As we finally enter the month of February and leave the January blues behind us, it's fair to say that the SEO industry has started 2014 with a rather bumpy start.
Just before the Christmas festivities kicked into full swing the news broke that Rap Genius, the company that details lyrics to hundreds of songs on their website, were treading on very thin ice when it came to adhering to Google's quality guidelines. John Marbach, a fan of Rap Genius and an SEO specialist broke the news on his website when he saw that Rap Genius were asking their fans to do something he knew would violate Google's guidelines. Writing a blog post on the matter rapidly drew widespread attention to the case and within just a few days Matt Cutts, the head of Web Spam at Google, was seen on Twitter saying he was looking into the matter.
Just a few days later Rap Genius was given a penalty by Google and they were no longer ranking for their own brand name within Google's Index.
What did Rap Genius do to get removed from Google's Index and how do you keep your brand safe?
Rap Genius was seen to ask their fans on social media if they had a blog. Those that did were then asked if they wanted to become brand affiliates for the company and link to Rap Genius within a blog post. In return, Rap Genius would Tweet the blog post out to their thousands of followers. It seemed that this would be win-win for both Rap Genius building hundreds of links as well as for the fans getting Tweeted by a large company.Google, however, did not see it in the same light and removed the website from their index. Following some pretty hefty apologies and a massive link clean-up, Rap Genius are now safely ranking again within Google's index.
Guest blogging R.I.P.
Then on January 20th Matt Cutts made an announcement saying that guest blogging was now dead! This caused uproar within online forums and communities, with SEOs wondering what their next plan of action could be for quick ranking gains.
"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." Matt Cutts, January 2014."
There then followed a lot of comments arguing that guest blogging is a valid way of interacting with other websites and audiences, and also a great way for influential, knowledgeable writers to publish their expertise on a subject to a website that needs it. So the overall consensus was that this stance was slightly unfair. Which I totally agree with.
As a result, Matt Cutts changed the title of his post to "The decay and fall of guest blogging for SEO". In my opinion this makes quite a difference. In the past Matt Cutts has created video answers explaining why Guest blogging was a valid way of engaging with other sites to learn about your brand.
So in fact, Matt Cutt's was simply highlighting that the tactic of using guest blogging for gaining high rankings was over and that they would be clamping down on this practice. As a company that participates in guest posting on relevant websites when we have something worthwhile to say, and which is fed up of seeing websites with amazingly spammy backlinks using spun articles with little value to the reader outranking our clients, I'm actually quite pleased with this announcement. Low quality articles that don't get read by anybody have been helping websites to rank when they shouldn't and this deserves to stop. There's probably a lot of SEOs panicking right now about their clients' backlinks who are manically going through the process of removing or no following links that they originally charged their clients to build in the first place.
SEO isn't a quick fix with a bit of content generation. It's a much wider project which incorporates technical SEO as well. Yes, some quality content onsite and offsite is important, but so is social media and building up your client's brand or product awareness in the wider community. This is a time consuming process, but in the long run it's worth it - especially when you see your competitors get wiped out in waves by the next Google update.
What are the Google guidelines and why did the guest posting announcement from Matt Cutts shock the SEO community so much?
All good SEOs who follow the Google Webmaster guidelines will know them off by heart and already be adhering to them. Here are some of the guidelines taken from Google Webmaster Tools and my opinions on these tactics. I'm just going to highlight a few items in relation to the resent comments from Matt Cutts, but you can read the full Google webmaster tools guide for best practice link building here.
This raises two problems for an experienced SEO. Firstly "large scale article marketing" - if you are churning out content for content's sake, you are not creating the best content possible. It is much better to write one amazing piece of content that is useful, insightful, and newsworthy that helps answer a reader's question and therefore actually gets read. This should then get shared and gain links naturally! You cannot do this by churning out hundreds of generic articles around a similar topic. Not forgetting to mention that if similar or duplicate articles are created these can actually do more harm than good and your site could face the wrath of Google's Panda algorithm.
The second issue I have with this method of linkbuilding is that using "keyword-rich anchor text" is asking for trouble from Googles Penguin algorithm. This was an update first rolled out in April 2012 and marked sites down that had overly optimised backlinks and an unnatural backlink profile.
Advertorials are simply articles that have been paid to be placed on news related sites. They are a combination of news and advertising. However, the problem with paying for content to be placed violates Google's guidelines. It is perfectly acceptable to pay for an advertorial to be placed when, on the right site, it could drive hundreds of visits in traffic and further improve brand awareness, just so long as that link isn't there to sculpt SEO and pass page rank. So long as the link is given the NoFollow attribute then you are fine to proceed. However, without this SEO link is there any SEO value and therefore why would anyone pay for it? One major casualty of early 2013 was Interflora, who were removed completely from Google's index for using this exact advertorial tactic.
A much better approach is to actually have a real piece of newsworthy content and get a journalist involved, leading to the creation of an editorial piece of content. Not only is this free, it might even include a real natural link and will keep you from breaking Google's guidelines once again.
Anyone that thinks that the above paragraph is an acceptable way to link is definitely not the SEO you want working for your brand. In fairness, this tactic used to work very well but this was several years ago. Now this sort of tactic is screaming out for Google's attention. It's begging them to look at your site's backlinks and determine whether what you have been doing has followed their guidelines - and this certainly doesn't.
And it seems that Google isn't waiting that long before it takes manual action on sites that have violated those terms. As January took to a close, the rumblings of disgruntled copywriters and article spinners still reeling over the news of the rumoured death of guest posting for SEO, calmed down. But with the end January, the new news that Google had been dishing out penalties again - and this time to some quite big brands started to take the limelight.
In mid-January The Wall Street Journal reported that it had seen that travel company Expedia completely removed from Google's index. This was followed by a blog post from popular SEO commentator David Naylor that neither Music Magpie nor Protect Your Bubble could be found - these two companies were no longer ranking for their own names. It seems that Google is really going full force into penalising sites that violate their terms.
If you think that your brand has suffered from a previous agency's bad linking practice and are worried about your backlink profile or just want a healthcheck then don't fear, there are things to do to keep your website healthy and on the right side of Google. However that's a topic for another whole article!
Article written by Amanda Brooks our SEO Executive at Channel Digital