Google as a ranking signal.
I think its going to be different for every site owner/editor. Its also going to change depending on whether the guest author is creating the links or the site owner is. However, there’s no doubt in my mind that the links will on average be of a lower quality than other links from the site’s own content, mostly due to the differences in editorial processes as described above.
From Google’s perspective, it seems that ideally they’d like all self serving links from guest posts to be no followed. It seems they’ve come to this stance not because all guest post links are manipulative but because many are which has made these sorts of links not very valuable as a ranking signal. However, it also appears that they’re more likely to care and take action against a site if they’re doing guest post link building in a particular way, including;
- Using keyword rich anchor text
- Outsourcing the article writing to someone who is not associated with the site being linked to and/or is not an expert on the subject matter
- Doing it in a scalable or large scale way (they don’t define at what point is too much but I think its safe to say that guest posting should only be done occasionally and definitely shouldn’t be your primary way of getting links).