Learn what’s myth and get the low-down on the real updates you need to know
In February 2020, Site owners and some SEOs started to panic in the wake of reports that Google had started issuing penalties for websites that publish guest posts. This was not the result of a new Google vendetta on guest posting. However, if guest posting or backlinks are part of your marketing strategy, you could get slapped with a manual penalty if you don’t know about and understand link attributes. If that term’s foreign to you, understanding this article should be your top business priority for today. If you prefer, you can listen to the audio below instead of reading.
Google’s guest post penalties
So, first off, let’s examine the ‘Google hates guest posts’ myth.
In late February 2020, Search Engine Journal published an article about what appeared to be an emerging guest-post-penalty trend. Several publishers had reportedly received ‘manual actions’ from Google, resulting in links from their sites being distrusted regardless of what the search algorithm does with their content. Such an action can drastically reduce income for any site that relies on web traffic for sales.
This triggered a flurry of discussion in SEO circles. But there was no official statement from Google, and a Google Webmaster Trends Analyst was unaware of any specific campaign. While it’s possible not all Google staff were on the same page in this instance (it’s happened before), it appears the manual actions were just Google enforcing an existing policy.
Existing Google policy on link building
So what’s the policy Google was enforcing?
Well, Google wants to provide a good search experience which means the content it shows in search results needs to answer the search queries it receives. But when websites pay for backlinks (pay other sites to link to their content), they’re usually spammy links that provide little or no value to the reader and therefore don’t align with Google’s aims. Even if they do provide value, they’re manipulative.
As such, Google’s link policy prohibits buying and selling links, excessive link exchanges, and large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links.
In other words, websites should publish quality content that solves the problems faced by their target market. Then, as part of their content promotion strategy, they can approach other relevant websites and suggest those sites link to the content if it provides value to the visitors of those sites as well. Businesses can also produce high-quality guest posts that solve the problems faced by the target audiences of other sites in order to boost their authority and brand awareness.
The key is to always prioritise the end-user’s needs and consider backlink-building as an ‘added bonus’.
By the same token, publishers should only accept guest posts and publish backlinks that provide value to their audience — that’s marketing best practice. If they receive any kind of compensation for promoting another brand, it’s a good idea for them to make search engines aware of that compensation using link attributes. If they don’t, they may receive a manual penalty.
This is similar to the policies in many countries that require publishers to declare when they’re being paid to promote products and services, so audiences are fully informed.
Link attributes have been around for years. For example, you may have heard of ‘no follow’ links. They’re created with a link attribute (
rel="nofollow"), which has been around since 2005 and its purpose is to tell search engines that you want to link to a page but don’t want to endorse it. Some websites have been set up so that blog post comments use the nofollow attribute by default, so it’s possible you’re using this attribute without knowing it. For example, some WordPress themes are set up that way.
In September 2019, Google announced two new link attributes that solve the problems associated with potentially spammy backlinks and guest posts and the issues associated with accepting payments for guest posts and backlinks regardless of whether they add value. These new link attributes nicely complement the existing ‘follow’ and ‘nofollow’ attributes and came into effect on 1 March 2020. Bing included them in its Webmaster Guidelines in June 2020.
Now, if ‘link attributes’ is an unfamiliar term to you, don’t worry. A link attribute is just a little piece of code that you can add to any link. All links are ‘follow’ by default, which means search engines consider the link to be a ‘vote of confidence’ that can help the target web page rank better in search results. The code for a standard link looks like:
<a href="https://www.example.com/">hyperlink</a>. The code for a link with a link attribute looks like:
<a href="https://www.example.com/" rel="attribute">hyperlink</a>. So, for example, a nofollow link would look like:
<a href="https://www.example.com/" rel="nofollow">hyperlink</a> A hyperlink with or without a rel attribute will look the same to the website visitor who’s just viewing the hyperlink.
The two new link attributes Google launched in 2020 are
You can use the sponsored attribute to identify links that you were paid to place on your site. This might happen as part of advertisements, sponsorships, affiliate marketing arrangements, or other kinds of compensation arrangements.
The UGC attribute is for user-generated content and Google recommends it be used for links within any content that was generated by a website’s users. Examples include comments and forum posts.
You can even use multiple attributes on the same link. For instance, you could use
rel="ugc sponsored" to indicate that a link came from user-generated content and that you were paid to include that link on your site. Similarly, you can use
rel="nofollow sponsored", so other search engines will consider the link as a nofollow link and so that Google can take the sponsored hint.
It’s important to note that Google treats these attributes as hints about whether links should be used to influence search rankings. It’ll take that information and consider it along with other signals before making the final decision about how it should use links within its systems.
It’s also important to understand that using link attributes is voluntary. Having said that, if you get paid to publish a link and you don’t add either the sponsored or nofollow attribute to the link, Google has warned it may take a link scheme action. So, I personally wouldn’t risk it!
How you can use Google’s link attributes if you’re being paid for guest posts or backlinks
So, now it’s possible to tell Google when you’ve been paid to provide a backlink, you should be able to accept payments for links without being penalised by Google. Just add
rel="nofollow sponsored" to any backlinks that you were paid to publish on your website.
And if you’re being paid to accept guest posts, you could add
rel="ugc" to most of the links and
rel="ugc sponsored" to the links that point to the website that paid you.
Note that Google hasn’t issued specific guidance about this, but it’s a logical way to go.
And of course, it’s still important that all the content you publish is valuable to your target audience. Don’t take this as a signal that you can start accepting payment for any old content, otherwise your website rankings, and probably your audience’s opinion of your brand, will suffer.
What do these link attributes mean for guest posting and backlink strategy?
So, the big question now is ‘what effect does all this have on SEO, guest posting, and backlink strategy?’. Neil Patel predicted it’d be a year or so before the new link attributes became commonplace.
“Most webmasters probably won’t use sponsored or UGC attributes anytime soon. It will probably take another year before they really catch on, which means for now you will just have to focus your efforts on dofollow links.”Neil Patel, one of the top 10 marketers (Forbes) and creator of one of the top 100 most brilliant companies (Entrepreneur Magazine).
And Neil was right. In 2021, I noticed a lot more people asking experts for information about sponsored and UGC links, as in this example. Nowadays, many people are using link attributes correctly. Some have chosen to just use the nofollow attribute. But an increasing number of savvy marketers and businesses have implemented these link attributes.
The result is that:
- Google continues to issue manual penalties for those that don’t comply with its link spam policies. Just as countries continue to penalise businesses that don’t disclose to the public when they’re being paid to promote products and services (e.g. through affiliate advertising)
- This has been another hit for affiliate marketing, which has experienced significant challenges over the last few years due to the increasing adoption of privacy-first web technology. As a result, affiliate marketing isn’t a great way to boost search traffic. However, affiliate links still drive web traffic.
- Fewer people are willing to pay for backlinks. Some brands do still buy backlinks, so they can get more traffic from a variety of sources. But because those links have to at least be tagged with a nofollow attribute and brands have increasingly complied with this requirement, there’s no longer much point buying them if you want to boost search rankings directly (and this practice now carries far more risk). Savvy SEOs and marketers now spend their backlink budgets on higher ROI activities.
If you’re currently paying publishers for the right to guest post on their site, or if you’ve been paying peanuts for low-quality guest posts just so you can generate more backlinks, you might want to reconsider your strategy. Guest posting is still a valuable method of demonstrating authority and reaching new audiences, but it’s no longer a good way to boost your search rankings in a direct sense.
Now, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t pay someone to write a guest post for you. You just need to be sure to choose an ethical writer who’ll produce something truly valuable and who can apply the correct link attributes. This might mean some businesses will need to rethink or reallocate their content budgets.
Overall, these link attribute changes have resulted in businesses needing to place an even greater emphasis on quality content and providing value to their intended audiences. This is great for us as consumers and marketers!