It sometimes sucks, being a publisher in a post-Penguin, post-Panda world. It’s great that Google is cleaning up webspam, but it’s not so great to be on the receiving end of stupid demands from people who give the SEO industry a bad name.
What am I talking about? Dubious links, that’s what. Or should I say dubious links on a supposedly authority website (ours), that have been flagged up by dubious SEO tools. Emails with ‘please remove this link’ make our hearts sink.
What else? Dubious expectations. Why is it that publishers like Econsultancy are expected to clean up the mess? This is the last thing I want us to be doing. “It will be good for both of us,” they say, with various degrees of menace. No it won’t. It’s a cost to our business, and to the publishing industry more broadly.
We have always been hugely supportive of the SEO industry, and as a web business we’ve always tried to stay on top of SEO best practice. As such it is deeply frustrating to be on the receiving end of requests to remove ‘suspicious’ links, or to add no_follow to links that I think are perfectly acceptable.
I’m not planning on revealing any names here, but let me explain what I’m talking about. There are three areas for concern. The first two are linked to stupid, short-term thinking, and needless panic. The last one might indicate that Google is changing the goalposts around guest blogging.
Is this the tip of the iceberg, or a few isolated incidents that we’re experiencing?
Emails from SEO agencies that want us to remove old links
We recently heard from an SEO agency that had taken on a new client. The client’s old agency had published a press release on our site, seven years ago. The press release included a link to the client’s website, within the opening couple of paragraphs, but no shady anchor text.
The email we received went along these lines:
Please can you remove or no_follow the link?
Our stock response is ‘no’. Why? Because there are better things to be doing, mainly, but for a press release that is more than half a decade old we simply refuse to do this. It’s a waste of everybody’s time, and is unimportant, archived content. Furthermore the press release distribution tool did not include ‘free post-publication editing services’, and we don't want to undertake link sculpting of any kind.
So, having told the SEO agency that we don’t edit old press releases things escalated somewhat…
If the link cannot be removed we will add it to our Google Disavow list.
Great. So now we’re being threatened. Clearly we don’t want to find our way onto a Google shitlist, but I hate this kind of shakedown. It is completely unreasonable for SEO agencies to expect publishers to clear up their mess, especially when the link in question seems perfectly valid. As I pointed out, if we were to receive 100 similar requests every day then we’d get nothing done.
In some cases guest bloggers have heard from SEO agencies that want links removed… links that have been earned, that they have naturally placed in their articles, and that are perfectly acceptable. I find it mindboggling. It seems that a lot of folks have a bad case of The Fear.
Emails from brands that want us to remove links to infographics
We’ve also heard from brands that have created and shared infographics with us, and presumably with the whole world thereafter. I know that penalties have been meted out for excessive infographic sharing, and in some cases there is concern about link profiles (or perhaps, more accurately, with link velocity, as successful infographics can sometimes accrue too many new links too quickly, for Google’s liking at least). In short, I think publishers and brands alike need to be more careful with infographics. A win isn't always a win.
We have been pitched thousands of infographics over the past few years, and we’ve always viewed them with a certain degree of scepticism. Some of them have made it onto the site: the ones that contained interesting content, and that weren’t terribly designed. This is what editorial people should be good at.
Last summer Google’s Matt Cutts said that he:
...would not be surprised if at some point in the future we did not start to discount these infographic-type links to a degree. The link is often embedded in the infographic in a way that people don’t realise, vs. a true endorsement of your site”.
It now seems that this has happened / is happening, so be warned.
The above quote seems to directly reference embed codes, which provide writers with a quick and easy way to share content. They essentially point at third party websites to access content, so they’re a great way to build links. But if they have a habit of breaking then we publishers will stop using them. That aside, we a) perfectly well understand how they work and b) do not publish rubbish on our website. Embed codes do not suck… only low quality content sucks. Smart publishers do not publish low quality content.
But now it seems that some people have started to freak out, and in their state of panic they have – in some cases - removed the infographics from their own website, along with everything that goes with it. That means that some embed codes that we have used to display some infographics no longer work: they simply point to a 404 page.
It is these ‘404 links’ that people ask us to remove, which is fair enough. But from a publisher’s perspective it is akin to an act of vandalism. Posts that contained these (now AWOL) infographics by way of an embed code now display nothing at all, or a missing image icon. It leads to the disfigurement of our blog. It also makes us look rather silly, and it gives us a very good reason to avoid using embed codes in the future.
It is deeply frustrating to have to spend time cleaning up these pages (the very same pages that PR / SEO / marketing people wanted us to create when pitching us in the first place). Must we keep an eye on all pages with third party infographics or embed codes, as a kind of hygiene factor? Boring. I’d be more inclined to ban infographics completely, and get on with creating new, unique content, but that seems like a kneejerk reaction to a relatively small – though potentially worrying – problem.
Emails from guest bloggers, who have been notified about suspicious links from Google
Now, I haven’t heard from Big G directly, but I have heard from a couple of our guest bloggers that they have received warnings from Google about suspicious links. Among the examples shown to them were their ‘signatures’ on the Econsultancy blog.
Their signature is a brief bio that can be found at the foot of each post, in a little box that sits separately to the main body of the article. I see no reason why these signature links should be considered in any way sketchy.
Here’s what a bio looks like, and we’re very much into standardisation - a name, role and company, and a few social profiles. I've chosen Mark at random - as far as I know he hasn't been contacted:
This is just good manners, from where I’m sitting. I simply cannot believe that this sort of thing poses any problems for Google, so I’m very surprised to learn that these links have raised eyebrows.
We have some firm rules about the signatures. Firstly, they should follow our standard format, and we never allow bloggers to use descriptive anchor text: a company name will link to a company website, but we won’t allow them to write ‘amazing digital agency in London’. Frankly we think worse of people who think that sort of thing is a good idea.
We are also have some clear guidelines for guest bloggers, in order to maintain the quality of content on this blog. One of those rules is ‘no promo’, and anything deemed too self-referential will not be published. Guest bloggers are invited to talk about the subjects that they know about, rather than the amazing things they have done for their clients. All posts by guest bloggers are unique to Econsultancy: we do not allow cross-posting. All posts are edited prior to publication. It is not in our interests to lower the quality bar. Google needs to recognise that not all guest blogging operations are the same.
In January we asked a few search experts about the future of SEO. Rishi Lakhani, who is often ahead of the curve, called it:
I am pretty sure that Google will target guest posting soon. As a result, am staying away from author signature / profile links at the end of the post. If it isn’t in the main body, I don’t want it.
This may now be the case, and we may have to review what we’re doing in this area. But I for one think it is ridiculous: I don’t believe that the Google algorithm is that stupid. We’re led to believe that it can identify different types of links on a page, and apply different weightings. Do we really think that a link in the comments area of a blog that does not adopt no_follow will be given the same value as a descriptive link in the opening paragraph? No.
Does Google really want writers to shoehorn a link into the body text of a post, every time they submit a guest blog, because they don’t have a valid link in their signature? That’s only going to worsen the quality of the content. So much for our ‘no promo’ guidelines.
I guess we’ll wait and see. If other guest bloggers from this or any other publication have had a word in their ear from Google then now is the time to shout about it. Is this actually becoming a thing? Incidentally, I'm not alone in worrying about guest blogging, and I also consider the many 'guest post' requests we receive to be akin to reciprocal link spam.
This post is something of an open letter to Google, and it would be good to get some guidance. I don’t think we’re doing anything wrong, far from it, but if Google is narrowing its eyes in our direction then like to find out about it sooner rather than later, and preferably in an open and transparent way.
Any insight from search experts and fellow publishers – and Google itself - would be great. Do leave a comment below.