Are You Taking a Gamble With Your SEO Strategy?

The past few weeks have seen Google take significant actions in an attempt to "clean up" organic search. Could these changes mean you are taking a significant gamble with your SEO strategy?

Wednesday 19th March. A date famous for being when gambling was first legalised in Nevada (leading to the creation of the gambling Mecca that is Las Vegas), but which more recently for those operating within the world of digital marketing marked a significant milestone for Google and the actions it is taking to attempt to ‘clean up’ organic search.

The date marked Google’s significant manual action against one of the internet’s largest guest blogging networks – MyBlogGuest – and a subsequent wave of Manual Actions (commonly referred to as penalties) on sites benefitting from what Google classes as ‘low quality guest blogging’ and the links gained from the activity. Since then, Google has proceeded to take highly visible and severe action against a number of other such networks, including guest blog network PostJoint on 19th April and even more recently, on 30th April, potential action on links built using Help A Reporter Out (HARO), a service designed to connect reporters with expert commentators.

In the following, we take a look at what’s happened, what you need to know and how to tell whether you are taking a gamble with your current SEO strategy.

What is Guest Blogging?

Guest blogging is when someone publishes a post or article on a blog that is not their own. Typically the benefits for the guest blogger and the blog owner are:

Guest blogger

  • Gets their content in front of an established audience
  • Usually gets a link to their site – which can help rankings

Blog owner

  • Gets ‘free’ (well, for the price of a backlink), ideally topically relevant content to keep their blog ticking over

What is Manual Action and why does it exist?

To understand why Google has taken action on guest blogging networks such as MyBlogGuest and, more recently, PostJoint (which had action taken against it on April 18th), it’s worth considering how Google’s algorithms work and the purpose Manual Action exists to serve.

Like it or not, Google (and most other search engines) still relies heavily on links to determine rankings. While not all links are equal in terms of quality and value, they are still one of the most tangible and measurable indicators of a webpage’s reputation and quality – and therefore its deservingness to rank highly for a given query in a set of search results. One notable exception to this is the leading Russian search engine, Yandex, which recently moved to stop counting links as a ranking signal for commercial queries due to a decline in the quality of the signal it provided as a result of intentionally manipulative linking.

This action highlights one of the “problems” with using links as a primary ranking signal - they are highly susceptible to manipulation. The potential benefits of doing so have understandably driven scalable manipulative link building to be a fairly (and sadly) common place activity amongst those looking to make a fast buck with little care for the potential long-term risks.

As scalable spam and manipulative link building becomes increasingly more sophisticated, it becomes harder and harder for Google to identify and algorithmically deal with. It is for this reason that Manual Review and Manual Action exists.

Manual Review and Manual Action are human processes. Manual Action is the result of a member of Google’s Manual Review team reviewing a website and it’s link profile, or a subset of the link profile classified as suspicious, and making a judgement on whether the site is trying to manipulate Google’s rankings using methods outside of its guidelines, but in a way the algorithm has been unable to identify and deal with.

The challenge with this of course is that it introduces a highly subjective element to the process, one which can lead to some unusual cases where seemingly natural links are classified as “bad links” by Google.

Why MyBlogGuest?

Whilst MyBlogGuest was created with above board intentions of helping blog owners and guest content producers get in contact with each other, it also came to facilitate low value guest blogging that focused more on building links than providing quality, relevant content to blog owners. However, the prevalence of ‘low value’ guest blogging activity generated through MyBlogGuest is not solely attributable to the guest content providers. Blog owners using MyBlogGuest are also responsible for its demise by accepting low value content for the simple purpose of fresh content to help drive traffic and resulting advertising revenues, rather than focusing on unique, interesting content relevant to their target audience.

If you have any links to your site built through MyBlogGuest, I would recommend reviewing these with a critical eye to determine:

  • Does the link make sense in its context?
  • Is the site relevant to the topic of your website?
  • Has the site experienced any dip in its own rankings/search traffic? (tools such as SEMrush can give a view on this)
  • Who else does the site link to – do those links make sense/look natural?

If when reviewing your links, any of the above give you cause for concern, then you probably want to be considering either requesting the link have a ‘nofollow’ attribute applied, or requesting it be outright removed. Should you be unsuccessful in contacting the website owner for either of the above requests, then add the link to a disavow file and submit through your websites Google Webmaster Tools profile.

It’s important to note that while Google has taken severe, targeted action against low quality guest blogging and the services which have facilitated this link building method, they aren’t targeting all guest blogging. Guest blogging is still a legitimate method of building links – but it should be focused more on building reputation and awareness, coupled with natural linking to content which reinforces the information in the guest post.

Why PostJoint?

As another major guest blogging network, PostJoint was always likely to come under scrutiny from Google following the action on MyBlogGuest. In fact, the owners of PostJoint clearly acknowledged this when they released a statement in the days following action on MyBlogGuest, declaring how their service was different.

However, in claiming its service was safe by virtue of having ‘zero footprints’ and that ‘nobody can browse or crawl’ their site list or userbase, PostJoint it seems was waving a red rag to a bull.

While it’s not clear to what extent PostJoint has been impacted - initially it stated 16% of their network had been impacted, however they have since removed this statement – it would be highly recommended to remove or disavow any links built using the service as a precaution.

Is HARO next?

While there has been no official confirmation that Google has taken action specifically against Help A Reporter Out, there have been reports of links which were built through the service being highlighted as being ‘inorganic’ by Google and outside of its quality guidelines.

Obviously, at the current time, these cases represent a small sample of examples and therefore are not indicative of any larger scale action against the service. However, these cases do highlight the increasing frequency with which a much wider pool of link types related, to varying degrees, to types of link building which Google has previously taken action on (in this case guest blogging and press releases) are being treated as ‘inorganic’ upon manual review by Google.

Does this mean that HARO is likely to be the next service facilitating link building to be hit? It’s hard to say right now. HARO is largely a facilitator of contact between reporters for (presumably) legitimate news sites and these news sites (presumably) only accept comment/content from sources they deem acceptable within their editorial standards. Therefore, it may be that these recent cases suggest that HARO needs to conduct a more thorough review of the reporters using the service and the kinds of requests for comment being submitted to ensure that a larger Google action does not occur.

Big Brands are not exempt

It’s also worth noting that big brands have not been exempt from Google’s recent actions. Many within the online SEO community seem to believe that big brands are often shielded from the impact of Manual Actions by Google – almost favoured in a way – however this is most certainly not the case.

Following Google’s actions on guest blogging networks, a number of big brands have been identified as being impacted, including clothing retailers USC and jewellers Links of London among others.

There have also been a wave of Manual Actions on big brands even prior to Google’s action on guest blogging, with sites such as Halifax.co.uk feeling Google’s wrath.

In short, don’t think you are safe just because you are a big brand.

What next?

One thing that is apparent from Google’s recent actions is that they are clearly aware that one of the best ways of dealing with manipulative link building they cannot algorithmically detect is through propaganda and fear resulting from targeted, visible and severe action (to the point that one guest post alone may have led to an entire site being penalised by Google).

Following any action like this by Google, good links become that bit harder to come by which is why creatively led link building around quality content is becoming increasingly more important. If you’re not considering this as part of your strategy going forward, then it’s likely you are taking a big gamble with your SEO.