Guest Blogging – Enough is Enough

Posted by Carson Ward

If your process chart looks like this, prepare for complete failure.

Technical Audit >> Competitive and Keyword Research >> Guest Blog Posts

Guest blogging is not a strategy, and it’s not a generic solution that can be applied to every client or every part of your site. Guest posts can be an effective supplemental tactic to a fully-formed strategy, but giving this tactic center stage is a recipe for frustration and inevitable defeat.

The Guest Blog Bubble

On-page factors don’t pack the same punch they once did. Search engines have become much better at both compensating for imperfect site optimization and ignoring on-page tricks. Our collective focus began shifting towards off-page factors long ago; it’s all about those tender, juicy links.

There are as many ways to get links as there are people and pages, but in the aftermath of Penguin, guest articles are slowly becoming an industry default. I fear that the trend is driven by a lack of creativity, augmented by fear of failure, and then reinforced by poor communication. 

I raised the issue of guest posting to someone who has done a lot of it – Distilled's head of Outreach, Adria Saracino:

 "Guest posting is safe" … "We're SEOs. We're metric driven. We like being able to see this consistent, targeted movement. Guest posting plays to our tactical strengths. And once we see it working once, we just keep doing it because it's safe. We fall into a routine of guest posting and the blinders slowly form over time, stifling innovation and big wins.

Guest posting in most cases isn't going to bring you direct traffic or conversions, it's not a "branding" play. There is usually no other benefit other than metric movement, and while it's short-sighted, it's also the easiest to defend to the higher-ups. So we become slaves to a redundant process rather than testing innovative ideas. I may even be so bold as to say guest posting is what will mark a slow death to the fast-paced innovation our industry is known for when it comes to link building."

Diminishing Returns at Best

Guest blog posts, all by themselves, do increase rankings. That does not necessarily mean they are worth doing.

It’s easy to forget about opportunity cost as an SEO when we have had past success with a given tactic. Far too often, we see results, and continue doing it as long as we possibly can. The value of an activity like guest posting is only worth doing if there’s nothing better we could be doing with our time.

Once more, just because something works does not mean we should be doing it – unless it is the best path to the fastest or most enduring results. Guest posting (by itself) is essentially never the best activity for an SEO, due primarily to the diminishing returns seen in long-term guest blogging campaigns.

Guest blogging’s strength is that you can launch immediately, avoiding that lonely feeling of blog posts that no one comments on. However, the guest-blog-only strategy has two fatal weaknesses: 1) there is an obviously fixed ratio of one linking domain per article placed, and 2) you reach rapidly diminishing returns. Furthermore, ideal blogs are a finite resource, and you can either lower your standards or post again on a good blog. Neither option is necessarily bad, but both have diminishing returns.

A pure content strategy can be frustrating simply because it takes so long to get rolling. I’ll be honest: I abandoned both a commercial and a philosophy blog in a past life because I got sick of writing posts no one read. But what if I had combined great content with other tactics?

What do I mean by a comprehensive strategy? I’m sure you remember this guy:

Inbound Marketing Channels

From Inbound Marketing is Taking Off by Rand Fishkin

With great content, your guest posts will be more effective. So will your email marketing campaigns, paid search traffic, and referral traffic. We can think of content as a multiplier that adds to almost any other marketing tactic.

The multiplier effect of amazing content happens two ways with guest posting (or any other channel, really). First, bloggers will be more likely to accept posts and talk about/to you if your target site has its own credible content. Second, users from the host blog will share and re-share your content if your site offers something they can be excited about.

Site Owner Fatigue

Link-based diminishing returns aside, the guest blogging bubble weakens further as site owners are continually poked and prodded by requests from acquaintances and strangers to allow them to guest post. Everyone is getting tired of the constant requests, especially when the requests are so damn horrible. I think Geraldine’s recent post on her travel blog captures that well:

“Hello! I am interested in writing a high-quality guest post for your site! All I require is two contextual links placed within the post.”

You know that song from the sixties that starts with “No-no no no no no no-no-no no?” That is now playing in my head. Because no.

Even if you actually read these blogs and really want to contribute something great, other people are making all but the most patient blog owners weary with their piles of requests.

What's Next?

Where are we headed, and what should we do next? SEO is not dying, and linkbuilding is not dead. I'm actually more optimistic than ever about the direction the industry is moving in. We're generally moving towards sustainability and making recommendations that are going to have a far bigger impact than raising the rankings for a couple tracked keywords.

Penalties: Unlikely for Most

It seems highly unlikely that Google will penalize guest posts just because they are guest posts. It’s a perfectly legitimate strategy – at least, when it is legitimate. Just consider that a ton of links from spammy sites publishing poorly-written content is more of a liability than a benefit. I’m not arguing that Google will bring the hammer down on guest blog posts, but risk certainly rises as quality declines.

Communicate and Fix Misconceptions

Some clients and managers are under the impression that it’s your job to vanish into the nether, and return bearing all the links they will ever need to rank for their broadest pet phrase. They're probably in the wrong; that's not how SEO works anymore. It’s easy to blame the people who have the wrong ideas, but whose fault is it when points of contact have these mistaken expectations?

It’s our fault.

We know SEO. Presumably that’s what we're taking checks for. We understand the value of content. Regardless of how someone picked up their mistaken assumptions – and this is worth looking into – it's up to us to correct misconceptions. 

We often get cornered into rote guest blogging when expected to solve their problems without interaction or support. Failure to communicate this fact; however, is not sufficient reason enough to head face first into the inevitable plateau of diminishing returns. For more on how to encourage cooperation, read Hannah's post on solving people problems. She doesn't use the phrase "managing expectations" even once, I promise.

Make Content a Pre-Requisite

I am not telling you to publish and wait. Links matter – that’s obvious. You can’t sit and wait, hoping that some white knight blogger is going to come along and raise your precious content out of obscurity. 

Think of your site as a retail store selling widgets. You can perform your essential business function – selling widgets – out of an empty warehouse, but we know that the appearance, furnishing, ambiance, and customer service all matter. You probably wouldn't worry about posting billboards and local ads all over town until your retail space made customers comfortable. You want them to tell their friends and come back, so you get your store in order first.

Websites are no different in this regard. To make a potential customer feel comfortable, you need compelling design, good navigation, and good content. You want users to have a great experience – whether consuming your content or making purchases – so that they will tell others (hint: sometimes via links) and come back. If you want to invest in greater visibility, get your site in order and stop trying send people to the questionable warehouses of the Internet.

THEN Explore All the Channels

There's really nothing magic about the white-hat linkbuilding process. From the users and bloggers' perspective, it looks like this:

White hat link building steps

Sharing leads in turn to more awareness, and the circle of quality continues. In a recent webinar between Rand and Dharmesh at Hubspot, paid advertising was described as "renting attention." This is true, but until you have the free sort of attention, paying for it can be a worthy way of getting the process above started. Try running display ads to content. Try bidding on low-competition informational keywords that you have great content to match. Run PR campaigns to make people aware of the most interesting part of your business. And yes, do some well-thought guest posting to raise awareness of your content. Ann Smarty has a lot of great guidance on doing guest blogging the right way. 

I've singled out guest posting intentionally because its prevalance and average quality indicate that we're losing sight of goals and strategy. Much of what I've said, though, could apply to any channel. Pick a channel from the graphic above, and it's not hard to see you how having a great user experience with great content can make that tactic more financially beneficial.

There is real danger in getting myopic tunnel vision about a link or two in a post. We cheat ourselves out of compounding and self-perpetuating benefits when we fail to lay the groundwork. We’re at risk of teaching a generation of bloggers that SEOs are just spammers out to trick bloggers. We’re at risk of teaching new SEOs that linkbuilding for linkbuilding’s sake is something beside foolish and short-sighted.

I understand the fear involved with taking a bet on the difficult links. It’s not easy to tell someone that their content isn’t cutting it, and it’s even harder to provide a clear vision and map to get there. Connecting the dots between strategy and tactics is mentally exhausting, but you don’t need to get it perfect right away. And please, let's stop with the crapstorm of throwing guest posts wherever we can.

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August 27, 2012  Tags: , ,   Posted in: SEO / Traffic / Marketing

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