Google updated its Webmaster Guidelines in the last few weeks, rather quietly, and focused on the link scheme documents, adding further refinements to the types of links that violate its guidelines.
As per usual the backlash from SEOs around the world has been vehement, but here I will give a neutral analysis of how this will affect the majority of brands' SEO campaigns, and how we can best use this information to increase chances of success in search.
In the first instance Google made it clear for anyone who hadn't got the gist already: if you’re building links by guest blogging relatively valueless content on a large-scale, expect Google to take action against this activity.
Guest posting is still a technique that can and should be employed, but Google is warning that the seeding of poor quality content via guest posts en mass is theoretically the same as using a link network, and will carry similar if not identical penalties.
The second directive warned Webmasters against the use of PageRank passing in advertorials. This is again old news; Google has stipulated since 2005 that paid links should not pass PageRank, so why is Matt Cutts speaking about it again? Because many SEOs are still using the same techniques.
Simply put, Google doesn’t want money to be changed hands for links. The reasoning from Google is viewers should be aware that content has been sponsored or paid for, so it must be abundantly clear to users whether a post is editorial or advertorial.
Lastly, Google warned that it is ramping up the scrutiny applied to anchor text profiles:
“links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites,”
Unnatural, orchestrated link profiles have always been frowned upon by Google, but this time Google goes much further, specifying that using keyword-optimised anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on external websites would also violate its Webmaster Guidelines. The following stuffed, spammy little snippet was included as an example:
“There are many wedding rings on the market. If you want to have a wedding, you will have to pick the best ring. You will also need to buy flowers and a wedding dress.”
This is the change that has got SEOs up in arms, probably more due to the confusing nature of the news put out by the Webspam team. On one hand, the directive tells SEOs that links that pass juice with optimised anchor text are against Google’s webmaster guidelines, however the example provided shows blatant keyword stuffing.
So what are the takeaways from this news? Do we give up building keyword rich anchors? If so, what tools are at our disposal to signpost our content and appeal to generic search terms?
Well the example provided by the Webspam team shows exact match anchor text usage, so potentially using diverse, partial match anchor text phrases could still bear fruit for months if not years to come.
To add even further confusion to the message, in the video hangout below, when asked whether all press release links need to be nofollowed, John Mueller of Google Switzerland said even direct URL links should be nofollowed to be safe.
The most important thing to remember after any of Google’s Webspam updates is to take it all with a pinch of salt. There are stark differences between what the algorithm can detect, and what requires a manual review to be certain of.
If we look below, you’ll see a recent press release that involves Google, and even includes a relevant Google contact. No, the link isn’t using optimised anchor text, although I’m sure someone could semantically argue that it is, as Google is in the dictionary, but significantly, the link is followed.
This shouldn’t matter as Matt Cutts has said previously that press release links don’t pass value, but we all know that simply isn’t true, not only from the proof that has been shown, but also why would the Webspam team try to incentivise nofollowing press release links if there were no SEO benefits to be had out of a followed link?
More importantly perhaps, if Google is still doing it, days after it issued warnings, then maybe the rules aren’t so set in stone.
Google could be in danger of disenfranchising more influencers in the industry, as the burgeoning PPC offering adds expanded site links pushing natural listings further down the page below the parapet.
As the SEO landscape gets tougher, with less tools in our arsenal, there will be many looking to bolster their strategies with black hat techniques, in order to deliver results quickly.
If the algorithm and human reviews get more stringent, the techniques employed in black hat SEO will only get more shrouded and harder to identify, causing a cycle of guideline violations and detection.
What I’d really like to see is more active encouragement in terms of prevention. This would at least leave search engines with more resources to dedicate to more worthy causes, and besides, it’s good to know what not to do, but occasionally it’s nice to know what you can develop on with lauded SEO techniques.
Ewan Stevenson is SEO manager at 7thingsmedia
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