Ever since Rand Fishkin argued that link building was dying, to be replaced by link earning, a new wave of SEOs has emerged, warning us that guest blogging will be Google’s next target. James Finlayson argued, quite convincingly, that guest bloggers are sleepwalking their way toward future penalties. Garrett Moon even argued that guest posting is dead. After trying to accept guest posts, they saw a flood of low quality content, none of which they felt was worth posting on their blog.

And then the official word came out from Matt Cutts:

Okay, I’m calling it: if you’re using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop. Why? Because over time it’s become a more and more spammy practice, and if you’re doing a lot of guest blogging then you’re hanging out with really bad company.

As you can guess from the title, I still believe guest posts are a viable way to approach SEO and digital marketing. But the situation isn’t black and white, and the fact of the matter is, the vast majority of SEOs are doing it wrong.

In fact, saying that you should stop guest spamming might be a bit too forgiving, because most SEOs don’t believe they are guest spamming. The reality is, you don’t have to spam to violate Google’s guidelines. I’ll even go so far as to say that if you’re like most SEOs, your guest posting strategy already violates the guidelines.

Let’s talk about how to make guest blogging work in the years going forward, why it’s risky if you don’t do it right, and why you don’t need to be a massive business to succeed.

Why Guest Blogging is a Threat to Google

Google’s search engine was built on Brin and Page’s assumption that hyperlinks can be used as a way to measure the importance of web pages. This was somewhat true when the search engine was first released, but as soon as Google became the primary search engine this assumption began to destroy itself. It became immediately clear that the way to rank in search results was to build links, regardless of the method.

We all know that Google has been continuously updated to ignore or penalize links from link sellers, directories, article directories, no-followed links, sidebars, site-wides, widgets, pre-curated infographics, and press releases.

Statements issued by Matt Cutts about link building all seem to come down to the same thing:

“If you write a relatively low-quality article … and at the bottom are two or three links of specifically high keyword-density anchor text, then the sort of guy who just wants some content and doesn’t care about the quality might grab that article from an article bank. And he’s not necessarily editorially choosing to give that anchor text.” – Oct 17, 2012

Everywhere on the web, people have mostly treated links as editorial votes. They link to something because it inspires passion in them. It’s something that’s interesting, they want to share it with friends…there’s some reason why they want to highlight that particular link…If someone were to come to a newspaper reporter and say ‘I’m gonna give you some money, can you link within…your…news article, that would be deceptive.” – May 29, 2013

“Depending on the scale of stuff you’re doing with infographics you might consider putting a rel=no follow on infographic links as well. The value of those things might be branding, they might be to drive traffic, they might be to sort of let people to know that your site or your service exists but I wouldn’t expect a link from a widget to necessarily carry the same weight as an editorial link freely given where someone is recommending something and talking about it in a blog post.” – Aug 12, 2013

This is what all of the updates and penalties are about. Google doesn’t want to count every link on the web. It only wants to count the links that are given editorially.

And it’s always important to remember what Google’s page on link schemes has to say, which we’ve always strongly emphasized:

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 includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”

Google has plenty of reasons to view guest blogs with suspicion:

  • Links created by marketers to their own content aren’t purely editorial
  • Links created by marketers to their own content may be intended to manipulate rankings
  • Links from guest posts may be unlabeled advertorials
  • Guest posts may be the result of some commercial exchange, even if they weren’t outright bought

In short, even if your guest post links are coming from sites that are operated by human beings, sites that you wouldn’t necessarily consider “spam,” they can still be considered a violation of Google’s guidelines. Even a link from an exceptionally high quality, high authority blog can’t be seen as purely editorial.

It’s for this reason that guest blogging poses a threat to Google. It allows relatively low quality content to thrive in the search results if a significant number of guest posts link to it. Self-serving links like these are not what Brin and Page had in mind when they designed Google, and if they pose a significant obstacle to the Google user experience, they pose a threat to Google’s bottom line.

Guest Blogging Like a Pro

The key to making guest blogging work for you in a way that will provide long term benefit and ROI is to approach it as more than an SEO tactic.

Here’s a relevant quote from the post Matt Cutts just released:

There are still many good reasons to do some guest blogging (exposure, branding, increased reach, community, etc.). Those reasons existed way before Google and they’ll continue into the future. And there are absolutely some fantastic, high-quality guest bloggers out there. I changed the title of this post to make it more clear that I’m talking about guest blogging for search engine optimization (SEO) purposes.

Rule of thumb: If your guest posting strategy wouldn’t make money with no-follow links, it’s the wrong strategy.

There are two reasons for this:

  • You are knowingly violating Google’s guidelines. There’s no way around that. You are building links to manipulate search results. It doesn’t matter how high quality the posts are. If your strategy wouldn’t be profitable without Google, it’s search engine manipulation. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get penalized or that the links will eventually get ignored. But it does mean that you’re violating the guidelines, and that means you can’t be outraged if these links don’t work forever.
  • You aren’t optimizing for profit, you’re optimizing for search engines. An SEO’s job isn’t to boost rankings or traffic. It’s to make money. If you aren’t making as much money as possible with your efforts, you’re not doing your job.

I have found that the vast majority of SEOs are in this exact situation. They will defend their guest posts as white hat, high quality, that they’re valuable for users, etc., but at the end of the day they know that their guest posts won’t make money unless Google likes the links and bestows them with traffic.

Please don’t misunderstand me. If you don’t care about search engine traffic, you’re not an SEO. You’re a content marketer, an inbound marketer, an earned media professional, or what have you. As an SEO, you have to consider how your actions will impact search traffic. If you don’t, you’re fooling yourself, and you should change your title.

That said, you’re not a top tier SEO unless you are making money without the search engines. A marketing strategy that relies exclusively on a third party is precarious. A marketing strategy that relies on a third party while working against the interests and guidelines of that party is disastrous.

Your guest posts should accomplish at least one of the following:

  • The referral traffic is profitable
  • The brand impressions are profitable
  • A badge saying you’ve been featured on this site would help your conversion rate in a way that would be profitable
  • Being featured on this blog will make it easier to get guest posts on blogs that would be profitable
  • This guest post is a stepping stone toward business relationships that will be profitable

If your response is that there’s no way for guest blogging to be profitable in this way, you know for sure that there is something wrong with your guest blogging strategy.

Here’s why most SEOs can’t do this: they fail to transform visits into a repeat audience.

A repeat audience does several things for you:

  • Needless to say, it keeps your baseline traffic levels the same each month, regardless of the search engines.
  • It offers a steady stream of activity in social networks.
  • It offers a steady stream of branded searches, which improve and protect your rankings
  • It boosts the lifetime value of your customers

The key to capturing a repeat audience is to build up an email list of subscribers who actually click through your emails to your blog. To build an email list, you need to do more than just ask people to subscribe. You need to offer them a resource: something that will give them a reason to subscribe. Here are a few examples:

  • Copyblogger grew their email list by 400 percent after introducing MyCopyBlogger, a free “paywall” service that offers subscribers additional content not available on their blog.
  • Jane Hinchey grew her list by 64 percent in two days by offering subscribers a specific series of training emails after they answered a series of questions about what problems they wanted solved.

Without a resource of some kind, most people won’t be willing to give away their email address. Without a collection of email addresses, your guest posting strategy will fail to build up a repeat audience, and thus typically fail to earn a profit without search engine approval.

Some might argue that this isn’t SEO, it’s email marketing, but this is an arbitrary line to draw, and it ignores the SEO benefit of an email list. Email lists create directed search traffic, user behavior data, and natural links that help improve your rankings. The user behavior that comes with an email list may even give Google the data to tell an unnatural link profile from a legitimate one.

If you approach guest blogging as a method of email list building, it is not only more profitable, it offers better, longer-lasting SEO benefit.

Needless to say, guest posting won’t help you build an email list unless it sends a significant amount of referral traffic. That means you’ll need to guest blog on some of the most visible platforms in your niche. I’m talking about blogs that receive roughly a dozen legitimate comments on every post and/or at least a hundred or so shares on social networks.

Accomplishing this likely means broadening your niche a bit. Avoid blogs focused on an obscure micro-niche. Think about big niches like health, parenting, finance, self-help, business, gossip, and so on. I’m not saying you should get so far off topic that relevancy is lost. I’m saying that there is almost certainly a way to connect your subject matter to a major niche.

It’s not as difficult to get coverage on large sites as you might think. We’ve been featured on sites like Moz, KISSmetrics, Copy Blogger, and VentureBeat. We approach these blog posts the same way we approach posts on our own site. It’s all about being valuable.

The key is to stop thinking about how to churn out articles, and start thinking about the big wins. Aim high. Write something you feel is worthy of a site like Mashable or Gawker. You might not get published on such a high profile site, but you’ll end up with a piece of content that is bound to get published on a high value channel somewhere.

Our Elements of High-Power Guest Blogging

So, what does it take to earn guest posts on platforms like these, other than “thinking big?”

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Your previous wins are your most valuable asset during outreach. Add your absolute best guest post to your email signature and you will instantly see an improvement in your success rate.
  • If you have authored a book or have relevant credentials to point to, you will instantly be taken more seriously.
  • Even if you have already written the post, it’s usually best to submit the idea, unless of course their guidelines suggest otherwise.
  • Your post should serve its purpose better than any other post on the web that you can find. It must be more helpful, more unique, more entertaining, more comprehensive, and/or more targeted to a specific audience than anything else that has been created on the subject.
  • Some people think that if you cite sources, it makes you look less authoritative, because “you weren’t the one who came up with it.” These people don’t know what they are talking about. All good writers cite their sources and synthesize information from a broad range of outlets. People want to know where you are getting your information. Without citations, it just looks like you are full of it.
  • Point to specific examples, data, or stories to make ideas more concrete.
  • Appeal to your reader’s emotions and goals, but do so with specific threats and rewards, as opposed to vague descriptions.
  • I can’t stress enough how important it is to be specific, so I’m saying it again.
  • While this obviously depends on the blog, in most cases it’s a good idea to give practical, actionable, “how-to” advice within the content.
  • Read at least one full article from the site and scan at least one more before submitting (or perhaps before writing) your post. You want to try to match the tone of the blog.
  • Spend a lot of time reading, especially reading content on top tier blogs. You will develop a sense for what works and what doesn’t.
  • Avoid being wordy, using jargon, or taking up space unnecessarily.
  • Quote experts directly where it makes sense. This makes your post part of a dialogue, rather than you preaching from your soapbox.
  • Take a stance.
  • Speak directly to your reader.

It might strike you as ironic that I’m giving all this advice without citing sources. All I can say is that this is how we approach writing guest posts and outreach, and it’s what’s earned us exposure in top industry blogs. There are undoubtedly other ways to do it, but this stuff works.

I hope you found this guide valuable, and if did, we’d appreciate it if you passed it along. Leave us a comment if you’ve got something to add, and send us a message if you’d like to talk business.