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Google cracks down on guest posting — the myth and real updates

11 min read | Last updated on

Site owners and some SEOs have started to panic in the wake of reports that Google has started issuing penalties for websites that publish guest posts. This is not a result of a new Google vendetta on guest posting, but there are old rules and new related best practices that you should know about if you found this concerning.

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.

The manual action warning that was sent to one guest post publisher
The manual action warning that was sent to one guest post publisher

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 has happened before), it appears that the manual actions are just Google enforcing an existing policy.

In the past, Google Webmaster Trends Analysts and Search Engineers have been unaware of changes made on the search side
In the past, Google Webmaster Trends Analysts and Search Engineers have been unaware of changes made on the search side

Existing Google policy on link building

So what is the existing 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, they’re usually spammy links that provide little or no value to the reader and therefore don’t align with Google’s aims.

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 they link to the content if it provides value to their visitors 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 have link-building as an ‘added bonus’.

By the same token, publishers should only accept guest posts and publish backlinks that provide value to their audience and should not accept payment for publishing posts and backlinks — except in certain circumstances

Google’s new link attributes

So, what are the exceptions?

Well, 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.

Now, if ‘link attributes’ is an unfamiliar term to you, don’t worry. They’re 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: hyperlink. The code for a link with a link attribute looks like: hyperlink. Both look the same to the website visitor who’s just viewing the hyperlink.

rel="nofollow" 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.

The two new link attributes are rel="sponsored" and rel="ugc".

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 that other search engines will consider the link as a nofollow link and so that Google can take the sponsored hint.

Note though 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.

Using link attributes is also 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.

How you can use Google’s new link attributes if you’re being paid for guest posts or backlinks

So now that 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="sponsored" or 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 will suffer.

What do the new Google 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?’. And the short answer is that you won’t notice much difference in the short term. Indeed Neil Patel believes it’ll be a year or so before the new link attributes are 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).

But once SEOs and big brands are regularly using these link attributes, the changes will be dramatic.

Firstly, Google will probably continue to crack down on people breaking the Google link policy. If it does, more everyday users will start correctly using the nofollow link attribute and the sponsored attribute. The UGC attribute will probably only enter mainstream usage once it’s adopted by WordPress and other platforms for commenting.

As a result, I think this is going to be another hit for affiliate marketing. That sector has already experienced significant challenges with some web browsers having introduced tools for users to more easily block cookies. And any crackdown on publishing paid links will compound that because affiliate sites will see a decrease in rankings as more ‘dofollow’ affiliate links are converted into either ‘nofollow’ or ‘sponsored’ links. But at least affiliate links will still be able to drive web traffic.

There will also be fewer people willing to pay for backlinks. Some brands will still buy backlinks so they can get more traffic from a variety of sources. But because those links will have to be tagged with the sponsored attribute, there will be no point buying them if you want to boost search rankings directly. This will result in SEOs and marketers spending money where it’s more likely to generate a return.

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 will still be a valuable method of demonstrating authority and reaching new audiences, but because of the new UGC link attribute, it won’t be a good way to boost your search rankings in a direct sense. Although UGC will probably eventually pass on some link credit.

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 will 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 will result 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!

It also presents an opportunity for you to get ahead of the pack. By making any necessary changes to your marketing strategy now, you can take advantage of the ranking fluctuations that are sure to come as websites begin to see the flow-on effects associated with dofollow backlinks being reindexed with nofollow, sponsored or UGC attributes. So take some time to get your SEO house in order.

And if your search rankings currently rely on dofollow links that you’ve paid for, now is a great time to invest time and effort into garnering legitimate dofollow links before you start seeing a decline in your search rankings.

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Dr Kelly Wade

Hi! I’m a full-funnel marketing specialist and my mission is to build a better tomorrow by helping organisations that solve crucial problems, efficiently generate sustainable growth with strategic marketing assets that attract, nurture, convert and retain the target market.

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