Matt Cutts Should Have Said What He REALLY Meant

on under Link Building.

Gasp! Matt Cutts has signaled the end of guest posting forever. SEO is doooomed:

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.

Well, except for the almost immediate backpedaling he posted in an update:

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.

Oh, good, so we can just go on as usual then, right?

Well, if you're like most SEOs (and SEOs in content marketing clothing) then no, no you cannot. Because what Matt Cutts is really saying is that an update is coming, and a healthy portion of SEOs are going to lose rankings that they built with guest posts.

And you should have seen it coming a long time ago, because link building for SEO has always been against Google's terms of service.

Ahem...no, that doesn't mean SEO is dead, it doesn't mean that guest blogging is dead, and it doesn't mean link building is dead.

Here, let me explain.

Only One Sentence on Google's Link Schemes Page Matters

I keep telling people that they need to read Google's terms of service regarding links before they proclaim which links are "white hat:"

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 is the beginning and the end of Google's position on link building.

Nothing else on the page matters, except to give webmasters specific examples. For some reason, it seems the SEO community has always skipped over this tidbit, and focused on the bullet points that follow this proclamation. Those bullet points have always been in a state of flux, and it's always been foolish to abide by them exclusively.

It's that pesky word "manipulate" that SEOs seem to gloss over. They defend their guest posts or infographics or widgets as "high quality," and this is somehow supposed to mean that the links aren't "manipulative." But despite its negative connotation, "manipulate" doesn't have anything to do with quality, spam, or being evil.

Let's ask Merriam-Webster what it means:

ma·nip·u·late transitive verb mə-ˈni-pyə-ˌlāt

...

: to use or change (numbers, information, etc.) in a skillful way or for a particular purpose

So let's substitute that into Google's position on link schemes:

Any links intended to [change] PageRank or a site's ranking in Google search results[in a skillful way or for a particular purpose] may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines.

This has been in Google's terms of service since the dawn of time. Matt Cutts position on guest blogging for SEO should not come as any surprise. It's simply an extension of this definition. A careful reading of the terms of service makes this abundantly clear:

Google has always considered link building for SEO to be synonymous with link schemes.

The only reason this hasn't been a problem for the vast majority of SEOs so far is because Google's algorithms haven't been advanced enough to spot every instance of link building for SEO.

In this context, it should be immediately obvious that Matt Cutts isn't saying anything new when he says that guest blogging for SEO is a no-no. It always has been.

So why bring it up?

Isn't it obvious? An anti-guest-post update is on the way.

So Wait, WHY isn't Link Building Dead?

Here's where you have to really read between the lines.

It's not against Google's terms of service to build links. It's against Google's terms of service to build links for SEO.

On the surface, this makes it look like SEOs inherently have to break Google's terms of service in order to do their job. They can't stop manipulating search engine rankings. It's in their job title.

To some extent, this is actually true. SEOs don't like to hear it, but there it is.

At the same time, all of this only applies to tactics that are exclusively for SEO.

A blogger who tries to build up his email list by writing guest posts on multi-author blogs and sending referral traffic to his site is not building links to manipulate search results. He is building links to build an audience, and he's likely improving his rankings as a result.

A webmaster who emails several site owners and asks them to take a look at their site, and gives them an opportunity to place a link editorially, is not necessarily building links to manipulate search results. She is doing it to gain exposure, and she's likely to improve her rankings as a side-effect.

From Google's Webmaster Guidelines:

Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you'd feel comfortable explaining what you've done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, "Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn't exist?"

That last line really sums it up their position. Of course, it's literally impossible for an SEO to think like this. So I prefer to use this simple test:

"Would I build this link if Google was going to devalue it tomorrow?"

This is a simple test, and I strongly recommend every SEO use it. It's not just about being "goody two shoes" in the eyes of Google. It's about being a smart SEO, an online marketer who doesn't base their entire livelihood on a constantly changing third party platform, and one whose best interests they're working against at that.

Search engine optimization is in large part risk minimization.

If you want to guarantee results, relying exclusively on Google is a terrible idea.

Besides, these are the kinds of links that will pass the most value, and last the longest.

Image credit: Michael Dorausch

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  • Well put, sir. This sums up nicely what everyone has been trying to say. :-)

    • Carter Bowles

      Thanks Jacques. Hopefully most of the SEO community "gets it" before the inevitable algorithm update.

  • Well said Carter. Standard-issue sensationalist SEO-related blog post headline circa 2000-2014:

    "Don't do X to promote your website anymore. MUST READ."

    What is meant is:

    "Don't spam by using X as a means anymore."

    We'd all save some time by just embracing the words:

    "Don't spam."

    Link directories, articles, guest post articles, press releases, varieties of community involvement.. they're good marketing if you concern yourself with doing them for people rather than machines. And I've never seen actually Google "kill" any of them.

    Northcutt will continue guest blogging on major tech sites in the meantime, just like everything else that's long been "dead". :)