We have consistently warned that most SEOs are flat out violating Google’s guidelines, whether they realize it or not, and a recent update to Google’s link scheme page has left us feeling pretty vindicated about the whole thing. Unfortunately, some have overreacted to the update, believing that the change somehow implies that guest posts are no longer kosher.

We’d like to address some of the myths and misconceptions people have about links from the guest post author bio section, offer some advice, and put some fears to rest. It comes down to this: a bad guest posting strategy can be very harmful for you, but a smart one will secure the future of your presence on the web for years to come.

Let’s dive in.

The Wording Has Changed, the Rules Haven’t

Here’s what the updated link scheme document specifically rules out:

“Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links”

“Advertorials or native advertising where payment is received for articles that include links that pass PageRank”

“Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites. For example:

There are many wedding rings on the market. If you want to have a wedding, you will have to pick the best ring. You will also need to buy flowers and a wedding dress.”

But the central point of the document has not changed. We have quoted the following point several times, and we will continue to do so, because everything else on the page is just an example. Here it is:

“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.”

This was, and continues to be, the only part of the page that should matter to an SEO who cares about building a long term, sustainable SEO strategy.

Google reserves the right to decide what kinds of links are “intended to manipulate PageRank.” As we have said many times, the only way to think about link building as a long term strategy is to ask yourself whether you would build that link if it were no-followed. If you would, you can justify it as a link that is not intended to manipulate PageRank, and you can rest assured that it was worth the effort even if Google does decide to devalue or ignore it at some point in the future.

This central approach to link building has not changed.

Misconceptions and Confusion

There are a few points of confusion that seem to be very common in reaction to this news. Let’s go over these one by one.


1. Will “Legacy” White Hat Tactics Stop Working?

Google does not recognize “white hat” SEO. What SEOs define as “white hat” is entirely up to them. Google plays no part in those definitions. To my knowledge, Google has never come right out and said that any  SEO tactic will always be legitimate, short of “creat[ing] unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community.”

Absolutely everything else is fair game, and frankly, Google has the right to change even that recommendation if they ever saw reason to (although it’s hard to imagine why they ever would).

We have also said that “gray hat” SEOs actually face a bigger threat than “black hat” SEOs, because gray hat tactics effect more search results than black hat tactics do.

There were many SEOs in the past who believed that a link profile made up of EzineArticle type links was “white hat,” because they didn’t buy links, they didn’t use automated software, and they didn’t spam comment sections. But these kinds of mediocre articles were clogging the SERPs in practically every niche. Overall, these activities posed a bigger threat to Google’s customer perception than the blackest black hats.

And that is why Panda came before Penguin.

If you have built links in the past with the sole intent of manipulating search results, those links are at risk. There’s nothing you can do about it now, nor should you get paranoid about these links. Instead, you should change the way you think going forward, and focus on link building with goals that go beyond rankings.


2. Are Guest Posts Off Limits Now?


Google is now explicitly targeting high-volume guest posting strategies with over-optimized anchor text. If you considered those strategies “white hat,” than yes, your “legacy” white hat links will probably lose some of their value in the months or years going forward.

For examples of guest posts that don’t pose a threat, take a look at what we’ve recently written for KISSmetrics and Unbounce. Notice that instead of building a large number of guest posts from mediocre blogs, we build high quality, massive traffic links, and we place little or no emphasis on anchor text.

The trouble is that most SEOs set their sights far too low when they build guest post links. They build links from mediocre parts of the web, or they consider PageRank the primary metric of a quality link, instead of things like traffic and comments. They tend to focus on building a large number of links instead of building links from the most frequented sites in their industry, and they do not set themselves apart from people who have been doing SEO, outreach, and guest posting for a few months or less.

If you don’t understand or don’t believe that you can approach guest posting this way, please read our in depth guide about advanced guest posting over at Moz.

Ask yourself these three questions before guest posting on a site:

  • If I said I was featured on this site in a badge or in my email signature, would it impress my audience enough to help my conversion rate?
  • Will this guest post increase brand impressions enough to make future sales easier?
  • Will this guest post send referral traffic that will contribute lifetime value in such a way that it is worth the effort?

If you can answer yes to just one of these, then you are fine. If you say “no” to every single one of these, you are building a strategy that is risky not just because Google doesn’t like it, but because it won’t be worth your effort unless Google does like it. And if Google ever decides it doesn’t like it, all future value will be immediately lost.

Please understand that a site doesn’t have to be popular right now for a guest post to be worth it, either. Focus on the potential of the site.

Pay close attention to the other guest posts on the site. Are they high quality? Does the audience like them? Do the outbound links make sense for users? If so, a guest post on this site is probably fine.

From a long term SEO standpoint, the primary concern is what the guest post says about your influence, relevance, and quality on the web. If your ability to get a guest post on a site says that you are influential or high quality regarding relevant subject matter, than you can trust it to be helpful in the long term.


3. Will I Get Penalized for Previously Mediocre Link Building?

It’s very unlikely.

Most people who come to us saying they have been penalized have actually had their links devalued. We’ve known this for a very long time, and Matt Cutts recently confirmed that even link buyers are rarely penalized. It’s usually the sellers who face the wrath of Google.

That’s right. As late as April 2013, Matt Cutts has said that link sellers can expect to see a 30-50 percent drop in toolbar PageRank after the algorithm suspects link selling. Link buyers will therefore see a drop in the value of links from those sites. The links do not count against them.

This is link buying, one of the worst offenses in Google’s eyes, most likely surpassed only by hacked websites.

It surprises us that anybody in the SEO community is shocked by this news, actually. Please refer to our introduction to link devaluation to understand how this works. We sometimes call this an “indirect penalty,” since it certainly can feel like a penalty to those affected.

We have to wonder why anybody would expect things to be different. Google needs to approach link manipulation the same way that governments approach black markets like the drug trade. Sure, in indisputable cases a buyer might face some prosecution, but it’s the sellers who are targeted the most, and who get the harshest sentences.

When people complain about devalued link profiles, they are like drug addicts whose dealers got thrown in jail. All that’s happened is that their supply has been cut off, but most of them respond like they were the ones who got thrown in prison.

It’s far too easy to frame people for manipulating their inbound link profile, and Google can more effectively reshape its index by hitting link sellers like BuildMyRank than by hitting the people who buy from them.

I feel very confident in saying that Penguin does not penalize sites with spammy link profiles. It penalizes sites with spammy outbound links. We saw the same thing with Panda. It didn’t penalize sites that built links from low quality article directories. It penalized low quality article directories.

This is probably the biggest source of confusion in modern SEO, and it is one reason why so many people seem to think negative SEO is a much bigger problem than it actually is.

If you have done link building from article directories and mediocre guest posts, you can expect to face Panda-like demotion. Your site will not be penalized, but your inbound links will lose some or all of their value.

Unless you get a message in Webmaster Tools, you haven’t been penalized, and you shouldn’t waste any time with the “I didn’t do anything wrong” form. Just fix your link building strategy.

In short, mediocre links don’t count against you, they just waste resources.


4. Should You No-Follow Advertorial Links, Press Releases, Etc?

This is missing the point.

As we said earlier, the question is whether the link would be worth anything if it were no-follow, because Google has the right to no-follow any link.

Google cannot reasonably expect all PR services or advertorial sellers to no-follow links for them. It’s their job as a search engine to figure out how to do that on their own.

As a link builder, it rarely makes any sense to try and get links no-followed. Unless you are one of the most insane black-hats out there, you will not be penalized for the links that you build. (See the previous section.) The worst that will happen is that your links will be internally no-followed by Google. There is no reason to preempt them on this, unless it’s to avoid surprise devaluations in the future.

If your link profile is so dependent on these kinds of links that the devaluations would make a dent, there is something seriously wrong with your link building strategy.

If you ever find yourself wondering if a link ought to be no-followed, it probably means the link isn’t worth building in the first place. If it is still worth building, then you are over-thinking this. Google will evaluate links as it sees fit. It’s not up to you to do their job for them.

Again, I advise you to build links that contribute non-SEO value. If you do that, none of this stuff should matter. Amazon’s affiliate program uses no-follow links. You don’t see them getting penalized. The affiliate sites on the other hand…do you see where I’m going with this?

No-follow is only something to care about when it comes to outbound links. Get it?


5. This is Going to Make Negative SEO Choke the SERPs, isn’t it?

*Sigh* No.

Please refer back to point #3, perhaps the most common SEO myth of all time.

To make negative SEO work, a competitor needs to convince Google that you are contributing to spam and mediocre content on the web. That means it looks like your site is ripping off content, selling links, pointing to spammy websites, and publishing content with no editorial standards. Either that, or they need to convince Google that the sites linking to you are doing all of that.

There are isolated cases of negative SEO working. I’m not disputing that. But it’s pretty much always the sites with the outbound links that take the direct hit.

Let’s Wrap this Up

I hope this has cleared some things up for SEOs who weren’t sure how to react to the news. I want to stress again that essentially nothing has changed. Google’s core message is the same, and this change isn’t associated with any algorithm updates. This has been a great opportunity for us to clear up some long-standing SEO myths and to clarify why we approach SEO the way we do.

If you have any questions, please post them in the comments. Thanks for taking the time to read through this, and please pass this along if it was helpful for you.